Wednesday, August 5, 2015

The Other Side of The Cotton: Franco-Americans in the Textile Industry

I saw a play a few years ago that touched on the 1912 textile strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts. The playwright had her main character name-check the various ethnic groups in the town, German, Irish, Italian, etc. No mention was made of the French-Canadians who were the second major ethnic group to reach the Merrimack Valley mill town. According to Donald Cole’s book Immigrant City: Lawrence, Massachusetts, 1845-1921, by 1890 the French-Canadian population comprised one-fifth of the immigrants in Lawrence (p 42).

There’s a consensus that the French-Canadian element in New England tended to shy away from organized labor in that period and this might explain their omission from the play’s script. Nonetheless, the relative invisibility of the story of the exodus from Québec to the New England mills, among the narratives of U.S. immigration history, is hard to fathom.

The truth is that the New England textile business was one of the bedrock industries of the USA and labor from French-speaking Canada was the bedrock of this industry. One can't second-guess history. But I’ll indulge the speculation that but for a large supply of cheap labor from North of the border, that industry might not have grown as it did, with untold consequences for the economic history of the USA. Any treatment of this industry's history which does not give adequate coverage to the phenomenon of Francophone Canadian immigration tells a lie by omission.

The book The Belles of New England by William Moran gets it right. This history of the textile industry has an entire, dedicated chapter about the Franco-Americans in the mills. It's one of the best short treatments I've read of the subject. However, other accounts lump the French-Canadians in with various other groups, as if they were all of equal importance to the development of this industry in the post-Civil War era. But this approach is not borne out by sources from the period, which indicate that the French-Canadian workers made a disproportionate contribution.

Fibre And Fabric: A Window Into The Textile Trade
Consider a textile industry trade journal of the period called Fibre and Fabric, a weekly, established in 1885 and published from Boston. You can peruse a bound copy of a number of editions from 1907 and into 1908 here. The importance, if not the dominance, of French-Canadian/Franco-American labor in this industry is evident throughout.
Migrant Workers Return
September 7, 1907, p 3

For instance, the return of the French-Canadian workers to their jobs in the Connecticut mills, after they spent the season tending their farms, merits special mention (right). This article fits the narrative that many of the Franco-Americans retained farms in Canada that they worked seasonally. They were migrant workers. This is by no means the only profile for the French-Canadians who came to work in the mills but it is an established narrative in the literature about them.

Further, consider this item from the August 10, 1907 edition of the trade journal:
Fall River, Mass.—Many of the mills, especially those in the eastern section of the city, are complaining of a scarcity of operatives in the ring spinning departments. Until recently these hands, who are mostly French-Canadian girls and boys, have worked pretty steadily, but now they have been attracted by the open-air life and vacations. The scarcity of small help is likely to continue through August, and is keeping the production down (p 20).
The nerve of the "small help" to prefer “the open-air life” to continuing as child labor in noisy, hot, and dangerous textile mills! What were the managers in Fall River to do without those French-speaking 8-to-10 year olds pulling their load!

This next item from the November 9, 1907 edition of the journal hints at the ethnic tensions in the mill towns as various groups vied for industrial jobs. The repatriation movement, which attempted to lure the Franco-Americans back to their Québec homeland on a permanent basis, was largely unsuccessful. But in this piece there’s evidence of repatriation without direct government involvement.
Biddeford, Me.—It is stated that the establishment of a new cotton mill at Three Rivers, Quebec, is likely to prove a serious handicap to the mill industries of this city, as a large number of French speaking loom fixers and weavers have applied for positions in the new Canadian plant. With the present scarcity of help, the manufacturers are finding it hard to find enough operatives to run the mills, and if a large number of experienced textile workers should leave it would mean an extensive curtailment of operations. The operatives are making the change because of a desire to return to their own country, where the French language is spoken, and where they will not have to compete with Greeks, as they do here (p 16).
"Situations Wanted"
The classified advertisements in the journal also demonstrate the importance of French-Canadian labor to the textile trade of the period.

In stark contrast to today’s practice, it was de rigueur for job-seekers to state their ethnicity. I examined classified ads for line positions placed through the journal's “Overseers Bureau.” I chose at random three editions at two month intervals (August 10, October 19, and December 7, 1907 issues). Out of a total of 190 ads in these three issues, about three-quarters (74%) identified their ethnicity as either “American” or “English.”  Not surprising in an English-language journal published from Boston.

Of the remaining quarter, about one-half (47%) of the advertisements were from the French-Canadian/Franco-American cohort, followed by Germans (27%), Scotch (16%), and Irish (4%), with one person claiming Belgian origins, one Polish-American, and one person who did not specify an ethnicity. Note the very small number of Irish-Americans, a total of 2 ads, both of which appear in the December 7, 1907 issue, and the complete absence of Italians from the issues I examined.

French-Canadians Seek Work
(August 24, 1907, p 21)

There are also instances in the 1907-8 journals where non-Franco-American advertisers tout their ability to speak French as well as English. Mentions of any other language are rare. French/English bilingualism was an important skill for the early 20th century “mill man.” It was as important in the textile industry in the Northeast of the time as Spanish/English bilingualism is today in many parts of USA.

Bilingualism a Plus
(August 24, 1907, p 21)
We see another advertiser who identifies himself as “English” searching for a position as overseer of spinners who describes himself as “a good manager of French help” (November 9, 1907, p 20). In a sharp reversal of the “no Irish need apply” syndrome, one Help Wanted ad for a “second hand for 200 looms running on cotton warps and worsted filling” specifies that the candidate “must be French, a good manager of help, and a hustler.” (September 14, 1907, p 18). In all likelihood someone “French” was required to work with the plethora of French-Canadian labor in this operation (location unknown).

Franco-American Labor: Fortune-Maker
We Franco-Americans in the Northeast USA tend to take a parochial view of our role in history. We focus on a family, or a community, or perhaps on a portion of a state. We do not think in sufficiently expansive terms. The truth is that we were a front-end of the wedge of American Industrialism in the post-Civil War period. 

Many Americans are well aware of the supply side of the cotton, how it was grown in the South and the labor conditions under which it was produced. We tend to think less about what happened to those bales of cotton after the harvest. The truth is that Franco-American men, women and children were the other side of the cotton in the period from about 1865-1930.

It is our ancestors’ labor, in the main, that turned that raw material into finished product, making fortunes for the Boston Brahmins who controlled this industry through the Gilded Age. This was in addition to the fortunes these families had already made in previous generations and that afforded them the capital to import a large labor force from French Canada.

As the articles above make clear, labor was in demand and the Brahmin owners fretted about losing us to Canadian mills or to our ancestral farms. They needed our forebears very much, including "the small help." The existence of a large supply of cheap labor on the borders of New England made the textile industry possible.
More about Franco-Americans in the mills:

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Une Culture Hors-Contexte / A Culture Out of Context: An Interview

Vous trouverez ci-dessous un lien vers l'émission "A Million Friends" dans laquelle j'ai discuté de mon expérience comme Franco-Américain vivant en Nouvelle-Angleterre. Comment fonctionne l'assimilation culturelle ? Qu'est-ce que cela signifie d'avoir une culture qui est hors-contexte ?

Au cours de cet entretien (en anglais), vous m'entendrez parler d'histoire, répondre à des questions personnelles et chanter.

Bonne écoute!
A Million Friends With Josh Cole

Below please find a link to the podcast "A Million Friends" where I am interviewed by Josh Cole. I discuss my experience as a Franco-American from New England. How does cultural assimilation work? What does it mean to have a culture out of context?

In this interview you will hear me speak of history, respond to some personal question, and play a little music with Josh.

Happy listening!

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Message d’un Franco-Américain aux Québécois

Un francophone de l’Ouest canadien de longue date s’inquiétait récemment de l’anglicisation accélérée du Québec ces dernières années. Il nous faisait part de cette pression grandissante de devenir bilingue pour réussir. Les jeunes perçevraient l’anglais comme plus moderne, le français comme ringard. Plus d’argent du côté anglais, mieux vaut s’éduquer, publier et transiger en anglais, etc.

Du déjà-vu à travers l’Amérique? Le natif du Québec demandait en anglais aux membres d’un groupe Facebook regroupant une multitude de Franco-Américains ce qu’ils souhaiteraient dire aux Québécois. Voici ma réponse.

Je mets parfois l'accent sur la survie considérable de la langue et de la culture du Québec dans la région de la Nouvelle-Angleterre. J'insiste aussi sur la perte de la langue et les effets de la perte de la culture et de l'assimilation sur les gens. Les deux réalités coexistent, et celle de « l’assimilation » est beaucoup plus complexe qu'on imagine. En 1970, il y avait 764 443 personnes en Nouvelle Angleterre, qui parlaient le français comme langue maternelle (Source : le recensement de 1970). Cela un siècle après les débuts d’une immigration massive et permanente des Canadiens-Français originaires du Québec.

Malgré de nombreuses tentatives pour assimiler les franco-américains, la survie dans cette région a été impressionnante. Même ceux qui ne parlent pas français ont conservé en grande partie la culture traditionnelle dans leurs pratiques religieuses, la cuisine, le folklore, les fêtes, la musique, les attitudes et croyances, l’histoire des familles, etc. Quatre cents ans de culture francophone ne disparaissent pas aisément.
Statue à Nashua, New Hampshire, honorant les travailleurs 
canadiens-français dans les usines 
au cours des XIXe et XXe siècles.

L'assimilation n’opère toutefois pas comme les gens pensent généralement. Ce qui se passe vraiment quand une minorité entre en contact avec une culture comme celle des Etats-Unis est une négociation complexe se déroulant entre la culture dominante et celle de la minorité (l’historien franco-américaine Mark Paul Richard a écrit à ce sujet dans son livre « Loyal But French »).

Différentes familles négocient leurs conditions de différentes manières. En cas de perte d'un marqueur culturel majeur comme la langue, la culture tend alors à entrer dans la clandestinité. Elle devienne « subterranenean » (en référence à l’ouvrage de Kerouac) et les négociations entre la culture de la minorité et la culture dominante s’individualisent.

Il s'agit de l'étape d'assimilation de ma famille lorsque mes parents ont déménagé tout d'abord des enclaves franco-américaines dans le Maine à la grande ville de Boston et puis quand ma famille a déménagé vers les banlieues. Les gestes et les paroles de ma famille étaient visiblement issus des cultures du Québec et de l'Acadie (ma grand-mère maternelle était Acadienne, mes autres grands-parents avaient des racines au Québec). Mais la culture était hors contexte et ce que faisait ma famille n’était pas nécessairement reconnu, même par nous-mêmes, dans le cadre d'une culture plus large parce qu'on parlait anglais chez nous.

Revenons à la question originale « ce que nous souhaiterions dire aux québécois? ». Je voudrais leur dire que le danger de l'assimilation et la perte de la langue sont réels et que cela peut commencer à se produire très rapidement. En conséquence, j'applaudis les efforts des québécois pour préserver leur langue et leur patrimoine par force de loi, au besoin. Je voudrais leur dire aussi que l'assimilation n'est pas un fichier binaire simple telle qu'une personne est un « nous » ou un « eux ». Nous n'étions pas transformés en « aliens » du jour au lendemain.

Un grand nombre d'entre nous sont encore Québécois dans nos cœurs et nos esprits sinon dans nos langues. Même après plusieurs générations, je me sens encore comme si je faisais partie du « grand-Nous » de Franco-Nord-Américains. L’assimilation est un phénomène complexe agissant à plusieurs niveaux, à l'instar de notre culture.

Je remercie Réjean Beaulieu de son aide rédactionnelle.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

"French-Canadian Invasion!": What if 'The McLaughlin Group' Existed in the 1890s?

In the 1880-1900 period hundreds of thousands of French-speakers from Canada flooded into the Northeastern USA. They were considered by the mainstream American press to be the “problematic” cross-border immigrants of their day.

A conspiracy theory, repeatedly expressed in media of the day, claimed that the Québec Catholic hierarchy had hatched a plot to seize New England and annex it to a revived New France which was to include Québec, New England, and parts of Ontario, New York and the Maritime Provinces of Canada.

What if they had the news media then that they had today? This parody of a popular American news talk show demonstrates the tenor of the dialogue around these immigrants in this period.

For more information:
“Fears of Franco-American Conspiracy: Immigration and Paranoia”

“19th c. Québec Messianism and Franco-Americans”

“The French-Canadian 'Alien In Our Midst': Nativism vs. Nationality in 20th c. America”

“Assimilation Is No Accident: 19th c. Yankee Attitudes Toward Franco-Americans”

Monday, December 29, 2014

Video Presentation: The Cabot Mill and Brunswick, Maine's Franco-Americans

This is a video of a presentation I delivered in April 2014 through the auspices of the Pejepscot Historical Society of Brunswick, Maine. It details the development of the Franco-American community in that town and the history of the textile mill that began to bring French-Canadians to Brunswick in the mid 19th century.

Among other topics I discuss:
  • Reasons for the exodus from rural Québec
  • Chain migration from L'Islet, QC to Brunswick
  • Conditions in the company-owned housing
  • The background of the Boston Brahmin mill owners
  • The steps the Franco-Americans took to improve their lot in adverse conditions
This talk covers some of the research I have written about before (for example here and here) but includes research and graphics that I have never before published.

I hope you have time to sit back and enjoy this presentation.

Monday, April 22, 2013

1930s Ethnic Study: Franco-Americans Break Sociological Mold

Recently, I examined select results from a 2012 sociological study of Maine Franco-Americans. This research bears comparison with a study conducted in the 1930s that included not only Franco-Americans but other ethnic groups as well.

Published as The Social Systems of American Ethnic Groups, by W. Lloyd Warner and Leo Srole (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1945; parenthetical page numbers below refer to this book), this study investigated a New England mill town the authors called “Yankee City.” Successive waves of immigration had brought the Irish, French-Canadians, Jews, Italians, Armenians, Greeks, Poles, and Russians to the town.

In terms of population, the Irish and French-Canadian groups dwarf the others. With the exception of the Irish, the French-Canadians had more than twice the headcount of any of the other groups studied (28).

The modern reader notices that the book refers to Yankees, i.e. Anglo-Saxon Protestants, as “native Americans.” Of course, this term has a very different meaning in today’s identity-political discourse. For the purposes of the study, the world of Yankee City divides into “regular Americans,” i.e. Yankees, and others who are called “ethnics.”

French-Canadians began to arrive in Yankee City in the 1880s, the second oldest group among the “ethnics.” The thesis of the study is that the longer a group’s sojourn in the USA, the more it becomes assimilated to “regular American” ways and the higher its economic and social status (2). The Franco-Americans in town contradict this hypothesis.

The researchers quantified the residential, occupational, and social status of the various ethnic groups. Despite their relatively long tenancy in the town, the Franco-Americans ranked fifth among the eight ethnic groups in terms of the status of the neighborhoods in which they tended to live (40).

With respect to home ownership, the Franco-Americans ranked dead last as compared with the other groups. Only 25.9 percent of the Franco-American group owned a home, as opposed to 63.4 percent of the Jewish population and 55.5 percent of the Russians (80).

With respect to occupational status, the Franco-American group ranked lower than all of the others with the exception of the Poles and the Russians, the latter groups having arrived in Yankee City only about 10 to 20 years before the study was conducted (60).
Data from an Ethnic Study of "Yankee City"
Source: Warner and Srole, 60
In terms of a general measure of class status, which takes into account social connections among other measures, the Franco-American group appears somewhere in the middle. They are ahead of the more recently arrived Poles, Russians, and Greeks but of lower status than the Irish, Jews and Armenians (70).

The authors propose an elaborate theory regarding the social status associated with physical characteristics (such as skin color and facial features), religion, and language (284-296).

Their theory holds that the closer an ethnic or racial group approximates to the physical, religious, and linguistic norm of the “regular Americans,” the lower the socio-economic barriers and the greater the ease with which that group assimilates to the Yankee way of life.

Fascinatingly, the authors recognize that “the Catholic French,” presumably the “French-Canadians” of the study, are "out of place" within their scheme (289). The authors are indeed correct. The study shows that the Franco-American in Yankee City did not occupy the slot in the ethno-racial caste system that the authors' model predicted.

I assume that the intelligence and capacities of the Franco-American group fall within the same range as those of any other group of human beings. How, then, do the authors account for the relatively low status of the Franco-Americans given the length of their tenancy in Yankee City?

The authors find one possible explanation in the traditional family system of Québec. In this system, the father of the family determined the station in life of his children. The family rather than the individual was the unit of measure as regards social status. Successful family members transfer their success to the family as a whole (100-101).

Young adult children were not self-determined. They did not make their own career decisions based on self-perceived talents or their own desires. Their lot depended on their position in the family as perceived by their parents, especially the family’s patriarch. I don’t need to explain how the assumptions of this system differ from those that favor the self-made man or the rugged individualist of “regular American” lore. 

There is another factor, not mentioned by the authors, retarding the Franco-American’s assimilation and relative socio-economic status: the history of domination of the French North American groups by Anglo-Saxon Protestants.

Other groups in Yankee City, such as the Armenians, Greeks, and Jews, were also under foreign domination for centuries. However, with the exception of the Irish, none of these groups were under the domination of an Anglo-Saxon Protestant culture, and none of them under a North American culture of this type before their arrival in the USA.

I contend that the Canadien immigrants of this period saw only minor differences between les anglais of Canada and les anglais of the USA. In both countries, their elites had an express ideology of determined resistance to assimilation by the Anglo-Saxons.

Even a desire to rise in the Yankees' social order implies a degree of assimilation to their worldview, a view that many Canadiens were taught was poisonous and destructive to faith and morals. The authors are measuring the degree of social cohesion with an Anglo-Saxon group, the very type against which the “Catholic French” had a long history of bitter conflict and separatist resistance.

The study looks at the “ethnics” through the lens of Yankee values. Its measures of success include the house on the hill, a white-collar job, and membership in the golf club. “Ethnics” also have their own measures of success, their own values and priorities.

The authors recognize that these values may interact in a complex way with those of the dominant culture (100). The complexity created by competing value systems may impede both the immigrants' acceptance of the dominant culture and the latter's acceptance of them.

For instance, the researchers found that the index of residential status for the Franco-American group was lower than expected because a disproportionate number of them resided in the poorest section of town. This is the section where the group began to form a cluster shortly after their arrival in Yankee City.

Perhaps some families stayed in the poorer section because they wished to remain where they had raised their families, where they were surrounded by friends of their own cultural group. Maybe they wished to be near their church where it was easy to “make a visit” or attend daily Mass. Maybe such considerations were more important to them than “moving up” on the Yankee social scale.

The study points to the important and overlooked fact that the French North American groups fit poorly into the categories of American ethno-racial identity-politics. We are not what are now called people of color nor are we “regular Americans” per the standards of the 1930s. Although many of us have Native ancestry we’re not First Nations either. We landed at neither Plymouth Rock nor Ellis Island.

We're unique in that our cultures are North American, and yet predate the existence of the United States and of today’s Canada. Our peoples occupied parts of what is now the USA before they were parts of the USA. And our peoples were, for the most part, conquered by the English and Americans before the latter imagined themselves as distinct from the former.

There is no pigeonhole for us in the accepted racial and ethnic narratives and these narratives are central to one’s place in the American story. In a future post, I intend to explore how this anomalous position contributes to our general invisibility.

Monday, April 8, 2013

2012 Study of Maine Franco-Americans Sheds Light On The Names We Call Ourselves

The descendants of Nouvelle-France have been known by many names. In a recent post I discussed in particular the significance of the various appellations applied to the descendants of the former French colony of Canada: Canadien, Canadien-français, and Québécois.

A new study of Maine's Franco-Americans sheds light on these labels and the other names we call ourselves.

The study was conducted by polling firm Command Research and commissioned by the Centre Franco-Américain at the University of Maine at Orono under the auspices of the Maine state legislature's Franco-American Task Force.

Administered in July and August of 2012, the phone-based survey included 600 respondents who self-identify as Franco-American. An initial analysis of the data appears in the paper Contemporary Attitudes of Maine’s Franco-Americans, co-authored by Jacob Albert, Tony Brinkley, Yvon Labbé and Christian Potholm.

Respondents were asked, “Into which subgroup of the Franco-American background or heritage would you put yourself?”  The question yielded the following percentages of respondents:

French Canadian/Canadian/Franco
Other (metropole French, etc.)
Don’t Know
About one-half of respondents identified with the English equivalents of the designations Canadien, Canadien-français, or Franco-Américain. Nearly one quarter did not know. This leaves slightly more than one-quarter divided among the three responses, “Acadian,” “Québécois,” or some combination of labels.

The researchers found that the Québécois subgroup, 60 of the 600 respondents, differed from the others in a number of ways. 
  • 80% of the self-identified Québécois subgroup claimed that speaking the French language was “very important” to their “sense of being a Franco-American” compared with about 40% of the Acadian or French Canadian/Canadian/Franco subgroups
  • 68% of this subgroup claimed fluency in French as opposed to no more than 38% of any of the other subgroups
  • 86% of them who also identified as Catholic reported that they believed “most or virtually all Catholic Church doctrine” as compared with 59% of the French Canadian/Canadian/Franco subgroup, 56% of the Acadian subgroup, and 13% of those who replied “don’t know” to the question
  • 52% of them were college graduates as compared with 20% of the Acadian and 22% of the French Canadian/Canadian/Franco subgroups
  • 27% of them claimed to own a large company as opposed to no more than 2% of the Acadian and French Canadian/Canadian/Franco subgroups
  • Only 2% of the Québécois group lacked health insurance compared to 8% of the French Canadian/Canadian/Franco group, 22% of the Acadian group, and 23% of those who identified with a combination of labels 
Does the Québécois subgroup represent relatively recent arrivals in Maine, people who came to the States from Québec after the Quiet Revolution changed the national designation there from Canadien-français to Québécois?

I doubt it. The strong identification with Catholicism is not typical of post-sixties Québec. Laïcisation was a chief feature of the Quiet Revolution and forms no small part of the ruling Parti Québécois's program today. My experience suggests that today’s Québec may be the most secularized region in North America.

However, there's a missing data point which is the percentage of the Québécois subgroup that also identified as Catholic. The researchers report that 62 percent of survey respondents were Catholics, but we do not know how many among this cohort also identified as Québécois. My conclusions are tentative but for now it appears that the element in this group that is Catholic has a strong identification with that faith. 

For now, it appears that a subgroup in Maine that identifies as Québécois, most likely the children, grandchildren, or great-grandchildren of yesterday's Canadien-français, is more Francophone, more staunchly Catholic, more educated, and wealthier than other Franco-Americans.

These characteristics fit the profile of a Franco elite of past generations, the group that led the efforts toward la survivance in New England in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Their identification with the term Québécois suggests a desire to maintain a connection to Québec – today’s Québec. At the same time, this group also appears to hold attitudes associated with la survivance ideology of the pre-Quiet Revolution period, with its emphasis on both Francophonie and Catholicism as cornerstones of national identity.

Identifying as Québécois, in contrast to the older terms French-Canadian or Franco-American, suggests a consciousness of the living tradition of Québec and the evolving features of this national group. Awareness of the continuing story North of the border correlates with the concerns of a more educated cohort.

I have questioned whether it is possible to be a “Québécois des Etats-Unis.” This research suggests that such an identification is a reality for a minority of relatively affluent and educated Maine Franco-Americans. 

Further, in a previous post I identified risk aversion, external authorization, and reticence to put oneself forward as dispositions typical of Franco-Americans. I suggested that a sociological study might confirm these preferences.

Consider the responses to the following question from the recent study:
“At work or in your community, if you are upset at an issue or situation, what are you most likely to do about it?”

Remain silent about it
Speak about it within my family
Work with others to change it/
join a group
Donate money to groups
interested in it
Support candidates
who agree with me
Don’t know
While the survey question did not use the express terms of my previous post, I believe that the present research favors my suggestions. Those who report ambivalence (“Don’t know”) or passivity (“Remain silent,” “Speak within my family”) when faced with an upsetting issue at work or in the community comprise 83.7 percent of respondents.

Only about one-sixth of respondents assume an active role in such situations. Eight percent act directly while about the same percentage take indirect action through supporting candidates or donating money.

It would be interesting to see poll results on this question for the American population at large.

The authors of the study state that their analysis is preliminary and that more papers are forthcoming. For more information on the study or to obtain a copy of the first paper in this series contact the Centre Franco-Américain.