What Is the Definition of Safety Valve Theory?


A safety valve is a valve on a boiler or other pressurized system that releases steam and prevents explosions. Safety valve theory states that labor unrest and riots can be lessened or prevented by providing free farmland to industrial laborers.

Time Frame

  • The earliest inkling of safety valve theory was in Thomas Skidmore's 1829 work, "The Rights of Man to Property," but the metaphor of the safety valve gained traction in the 1840s. Eventually, it propelled the Homestead Act of 1862, which distributed free land in the western United States to eastern laborers.

Labor Discontent

  • Although the safety valve was in place from 1862 on, and although some eastern laborers did end up operating western farms, the steam emitted from the safety valve was more of a trickle than a rush. Explosions, such as the Panic of 1873 and its subsequent depression, and the railroad strikes of 1877, still occurred.


  • One potential reason that the safety valve did not work was the large population of immigrants coming into the United States and moving west to operate farms. In 1900, only two-sevenths of the farm population was made up of eastern laborers.

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