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:


  1. I agree with you - makes no sense for the play to have left out French Canadian workers. My great grandmother and her mother and sisters and some of her brothers worked in the mills in central Massachusetts, textiles sustained that family when her father became too mentally troubled to work much himself and went in and out of the state hospital.

  2. The other side of the story is the one written first hand by a woman, Camille Lessard Bissonnette, Canuck. This book is overlooked by the culture--and her story is one of authenticity. The National Park at the mills in Lowell does not carry the book, I've tried, and she situates her story in Lowell, even though she immigrated to Lewiston, Maine and worked in the Continental Mill for four years and wrote a column for the French language newspaper, Le Messager about the women's working situation in the mills. The work museum in Rhode Island also refuses to carry the book in their shop...due to the title...which I think ingenious...on her part to take back the negative naming of the French Canadians. When the translation was done, I kept the title she chose for her book to honor her work. There are some serious blind spots in many corners of the French heritage culture. Which I find unfortunate due to the fact that the author, the woman who wrote from her experiences should be respected. Info on the book:

  3. The Francos were and and still are a people.This people has been scattered all over Noth América, but a lrge part of him, wants to reconnect with his roots, Canadaians, Cajuns, Acadians, French, or Créole.
    This goal is sustunable, and reachable, and must be done.Go Francos Go! a fench retired man supports you all!

  4. My great grandfather, Anathole Bourque, died while working in one of the mills in Cabotville, Chicopee in 1929. He was only 34. I think it was the paper mill, not cotton. Anyway, there was no compensation for his young wife and 3 daughters who had to move into already crowded tenements with her sisters family. I can't find any death certificate or records of any kind on what happened to him. There's not even a gravestone which seems odd because his siblings and other family have them. I don't know if anyone else has noticed this but the life expectancy of many of my ancestors plummeted when they came down to New England to work in the mills. This is obviously because of the unbelievably poor, unsanitary working conditions David and many others have written about. Thanks for this post and blog! Oh, and that book Canuck, is one of my favorites on the Franco experience. Highly recommended. I wish someone had a picture of Camille Lessard Bissonette. I see nothing offensive about the title. Isn't there still a hockey team called The Canucks?

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  6. Oh how I remember, Memere came over on a train with her brother, came for the American Dream. She lived in a chicken coop in Rehoboth Massachusettes and got paid a very low wage working in the lace mills (Seekonk lace to be specific, Pawtucket, RI)! Not once did I ever hear her complain. Had my dad not shared that memory of her, I'd of never known! I was floored! Living in a chicken coop. I know where life took her, I also know life was not pretty to her especially as a young canadien girl. One promise my grandmother did make to me however, a rough childhood promises a great adulthood! Thank you for your blessings Grandmother, I will never forget how hard you had it and how lucky I am to be where I am. You laid the groundwork down for me and many others and for you, I am a proud Canayen!