Friday, August 17, 2012

How Our Half Lived: Tenement Life in Our Grandfather's World

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.

The 20th century vision of exotically attired, optimistic, determined immigrants, with American dreams dancing in their heads, waving their scarves as they salute the Statue of Liberty, does not portray these 19th century, cross-border immigrants. They weren’t on their soapboxes proclaiming American dreams. They needed those soapboxes for furniture.


  1. My father and mother were French/Canadians. They settled in Springvale, ME. I remember my dad talking about living in Canada. It was very poor there. To be here was an American Dream. I also recalled a story of his that happened to him during the depression. It was very hard to find jobs during this period. My father finally found work in a shoe shop in Biddeford. When he would get to work, there wasn't a time card for him to punch. He would go to the clock to find his card so he could go to lunch and it still was not there. When he would come back from lunch, his time card would be there for him to punch. He couldn't say anything because they would just let him go. So the little amount of money that he did get was better than nothing. That's how a lot of French/Canadians and probably others were treated. It's amazing what greed can do and it is still like that today only in a different way. It is very sad! Thank you for the research that you have done. I enjoyed your story. I hope you enjoyed reading my little story.

  2. Superb service work mon ami .. BooDad

  3. The lens with which you view the past is clouded by your present circumstances. Sure life was difficult in the U.S. but in Canada at that time babies were being dropped off at the Church steps. The Rivard clan that came to Rhode Island and Massachusetts worked, were happy to work and enjoyed very big families which they supported with factory and construction jobs. Lowell was an engineered city built in granite and brick, Africans were eating mud cakes at that time. My mother worked her entire life and at the end of her work life was building computers at Wang Labs. She enjoyed her life, even the difficult days and never lost her joie de vivre. She owned her own home and raised five kiddos that went on to get College educations. Perhaps conditions seemed tough at times, but she didn't blame others for her life choices. She made the best of it and instilled a work ethic in all her kids. The English worked hard, the Irish worked hard, Jews worked hard, it was expected of everyone. They built a better life for us. What are we doing for the next gen?

    1. My lens is not clouded. It’s bright and clear. Many of the things you say have merit and I would say many of them were true of my own family. Though starting at the bottom of the economic scale they were able, after a couple generations, to send their kids to college. They also instilled a work ethic and never lost their joie de vivre.

      However, this article does not present my view of the past. It is based on a contemporary report. It was not me but people in 1898 who were denouncing the conditions in Biddeford as exceptionally bad not by 2015 standards but by the standards of 1898. I am merely reporting what those people said at the time and also supplementing it with other research which corroborates what is said in that report. And it is not the only report such as this. Elsewhere on my blog (link below) you will find descriptions of conditions in company-owned tenements that were literally killing the worker’s children. These conditions were also denounced by the doctors and journalists in this very community as exceptionally bad, not by the standards of 2015 but by those of 1886.

      I’m sure that many Irish and English people worked hard, however, the French-Canadian element was specifically denounced repeatedly by these very groups b/c they were willing to work harder for less and put all of their families in the mill.

      To acknowledge the past is not to take away from the successes or the joys our ancestors also experienced. It is simply to acknowledge what happened. I notice a tendency to deflect all talk of the hardships our ancestors faced and this deflection does not serve us since those who do not acknowledge the past are condemned to repeat it. And in fact the same mistakes of the Gilded Age are being repeated today. We need lenses that are neither clouded…nor rose colored.