We sometimes hear that our French-Canadian forebears came to New England “seeking a better life.” This is not a lie but it fails to tell the whole truth. It fails spectacularly.
My mother’s father was born in Saco, Maine in 1895 just eight years after his father had crossed the border from Québec. He grew up in the tenements in Saco and in neighboring Biddeford. My mother knew he had lived in these places but “he never spoke of it,” she said. That silence, the hypnotic omission or deliberate deletion of our history, ends here.
On January 29, 1898 the Labor Advocate, a newspaper out of Birmingham, Alabama, published a lengthy, page one article on conditions in the Biddeford mills and tenements. In this city of 16,000, “There are over 7,000 French Canadians and Irish, between 1,000 and 2,000 English and a good representation of Swedes and Norwegians,” reports the Advocate. “Nearly all of them who make any pretence of work are dependent in some way or other upon the mills. The surplus of unemployed help here is very large.”
Where jobs were to be had “the wages…paid at the two mills are so small as to seem incredible,” writes our reporter. The most skilled workers, the machinists, were paid $1.50 for a ten-hour day; children worked for 10 or 15 cents a day and, although a child labor law was on the books, it was ignored. The paper reports that there were two parochial schools, including a “French” school, as well as public schools. Out of a potential enrollment of 5000, 3600 children attended school. The other 1400 were employed in the mills.
Wages had decreased over the previous 20 years. Some workers who had received $1.60 per day in earlier years were receiving 90 cents in 1898. Other workers had seen a huge cut in wages from $1.08 per day to 40 cents.
Were these cuts due to a decline in profitable business at the mills? Not according to this paper, which reports that all or most of the stock in the company was held by Bostonians and “paid upon par value dividends aggregating something like 25 per cent per annum.” The resident agent of the mill earned $12,000 per year plus the cost of renting his home. “His residence is in one of the best houses here.” The reporter quotes the editor of the Biddeford newspaper who describes the political manipulations of the corporations resulting in “special favors, in the way of taxation concessions and privileges."
And what about the workers when they weren’t toiling in the mills?
"The destitution and want existing are great and volumes could be written relating instances of suffering that are saddening. The excess of French who speak only their own language makes it difficult to get at the true condition throughout their midst, but individual cases are plenty…In one little house of four rooms on Smith Street 19 [French-Canadian] people make a home. In another little place called ‘The Old Lighthouse’ there are two rooms below and an attic 15 by 20 feet. There is a family in each room, and they bunk in the attic, sleeping on the floor, that is covered with a bedding of sea grass."
These facts are supported by other sources. The 1900 U.S. Federal census reveals that my 4-and-a-half-year old grandfather and his family, as well as his paternal and maternal grandparents, live at 6 Market Street, Saco. Approximately 130 people reside at 6 Market Street all of whom are of French-Canadian origin.
"…Many families have to press their children into work in order to live. People go without butter on their bread, and meat is almost an unknown luxury. The interior of some of the homes shows an utter lack of even the common comforts. Soap boxes are used for seats, a board along the wall serving as a table, and in broken down stoves wood and chips picked up about the streets and along the river banks are burned as the only fuel."
Sources must be read with care, especially 19th century ones. The Labor Advocate has a clear agenda as is evident from its screaming headlines. However, the story itself was not written by the Advocate but contributed by a reporter from the Boston Post, then one of the largest newspapers in the country. The story passes the credibility test, attributing quotations, naming names, crunching numbers, and citing specific cases. It is based on multiple sources and is consistent with other contemporary reports and documentation.
This was the world of my grandfather, not yet three-years-old when this article was published. This was the world of his childhood in the tenements of which he never spoke.