Theme 2 (WXT) - Work, Exchange, and Technology

8 min readjune 6, 2020

Will Pulgarin

Will Pulgarin

AP US History 🇺🇸

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The one thing you need to know about this theme:
Work, Exchange, and Technology The link between work, exchange (trade), and technology runs through the heart of United States history. Since the introduction of slavery in the early 1600s to the development of large, multi billion-dollar corporations in the late 1800s, developments in work, exchange, and technology have impacted the lives of workers and society. This theme can be seen in almost all Periods of AP U.S. History. 

College Board Description📘

This theme focuses on the factors behind the development of systems of economic exchange (trade), particularly the role of technology, economic markets, and government. 

Organizing Question🔎

  • How did different labor systems develop and flourish in the United States? 
  • What impact did these labor systems have on the lives of the workers and society? 
  • How have patterns of exchange, markets, and private enterprise developed over time? How has the government responded to these developments? 
  • What impact has technological innovation had on economic development and society?
  • How have changes in work, exchange, and technology impacted American society (positively and negatively)?

Key Vocabulary 📝

TradeCorporationsSlaveryTaxesNatural Resources
EnterpriseTransportationUnionsSkilled LaborUnskilled Labor
IndustrializationProductionSupply and DemandEmployment

Historical Examples of this Theme:

Period 2 (1607-1754)

Transatlantic Trade

With the decline in the Native American population and indentured servants, colonists turned to African slaves to meet their labor needs. Unlike indentured servants, African slaves were confined to an indefinite labor term, and could not claim any rights (as some indentured servants claimed). Unlike Native Americans, who were also being used as slaves, Africans were familiar with agricultural labor and were more immune to European diseases such as smallpox. 

Image Courtesy of Virgin Islands History

According to the historian Henry Louis Gates Jr., about “12.5 million Africans were shipped to the New World and approximately 10.7 million survived the dreaded Middle Passage, disembarking in North America, the Caribbean, and South America.” This exchange of people across continents had a profound impact on society and workforce in the colonies. The Atlantic economy, as it has come to be known, saw the exchange of people and goods between North America, Europe, and Africa. 

Slavery in the British Colonies 

The British were not the first European country to rely on the use of African slaves. The Spanish and Portuguese had started using African slaves during the early 16th century. Nonetheless, almost all the British colonies participated in some form of the Atlantic slave trade. The labor shortages in the British colonies, caused by the decline in the Native American by disease and the drop in indentured servants, led the British to turn to the use of African slaves. 
The agricultural differences between the New England Colonies and the Southern Colonies came to define how slavery spread in the British colonies. The New England colonies had small farms and relatively few enslaved workers, where the plantation system, which emerged in the Southern Colonies, relied heavily on slave labor and the perpetuity of the slave system. 
The first African slaves arrived in Jamestown, Virginia in 1619. As crops such as sugar and tobacco boomed in the colonies, the need for a more stable labor force increased. This, of course, increased the need for more slaves and laws codifying the new labor hierarchy in the colonies. 

Period 4 (1800-1848)

Market Revolution: Industrialization

The Industrial Revolution began in Great Britain during the 18th century. New inventions and machinery were closely guarded secrets, until Samuel Slater, an Englishman, escaped to the United States with a mental blueprint of the machinery needed to spin cotton. Although Samuel Slater was seen as somewhat of a traitor in Great Britain, he was given the nickname of “Father of the American Industrial Revolution.”
Around the time Samuel Slater arrived, America was experiencing increases in the overall American population, coupled with advancements in transportation (railroads, canals, steamboats, and roads). This led to a national market economy in the United States between 1820-1860. The new market economy moved the center of the workforce (from artisan shops to factories) and led to new approaches to manufacturing. New technological advancements, like the cotton gin and the textile mill, changed the way workers worked and lived. 

Period 6 (1865-1898)

Technological Advances 

The United States was still considered to be an agricultural nation at the end of the American Civil War (1865). By the end of 1920, however, the United States had been transformed into one of the leading industrial powers in the world. 
This shift occurred because of new technological advancements in America and an abundance of natural resources. For example, the Bessemer process was used to make steel quicker and cheaper (Andrew Carnegie came to champion this system for making steel). The steel produced was used to make railroads and bridges, which led to improvements in transportation of both people and goods. 
Other inventions such as Thomas Alva Edison’s light bulb and the introduction of electricity (alternating currents invented by Nikola Tesla), allowed factory owners to move their factories to wherever they wanted. This, in turn, allowed industry to grow like no other period in American history. 

The Rise of Industrial Capitalism 

As the United States became one of the world’s industrial powers, a few men came to control more and more of the wealth generated. These men came to be known as the “Titans of Industry” and they are pictured below.

Clipart by SunnyDaze

As more came to be owned by fewer and fewer people, workers formed unions to protest against abuses and they tried to collectively demand better working conditions. The chart below illustrates the long-term effects and causes of the rise of the industrial economy. 
Long-Term Causes
Immediate Causes
Immediate Effects
Long Term Effects
- Natural resources
- Power sources: water and coal
- Roads, canals, railroads
- Expansion of railroads
- Technological innovation
- New management techniques
- New business techniques
- Large corporations
- New & plentiful manufactured goods
- Poor working conditions
- Increased labor activism
- Regional economic are linked
- Labor movement wins shorter workweek

Labor in the Gilded Age

Exploitation of workers during the Gilded Age was commonplace throughout the United States. Although wages were higher in the North, unsafe working conditions drew workers together across regions in a nationwide labor movement. 
Steel mills often demanded that workers work seven-day workweeks. Streamstresses, often worked 12-hour days (six-days a week). Employees did not receive vacation days, sick days, or unemployment benefits (if you didn’t work you didn’t get paid). Abuses of power were widespread and workers could be fired for almost any reason. 
Children were also used as labor during this period, and were paid less than the average worker. Children were put to do dangerous work and could not attend schools. Some children were paid as little as 27 cents for a 14-hour workday. 
As a result of these conditions, labor activism spread and unions began to fight for workers’ rights. The two most famous unions were the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). Membership in the unions grew steadily over this time period, and union leaders organized strikes to demand better working conditions (although many of the strikes were unsuccessful). 

Period 7 (1890-1945)

Innovations in Communication and Technology

It is often said that if a person from the 2000s were to be warped into the past, the 1920s would be the first era that might feel close to the way we live now. It would be the earliest time period in United States history that they would feel the least amount of cultural shock (at least that is what some people say). Since the industrial revolution had turned the United States from a farming society to an industrial one, millions of people now lived in large, urbanized cities. New inventions such as the airplane, the camera, the traffic signal, and the jukebox changed the way people lived and experienced life (even Kool-Aid was invented during this period). 
Mass-production printing techniques led to the proliferation of newspapers, magazines, and books. Newspaper circulation allowed for the sharing of information and pushed newspapers to sometimes sensationalize the news. Advertising also exploded during this era, which help fuel the consumer economy of the 1920s. 

The Great Depression

-Stock-based economy; superficial prosperity § Unequal distribution of income
-Problems in the industry and farm sector
-Increasing consumer debt
-Stock market speculation and crash 
-Millions of people are unemployed (24.9%)
-Rise of shantytowns; the poor dug through garbage cans and begged
Banks fail and schools close
-World economy suffer
-Hoover employs more active governmental involvement (although he hesitated at first).
The Great Depression fundamentally forced a change in the way people worked. With large numbers of unemployed workers, the government, under Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR), passed the New Deal. The New Deal policies focused on three main goals (the 3 R’s): Relief for the needy, economic recovery, and financial reform. The New Deal also created hundreds of programs aimed at putting people back to work. In 1935, FDR’s administration passed a Second New Deal with even more programs focused on helping alleviate the suffering caused by the Great Depression. Despite FDR’s best efforts, the economy remained sluggish and unemployment remained high. The event that finally brought the United States out of the Great Depression was World War II.

Created by William Pulgarin - Clipart Created by Prince Padania


Period 8 (1945-1980)

Economy After 1945

After World War II, millions of Americans were released from the armed forces and entered the labor market. The GI Bill of Rights helped returning veterans secure loans, purchase farms, and buy homes. As demands for housing increased, companies used mass production techniques to produce houses in record speeds (see Levitt housing). 
Since the United States was no longer at war, many government contracts were cancelled and millions of workers were laid off. Apart from rising unemployment, consumer prices began to rise while American workers earned less than they had during the war. 
Lastly, as soldiers returned home, they contributed to a baby boom. The result of the baby boom was the largest generation in the nation’s history (they are referred to as baby boomers).

Period 9 (1980-Present)

A Changing Economy 

Advancements in communication had a profound impact on the way people lived and communicated during this period. The proliferation of cable television, led to changes in the way Americans received news and television programming (news coverage became a 24-hour-a day business). The introduction of the Internet and portable computers, led to advancements in communication and information sharing. 
Bill Gates, a young computer wizard, revolutionized computers by developing MS-DOS (software that made it easy for the average person to use a computer). The use of the computer changed the way people worked and communicated in the United States. Many tasks that had previously taken hours could be done in seconds with the use of computers. New jobs were being created in the technology sector, which had not existed before. “Economic productivity increased as improvements in digital communication enabled American participation in worldwide economic opportunities.” In short, the Internet helped connect the world. 

Sample Questions

Sample MCQ

Which of the following WAS NOT an effect of the information depicted in the chart:
  1. Increase in demand for housing 
  2. Largest generation in American history
  3. Growth of the suburbs 
  4. The Great Depression 

Sample SAQ ✏️

  1. Briefly explain a main point of this political cartoon.
  2. Briefly explain another main point of this political cartoon. 
  3. Provide one piece of evidence that would help bolster the argument made by the author of this political cartoon. 

Sample LEQ✏️

  1. To what extent did Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal help end the Great Depression? How important were other factors?
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