Samuel Gompers was born in London, England on January 27th, 1850. His mother Sarah and father Solomon had emigrated from Holland and when their eldest son Samuel was born they were living in a town called Spitalfields, a mile from the London ghetto. Samuel grew up across the way from a silk factory and was exposed at a young age to the curse industrialization passed on skilled workers; as artisan silk weavers from the factory were replaced by machines and unskilled laymen.
Samuels formal education was a meager one and short-lived. Whenhe was six he began attending the Jewish Free School on Bell Lane. He was lucky to have any education though. At the time free universal education was not instituted in England yet and one out of eight people did not attend any form of school. At the Jewish Free School he learned reading, writing, arithmetic, geography and history and when he left four years later, when he was ten, he stood third highest in his class. He continued his education any way he could, attending the Night School and later weekly lectures at Cooper Union when his family moved to the United States. With his sharp intellect came a genuine appreciation of theatre and music. He would go to performances any way he could, selling this and that on the street with his friends and all pooling their money so they could attend an evening of delight.
He left school at ten in order to work, for his father could not support all his children and a wife on a single salary. First Samuel went to work as a shoemaker but switched to cigar making like his father after eight weeks. Gompers cites one of his reasons for changing professions was, “the existence of a union among cigar makers but not among shoemakers”. He was legally indentured and went to work learning the cigar making trade.
As the family continued to grow simple subsistence became increasingly more difficult and in June of 1863 the family sailed for America, Samuel was thirteen. They secured a residence on Houston Street in New York City. At the back of their house was a brewery, where Samuel glimpsed daily the hardships of unfair working hours (a brewery has to be operational twenty four hours a day, forcing workers to work longer hours than some other professions). Parallel to the conditions of the brewery were the conditions of John Roach’s shipyard, one of the first institutions to limit the workday to eight hours. These two opposing working conditions gave Samuel a well rounded view of the Workers condition. Samuel found work making cigars in the conditions he was accustomed to in England. Always looking for intellectual stimulation, Samuel and his friends formed the Arion Baseball and Social Club. In this setting they would debate all the important contemporary issues of their day, as well as attempting various sports without the aid of a coach. It was in this New York setting that Samuel came into direct contact with the Union system and began his lifelong involvement in the cause of the rights of the worker.
In 1867 when he was 17 Samuel married Sophia Julian and fathered 12 children. When not in the spotlight of rallies giving speeches Samuel enjoyed his beer halls and social gatherings. An opponent once quipped that seeing him sober was a rare and lucky sight. Although he did like his liquor whenever he needed to be professional he was.