Business and Labor

Flashback Video: Leominster Labor Day Parade, 1903

The people of Leominster, Mass., celebrated the 16th national Labor Day in 1903 with a parade down the center of town. (Leominster wouldn’t be a city until 1915.)  President Grover Cleveland had declared the first Labor Day in 1887 after 11 were killed in the Haymarket Massacre in Chicago the previous year. Cleveland was responding to pressure from unions, which had advocated a special day to show support for the labor movement.

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Leominster was a small farming community until the Fitchburg and Worcester Railroad opened in 1850. Factories sprang up along the Monoosnoc Brook and Nashua River, making pianos, paper and combs, combs, combs. By 1903, waves of Irish, French and Italian were swelling Leominster’s population.

The comb industry had been established in 1770, when Obadiah Hills started making horn combs in his kitchen.  By 1853, there were 24 comb factories in Leominster that employed 146 people. The invention of celluloid in 1868 revolutionized the industry. Comb-making expanded rapidly in Leominster, which manufactured most of the combs made in America. Leominster became known as Comb City.

Workers faced economic uncertainty in Leominster in 1901, according to the Labor and Industrial Chronology of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

That year, the Leominster Shirt Co., shut down indefinitely and the Geo. A. Gane Shirt Co. closed for two weeks. The Richardson Piano Case Co. cut wages and the girls employed by B.F. Blodgett & Co. went on strike on account of the forewoman. Workers at Newton & Merriam went on strike for a wage increase and were replaced by strikebreakers.  Several factories were destroyed by fire.

On the plus side, some comb and garment factories ran nights, new factories were being built, equipment was being added to old ones and comb-making companies were being formed.

Things were better by 1907, when the comb industry was on the upswing. The Massachusetts Bureau of Statistics of Labor reported there were 3,000 horn, celluloid, comb and novelty workers in the Leominster area. Ten comb and novelty companies expanded, incorporated or moved to Leominster in 1907.  Workers were also asking for, and getting, wage increases.

Many factories gave work to women at home. In 1917, the Labor Bulletin of the Massachusetts Department of Labor reported 14 Leominster factories jobbed out the work of  attaching hairpins to cards and sticking gummed labels on the cards. Here is the schedule of what they earned:

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