By the Sweat of Their Brows: Mill Workers and Their Lives

Jamie H. Eves

Windham Textile and History Museum

 
Also see…
Mill Memories: Photographs of Mill Workers
A look at the lives of mill workers through the photography collection at the Windham Textile and History Museum.
Mill Memories (pdf)

A worker operates a picker at the American Thread Company in Willimantic, CT, in this c. 1950 photo. The Company performed to hire big, burly men for this very physical job. From the collections of the Windham Textile and History Museum.

A worker operates a picker at the American Thread Company in Willimantic, CT, in this c. 1950 photo. The Company performed to hire big, burly men for this very physical job. From the collections of the Windham Textile and History Museum.

The charter of Local 307 of the United Textile Workers of America was an impressive document. Measuring 15 x 19 inches, printed in red, blue, and green ink, and affixed with two embossed seals, it proclaimed, “this Charter has been granted to Local Union, No. 307, of Willimantic in the County of Windham, State of Connecticut, and to their successors legally qualified to constitute a Branch of the United Textile Workers of America, to be known as the Loomfixers Branch.” The charter was dated January 14, 1902, only two months after the UTWA was founded, making it one of the earliest chapters.

Yet for many decades, the charter lay hidden. According to local lore, the local’s officers – fearing reprisals from their employers – tucked the charter beneath a picture, which they sealed in a frame and hung in the home of one of the members. There it remained. Before he died, the member told his wife that there was something valuable behind the picture, and that she should take care not to lose it. Before she died, she told her daughter the same thing. Finally, after many years, someone opened the frame and peered behind the picture – and the charter once again saw the light of day. The story of the hidden charter – whether true or apocryphal – illustrates that mill workers viewed the industrial workplace and the ways it functioned very differently than the mill owners and managers did. They resented having their lives controlled by their bosses, and determined to resist it.

The vast majority of the workers were immigrants. The earliest industrial workers in New England were either poor, landless farm families, or the teenage children (mostly daughters, known collectively as “mill girls”) of middling farmers, who moved to the mill towns from nearby rural communities; the decline of agriculture in New England provided a surplus of labor, and the mills took advantage of it by hiring workers at comparatively low wages. Rural communities declined in New England, as the mill cities grew. The Yankees were followed in the 1840s and ‘50s, by even poorer migrants from rural Ireland, who came to Connecticut fleeing the deadly potato famine, and who would work even cheaper than the Yankee mill girls. Immigrants from industrialized England, Scotland, and northern Germany also arrived, mostly to fill the highly skilled positions. After the Civil War, even more workers came, both immigrant and native-born: rural French Canadians, Poles, Russians, Ukrainians, Italians, Swedes, Eastern European Jews, Latvians, Lebanese, African Americans from the South, World War II refugees, northern New Englanders, and others. The most recent group, Latinos from Puerto Rico and Mexico, came in the 1960s and ‘70s.

A worker concentrates on processing sliver at the American Thread Company in this c. 1950 photo. From the collections of the Windham Textile and History Museum.

A worker concentrates on processing sliver at the American Thread Company in this c. 1950 photo. From the collections of the Windham Textile and History Museum.

According to the U. S. Census, by 1910 nearly a third of Windham’s population was foreign-born: 3,702 of 12,604. Of those, 46% were French Canadian, 15% Irish, 15% Polish, 6% British, 3% Swedish, 3% Italian, 2% Lebanese, and 2% German. Another 2% were Eastern European Jews who spoke Yiddish as their primary language. Altogether, 26 different nationalities were represented.

Whether immigrant or native-born, most workers received low wages – although more than they would have made as farmers. Mostly, they were paid piece rate, by the quantity of goods they produced rather than by the hour. Although piece rates varied according to both the time period and the type of job, workers’ buying power generally declined over time, from fairly high in the early 1800s to quite low in the early 1900s. Following President Franklin Roosevelt’s pro-union Labor Bill of Rights (the Wagner Act, or National Labor Relations Act) in the 1930s, however, wages rose. They also tended to increase during wartime, when government demand for uniforms, tents, insulation, parachutes, and other textile burgeoned, only to plummet as soon as the conflicts ended. Skilled workers made more than unskilled workers, men were paid more than women, and children made less than adults. According to pay envelopes in the Museum’s collection, in 1924-26 workers at American Thread made between $9.65 and $17.95 per week, or only $110-$205 in today’s currency – which explains why whole families (men, women, and children) took jobs in the mills: one income was simply not enough to support a family.

The lowest paid workers were doffers (mostly children, sometimes as young as 10), unskilled laborers, workers in the packaging department, and winders. Spinners, weavers, and seamstresses in sweatshops often received low wages, too, despite their skills, because they were women. Better paid were skilled male workers, such as dyers, carpenters, machinists, firemen (steam boiler operators), and fixers. Engineers were well paid. Overseers, chemists (dyemasters), agents, and managers earned the highest pay.

A spinner tends her spinning frame at the American Thread Company in this 1943 photo. From the collections of the Windham Textile and History Museum.

A spinner tends her spinning frame at the American Thread Company in this 1943 photo. From the collections of the Windham Textile and History Museum.

Because wages were so low, as time went on workers developed strategies to maximize their incomes. They worked quickly, sometimes risking serious injury. And they relied on the labor of the entire family. Most working-class wives had jobs, as did most of their children over the age of 12.

Mill owners found numerous ways to limit payroll. During times of sluggish market demand such as following World War I, they lowered piece rates; the result was speed-ups, where workers worked even faster. Owners also attempted to prevent workers from forming unions, sometimes by playing upon ethnic rivalries. And they built company stores and company housing to recapture some of the workers’ wages.

In truth, company housing – and even company stores – were also necessary. Because the mills were built in previously underpopulated areas like rocky gorges with waterfalls, because the workforce grew quickly, and because private landlords were unable to meet the demand for housing, the owners had little choice but to provide it themselves – and the workers had little choice but to accept it. The companies deducted the workers’ rents – and their credit charges at the company stores – directly from the workers’ pay envelopes.

Mills built several different types of company housing: boardinghouses, apartments, row houses, and cottages. The Willimantic Linen Company’s Elms boardinghouse was for single workers. A three-story structure, it had a parlor, dining room, two kitchens, and the housekeeper’s apartment on the first floor; rooms for women boarders on the second floor; and rooms for male boarders on the third floor. According to the U. S. Census, in 1880, boarders slept two to a room, probably in the same bed. Female boarders were mostly Yankee=born, 12-25 years old, single, and unskilled or semi-skilled. Male boarders were mostly foreign-born (English and Scottish), 20-35 years old, married (but at the moment without their families), and skilled workers like machinists.

Alice LaFerriere tends a carding machine at the American Thread Company in this c. 1950 photo. Until World War II, only men worked on the extremely dangerous cards. But by the mid-1900s, women worked on the machines, too. From the collections of the Windham Textile and History Museum.

Alice LaFerriere tends a carding machine at the American Thread Company in this c. 1950 photo. Until World War II, only men worked on the extremely dangerous cards. But by the mid-1900s, women worked on the machines, too. From the collections of the Windham Textile and History Museum.

Row houses were mostly double tenements (duplexes) in neighborhoods like Willimantic’s Iverton. Most units had six rooms, three downstairs and three upstairs. Originally, they had no indoor plumbing, and the only source of heat was a coal stove in the kitchen. Workers frequently kept their rents down by taking in boarders, or by doubling up with another family. Because as many as 10-12 people shared a unit, the kitchen was frequently the only common room, with the other five rooms used as bedrooms. Kitchens became “everything rooms,” used for cooking, dining, bathing children, washing and ironing clothes, socializing, and playing.

The Willimantic Linen Company also built the Oaks, a quiet neighborhood off Windham Road with quaint, six0room Victorian cottages with gingerbread trim. These single-family homes may have houses skilled workers and their families.

The relationship between owners and workers grew increasingly strained over time. Determined to resist what they considered condescending treatment, dangerous working conditions, long hours, frequent wage cuts, and exhausting speed-ups, workers formed labor unions and staged strikes. The 1925 American Thread strike was one of the most hard-fought contests in Connecticut labor history. That year, 2,200 of the 2,500 workers at the American Thread Company’s giant Willimantic Mills struck in protest of wage cuts. The Company resisted the strike. It set up employment offices in Manchester, New Hampshire, and Lowell, Boston, and Fall River, Massachusetts, and hired hundred of replacement workers. It evicted striking workers from company housing. Some of the evicted strikers set up a temporary tent city on the outskirts of town. Strikers picketed the plant, gathered at local theaters for mass meetings, and hooted at the replacement workers. Anger and resentment smoldered, and some feared it might lead to violence. Women strikers and women replacement workers got into shouting and shoving matches, some replacement workers were beaten up, and a few of the strikers were arrested. Management claimed to have found a bomb in the mill yard. State and municipal police warily patrolled Main Street and Thread Mill Square. Finally, after nine months, the workers lost the strike. Many of the strikers moved away. But decades passed before the animosities generated by the conflict cooled down. Not until the 1950s would union members feel they could be open about their affiliation without fear of reprisal. And, for two generations, the union’s charter remained hidden behind a picture in its frame.