Monday, August 31, 2015

The Children's Strike In A Gilded Age Mill

“A little child shall lead them,” the Bible says. And so it was in Brunswick, Maine in 1881 when young boys not only participated in a strike at the Cabot textile mill – they caused the strike.

This curious tale is reported in the August 12, 1881 edition of the local newspaper, The Brunswick Telegraph (beginning on page 2). According to this report, drawn together from local sleuthing as well as from other newspaper accounts, a strike broke out among “the operatives in the spinning and mule rooms of the Cabot Company’s cotton mill…These strikes left the weavers short of working material and the mill was shut down.”

In response to the strikes that occurred on a Thursday in early August and again the following Monday, the Telegraph reports that the mill was closed apparently for the better part of a week, although the Telegraph’s account leaves the chronology uncertain.

The observation that young boys started the strike at the mill, extraordinary by modern lights, is tossed off at the end of the article in a single sentence. The strike began when “boys 8 to 14 years of age struck for higher pay, got it, and thus led to strikes in [the] spinning and mule rooms.” It was the success of the children’s strike that led the adults to hope for similar results.

The fact that it was the boys’ example that led the adult workers to strike is attributed to a report in the Bath Times “prepared by a reporter after careful enquiry.” However, “the operatives do not appear to have had any concerted action and moved apparently without leadership,” the Telegraph reports.
1894 Death Certificate of Adelard Duford
"Age: 11" "Occupation: Mill Operative"
Thanks Janine LaFleur Penfield

A.G. Tenney, the editor of the Telegraph and most likely the writer of the article in question, suggests a motive for the boys’ strike: “It is stated that the wages in the mill have been rather under than above the average of the cotton mills of this State, – that some of the young children work at $1.00 per week, and some as low as 8 cents per day, but this latter statement we are unwilling to accept.” Tenney gives no reason for his incredulity regarding the wages paid, although he attributes these figures to “outside talk.”

Tenney also reports that the workers demanded a ten percent raise, which they seem to have believed would put their pay in line with the wages at comparable mills in nearby Lewiston and Lisbon.

Don’t Call It a Company Store!
The Telegraph mentions that the grocery store “commonly known as the factory store” closed for at least one day in response to the strike. The proprietors of the mill, says Tenney, "denied all connection” to the store operated by “Messrs. Adams Bros.” The closure of the store in concert with the mill lock-out raised suspicions regarding this denial, notes Tenney.

The workers apparently had no doubt about the connection between the store and the Company since, reports the Telegraph, “some wicked wag…suspended [on the store] a red flag inscribed ‘Store closed,’ ‘Small pox.’”

The Telegraph also mentions “the payment of help through the system of orders” to the Adams’s grocery store, a system which, Tenney reports, many observers opposed. He attributes to the system's opponents “the general belief...that cash should be paid and the purchases made by the workman wherever he chooses to trade.” This “system of orders,” well-known enough to invite comment in the town, refutes the Cabot Company's denial of “all connection” between the store and the mill.

Another effect of the strike was that Benjamin Greene, the local agent of the mill, the face of the Cabot Manufacturing Company in the town, and the richest man in Brunswick, gave 30 day's notice to vacate to the residents in the company-owned tenements. Tenney justifies Greene’s action, stating that the notice to the tenants may have been “done as a measure of precaution if the strike holds on.”

As a rule, the mill workers in Brunswick in this period were housed in company-owned tenements. They were, to quote an 1885 New York Times piece about New England’s French-Canadians elsewhere in the region, “the despair of sanitarians.” This was due not to our ancestors’ slovenliness but rather to the failure of the likes of the Cabot Company to build an adequate infrastructure to house a population measured in four figures.

In fact, just a month before this strike, the Telegraph, generally a friend to neither Mr. Greene nor the Cabot Companyhad featured a lengthy piece about a Typhoid outbreak in these self-same tenements which was blamed on the Cabots' malfeasance. 

“French” = “Mill Worker”
The piece also makes clear that to be “French,” that is to say to be one of the French-Canadian immigrants in the town, is to be a mill worker in 1880s Brunswick. The paper reports that as early as the Wednesday following the Monday lock-out “several French families had left” implying that they did so in response to the strike. Tenney then states that on further investigation this report was shown to be untrue, but he notes that “some [French families] contemplate leaving.”

He also reports that, “no disturbance has occurred, the French people walking about the village, and lots going blue-berrying.” That was not an unwise move given the situation with the company grocery store.

The circumstances of the Franco-American workers in Brunswick in this period are by no means uncommon in the history of 19th c. Labor. Here we find an imported, foreign labor force housed by the same company that employs them, that then pays them, at least in part, not in cash but in orders from the company store.

The system of keeping the workers in a state of dependency appears to have faced some opposition within the town since it inhibited a potential market for local housing and retail trade. This was no small loss to the local economy since per the 1880 U.S. Census the Franco-American population of Brunswick comprised more than one-fifth of the town's headcount. But the Franco-American workers were in a closed circuit where the Cabot Company was their all.

It is not surprising that the French-speaking workers had recourse to the only tool at their disposal – the strike – but that they did not use it more often. Of course, strikes in that era came at great personal risk. Especially when the thirty-day eviction notice arrives at the worker's apartment as soon as the strike begins.

And in August of 1881, this risk was run because some eight-year-olds found out that the eight-year-olds over in Lewiston were pulling in perhaps a penny more than their measly dime a day.

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.
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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.