August 19, 2000

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The e-mail version of these scripts is now going out to a group of readers Down East in Maine. So this one's for them especially. - I'm sure it hasn't escaped your attention that life's not like a Broadway musical. Existence for female New England mill workers was more than "a real nice clambake" and June "bustin' out all over". There were pitfalls other than falling in love with a feckless "barker for a carousel". The Maine Industrial Bureau was aware of problems in 1908 when they sent Eva L. Shorey out to investigate textile mills. A three-part summary of her report was detailed a few years ago, in the Newsletter of the Androscoggin Historical Society.

She begins with statistics for gender, nationality, and pay, in the state's 15-plus cotton and wool mills. Then she describes opening the door to the weave room. "...a great wave of hot, moist air comes out to you, and a medley of sound as of innumerable railway trains greets your ears, while the floor appears to be swaying and trembling as if the 'train' was rounding a curve." Yet workers she interviews tell her you soon get used to it. For many, toiling away in other parts of the mill, the job of the weaver is one to aspire to, in spite of the, "moist, lint-laden air in their lungs". The other drawback is the times the machinery malfunctions, causing the line to be shut down until the problem is corrected and the botched job restored to normal. There's no pay during these frequent lapses in production. When the four to six machines each is responsible for are running smoothly the women on the looms can sit down, but there's too much noise for conversation. The next worker, who may be French-Canadian, Irish, Polish, Greek, Armenian, or Russian, quite likely will not speak your language anyway. When the "piece" is finished the women have to carry the heavy material to a central point for tagging. Wages depend on the textiles being produced. A woman manufacturing dobby, a fancy gingham, on six looms can make as much as $10. Weavers turning out cheaper material, on broad looms, earn from $5.47 to $6.50 a week. Shorey describes the tenement homes of the French-Canadian workers where 4,000 people, half of them children, "in various stages of apparel and non-apparel," are crowded in one-quarter square mile blocks. What we'd call latch-key kids watch over their still-younger siblings in narrow, dark alleyways. Meanwhile their mothers labor 5 1/2 days, 60 hours, a week.

Impossibly dire as all this sounds to us, and it would get worse before it improved, mill jobs had been a liberating force for women, especially in the early days of the mills. Women were sought because of their manual dexterity and they flocked to the mill towns, many seeking an excape from the stiffling insularity of backcountry farms. They were housed in quite neat, sanitary, and safe dormitories and often exposed to educational lectures. Domestic work paid women a quarter of a man's wages. In the factories and mills they might earn up to half. And until there's no difference, let's not break our arms patting ourselves on the back.

For Classical 91.5 and 90-point-3, this is David Minor

© 2000 David Minor / Eagles Byte

 

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