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.

For more on Franco-Americans in the textile industry please see my new book available here.


  1. Somehow, somewhere, i must get you and Barry Rodrique together. Barry who lives in Bath and is, among other thing, a labour historian, is surely familiar with this story, as are the Lawles's, proprietors of Gulg of Maine bookstore on Brunswick's Main Street.

    1. Thanks for your comment. I have corresponded with Barry Rodrigue a bit and I'm sure I've stopped by that bookstore. I'd be happy to meet Barry in person one of these days.