A child textile mill worker in Evansville, Ind., August 1908. Photo by Lewis Hine, courtesy Library of Congress.In the summer of 1881, eight-year-old children working in a Brunswick, Maine, textile mill found out eight-year-old children working in a Lewiston, Maine, textile mill were earning a penny more than they were. The Brunswick children decided to go on strike against the Cabot Manufacturing Co.
They weren’t the first children to strike a company, and they weren’t the last.
Children went on strike in Paterson, N.J., in 1828, to reduce the workday from 13.5 to 10 hours and to restore their noon lunchtime. In 1836, 11-year-old Harriet Hanson and nearly 2,000 girls walked off the job at the Lowell mill where owners had essentially cut their pay by 12.5 percent. In 1903, Mother Jones led a march of mill children from Philadelphia to President Theodore Roosevelt’s summer home in Oyster Bay. And Hartford newsboys went on strike in 1909.
The Brunswick children, though, may be the most overlooked strikers. Labor historians make no mention of them. It was only recently that the French North America blog discovered a reference to the children’s strike in August 1881 editions of the Brunswick Telegraph.
The Brunswick children were mostly, if not all, Franco-American, the sons and daughters of recent arrivals from Quebec. Some were only seven years old. They worked in the Cabot textile mill, which employed 550 workers in 1881, 375 females and 175 males.
The millworkers lived in Brunswick’s Little Canada, four blocks of filthy, decrepit, company-owned tenements along the Androscoggin River. Nearby smokestacks belched carbon monoxide from burning coal.
The mill buildings were infested with rats, and workers had to shake the vermin out of their clothes when their shifts were over. Typhoid and diphtheria stalked the millworkers and their families.
Grown men earned $1.42 a day in the Cabot mill. Women were paid 90 cents. Some young children, according to the Telegraph, worked for $1.00 a week. Some were said to work for as little as eight cents a day, but the newspaper reporter refused to believe that.
The millworkers were paid partly by scrip, which could only be redeemed at the company grocery store. The practice of gouging their own workers was so disreputable the mill owners denied any connection to the store.
Though the mill made healthy profit, the owners constantly pressured the city to lower their taxes.
The smallest children worked as doffers, removing the spools filled by the spinning machine and replacing them with empty ones.
Lewis Hine was a social reformer who photographed small children working in dangerous, dirty jobs. He visited textile mills around the country, where children had to be careful lest they fall into the moving machines. In the caption to the photo of a mill in Georgia, Hine wrote,
Some boys and girls were so small they had to climb up on to the spinning frame to mend broken threads and to put back the empty bobbins.
On Aug. 12, 1881, the Brunswick Telegraph reported a strike by
...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.
A few days later the newspaper reported it was the successful strike of the Brunswick children that led the adults to walk off the job.
...boys 8 to 14 years of age struck for higher pay, got it, and thus led to strikes in [the] spinning and mule rooms.
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.
The newspaper editor justified Greene’s action, stating that the notice to the tenants may have been “done as a measure of precaution if the strike holds on.”
The strike didn’t hold on. The Annual Report of the Bureau of Industrial and Labor Statistics for the State of Maine shows the strike closed the mill for three days. It 'partly' succeeded, costing the employees $1,500 and the employers $500. No labor union was involved.
Male workers' average daily pay rose from $1.42 to $1.50; females from 90 cents a day to $1.05.
They kept their jobs, too. Presumably the mill needed labor as it added another 150 workers over the next four years.
Living conditions apparently didn’t improve. In 1885, when a diphtheria epidemic raced through Brunswick’s Franco-American population, the New York Times called the tenements ‘the despair of sanitarians.’
Finally in 1886 the State of Maine ordered the Cabot company to clean up the tenements it had neglected so badly.
With thanks to the French North America blog. This story was updated in 2017.