People of a New England Factory Village

THE valley of the– is one of the principal centres of the cotton industry in New England. Two streams afford ample water-power for many factories situated on their banks. By a succession of dams built across both rivers they are transformed into a series of steps, each one a placid mill-pond, and all acting as reservoirs for the waters utilized to run the factories. Near to one another on both streams are the villages, each having one or more cotton-mills or other manufacturing establishments. Altogether, there are more than a score of factories, and the population must be over ten thousand.

The cotton manufacture was begun in this region early in the present century, and gradually grow in magnitude, till it has attained its present dimensions. Until within a quarter of a century the mill operatives were almost exclusively Americans, both by birth and descent. Old customs prevailed, and the community was homogeneous. The old New England town community existed here in a similar condition to what characterized it elsewhere. Democratic equality prevailed, and society as yet was not divided into classes between which the lines were sharply drawn. Mill workers were familiar with farm work, many of them being the sons and daughters of the neighboring farmers. Few were entirely dependent upon work in the factories as a means of livelihood, and as a result there was an easy independence of manner in all dealings between employers and employed. Under such circumstances labor disturbances could not occur, since each workman had other channels open to him, and there was no large class who by their training were restricted to one kind of work.

With the incoming of a foreign population by emigration a change has by slow degrees been taking place, so that the existing condition of society is almost as dissimilar to the former state as the manners and customs in one country are different from those in another. The population in these villages is now largely of foreign birth or parentage, the native Americans being a very small minority. French Canadians and Irish form the bulk of the population, and the indications seem to be that the Canadians will in a short time, if they do not already, outnumber any other nationality. Besides these, there is a small number of English, Scotch, and Welsh, and occasionally a German. The community formed by these heterogeneous elements has as yet no social manners and customs that belong to it as a whole. The advent of the strangers is so recent that the various nationalities have not become welded together. Each people preserves in a measure its former manners and peculiarities, with some slight modifications that climate and surroundings have been able to produce. Little social intercourse takes place between the different nationalities, though they are associating more as they become acquainted, and intermarriages are much more frequent than formerly.

The Irish were the first foreigners to come to these villages in large numbers. They took the place of the Americans, who little by little sought more congenial employment, and were in turn succeeded by the French, who now occupy the ground and seem destined to prevail. These successive influxes of foreigners seem like peaceful invasions, in each case the new arrivals gradually supplanting their predecessors.

The wages paid in the factories are small, a dollar a day being good pay for a man in many of them. In a few cases more is earned, but these are exceptional instances. Overseers get fair wages, — as much as a good mechanic in the cities. Mule-spinners average about a dollar a day; in some of the factories a little more, in others less. The best weavers, those who run the greatest number of looms, can earn nearly as much; the majority, however, earn less. These two classes are the best paid in the factories, because more skill is required from them than from the others. Mule-spinners are always men ; weavers are both men and women.

Lest objection should be made that the preceding statement is too general, here are a few particulars. Operatives in cotton factories are, with a few exceptions, paid by the piece ; the exceptions are cases where it is impossible or inconvenient so to estimate. Weavers are paid a certain rate per cut or piece of cloth ; spinners are paid according to the weight and fineness of the yarn produced. The unit of length is the hank, and the relative fineness of a yarn is the number of hanks contained in a pound. This number is called the “size” of the yarn. In many factories the spinner is paid a certain rate per hundred hanks. The fineness of yarn is generally kept at about the same standard, and the number of hanks is found by multiplying the weight in pounds of the yarn produced by the spinner with the size.

In one of these factories the wages are as follows : mule-spinners operating a pair of spinning-mules having 1280 spindles, and producing an average of about 700 pounds of yarn per week, the size of the yarn being 40, are paid at the rate of two cents per hundred hanks. The weekly earning of a spinner would then be found by the following calculation : —

700 X 40 = 28,000 hanks.

280 X 0.2 = $5. 60.

The weavers in the same mill are not able to earn quite a dollar a loom per week. For a piece of cloth over fifty yards in length they receive twenty-three cents, and about two days are required to weave such a piece on one loom. The number of looms run by individuals is four, five, or six. In mills where print cloth is woven more looms are run, but there the rate per cut is much less, and the weekly earnings amount to about the same. In these mills none of the workers who are paid by the day, except the overseers and their assistants, receive more than five dollars per week. Children, who are mostly employed in the mule-spinning, ringspinning, and spooling rooms, earn from a dollar a week to between two and three. Although no regular scale of prices exists, yet the mobile character of the population prevents there being much difference in the total wages in each place.

House rent is cheap ; a good commodious tenement can be hired at the rate of fifty dollars a year and less. In nearly all the villages the owners of the mills have tenement houses for their operatives, which they let to them at a low rate. Some of the operatives have houses of their own, but they are very few compared to the population.

The hours of labor are eleven hours per day, or sixty-six per week, in most of the mills. In many factories the waterwheel is started before time in the morning, and some of the operatives go to work then in order to earn more.

In this section there has never been a labor disturbance of any moment. For this several causes may be assigned. The main one is the want of unity among the population on account of the various nationalities, which has prevented organization. Wages have always been smaller here than in such places as Fall River, and the most intelligent and skillful naturally gravitate towards the highest wages. The English people, who were on their arrival skilled workers, not requiring to learn like the Irish and French, are rarely met with in the valley. In their own country they had learned to organize and agitate, and they manifest the same spirit here, as has been thoroughly exhibited in Fall River. But in this valley the isolation and the power of the owners, who possessed the villages, — mills, houses, churches, schoolhouses, and adjoining lands, —placed an agitator at such a disadvantage that he could obtain no foot-hold.

The factories have paid their owners previous to and during the present hard times, as all rightly managed cotton factories throughout the country have done. A gentleman engaged in manufacturing in this locality informed the writer that the difficulties of several manufacturers who had become financially involved were the result of outside speculation, and had they confined themselves to their legitimate business they would have been all right, as their factories had never failed to pay.

The Roman Catholics are more numerous than any other sect, and the French and Irish have several churches, in some cases worshiping together, and in others having separate places where the service is conducted in the language best understood by the worshipers. There are several Baptist, Methodist, and Advent churches, and the Episcopalians and Congregationalists have each places of worship ; but the Protestant congregations are small, and none of them are in a very prosperous condition, owing to the change in the character of the population. Outside of select social circles or the home life of families, the people have few amusements. Occasionally a traveling show will exhibit. When a circus comes, during the summer season, some of the mills give their help a half holiday to go and see it. The rum shop and its accessories, by supplying in some measure the demand for sociableness and company, draw many, especially among the young men, and these places seem to be very plentiful.

The observance of the Sabbath is not very rigid. The native Americans themselves are by no means puritanical in their way of keeping it holy, and if report speak truly they were no more so when they were in the majority. Now the Sabbath is a day of recreation to many. The Catholic population attend mass in the morning, and their conscience being thus relieved they are free to devote the rest of the day to their amusement. Rarely, however, will an Irishman be seen working in his garden on Sunday, though it is no uncommon thing to see a genuine Yankee doing so.

There are common schools in the villages, but comparatively little attention is paid to education. The French especially are extremely careless in this matter and, as there are no compulsory measures used, many of the children are put to work very young, and have no chance to go to school. One cause of this is the small wages the operatives receive, in many cases the united earnings of all the family being barely sufficient to provide for their wants.

In many of the villages the owners of the factory keep a store which supplies the operatives with all necessaries, — groceries, clothing, boots and shoes, and furniture. They are expected to trade here and most commonly do. In fact, while there is no direct compulsion, yet many cannot help themselves, but are compelled by force of circumstances to patronize the “ store.” The amount of their bill is deducted from the wages of a family, and the surplus, if any, is paid over to the head of the household. Board is also deducted in the same way, and the amount goes to pay the bill the keeper of the boarding-house has contracted. This practice is followed even in instances where young men and women board with their parents. Many poor people see no money from one year to another, and others obtain a little sometimes if any member of the family should happen to be employed elsewhere. One man to whom the writer was introduced had not received any money for at least seven years, as all he had earned had not been sufficient to pay his bills, and he was deeply in debt. This is an exceptional case, but there are many nearly as bad, and the majority have all had a slight touch of the same experience. When once in debt it is very difficult to get out. The prices of supplies are higher than they would be in private stores. The system of accounts between the operatives and the store is confusing to the former, many of whom, through their ignorance, are obliged to accept as true the results presented. In good times the work-people were allowed to run large bills, but now those who show a disposition to exceed their income are put upon an allowance.

Years ago, previous to the panic and the French emigration, reasonably good wages were paid in the factories, and the native Americans, Irish, English, and Scotch, who then constituted the population, lived comfortably ; and some of them, with the assistance of their families, acquired by close economy a competency. To the ordinary operative this is now an impossibility, nor does there seem any likelihood that a revival of business will so change affairs as again to give the cotton-mill operative the relatively good wages he formerly earned. Here, as well as in other centres of this industry, the work of the individual operative has been increased and his pay reduced. Close competition is the cause of this, and the tendency is so to improve machinery as further to facilitate this doubling-up process. Machinery is being perfected more and more, and in many places where a workman was required, an automatic attachment now does the work. Laborers by these agencies being more plentiful, and the demand for them relatively less, the natural consequence is small wages, and as these causes bid fair to continue, no change in an upward direction can occur.

It is an interesting question to consider what will be the future of a community like this ; not only interesting, but also serious, as throughout the New England States there are many similar communities, with only slight and local differences. At present this village is in a transitory condition. The immigration is so recent that the people are not yet fairly settled. If the cotton manufacture should exist in its present state for a few years longer, and during that time no sudden influx of any other foreign nationalities take place, the existing operatives will be American citizens, and will in a measure have grown into a homogeneous community. Their condition to-day does not indicate that they will then be a society to be proud of, yet they will be representative Americans. Moral degradation and dense ignorance will assuredly be their lot, unless methods are pursued in regard to them in the future different from those in the past. The employers have not manifested, nor do they now, any visible practical interest in their welfare. At the utmost they leave them severely alone. No means are provided for their education except the common school, which they do not use ; no libraries, no reading-rooms, and very few social advantages. To work, to eat, to sleep, is the unvarying daily round.

Some efforts should be made for the education of the children, and to do this a more thorough school system is necessary. New England has had in the past good reason to boast of her common schools ; but in a factory community the old system cannot exist; it must be modified to suit the new circumstances. Here those circumstances are peculiar, and the coming years are to bring many changes.

The constitution of the State disqualifies foreign-born citizens, whether naturalized or not, from voting, unless they possess one hundred and thirty-four dollars’ worth of real estate clear of incumbrance. Very few of the factory hands have that amount, but in a few years their children, who are native born, will be American citizens. Then, if not before, the existing laws will be changed, and the State will be governed by an ignorant proletariat. If the present ruling class can prevent this and perpetuate their power, they will be able to do so only by a harsher tyranny and perhaps the importation of Chinese as operatives. In either case a state of affairs will exist foreign to the spirit of American institutions.

Without having recourse to any communistic or socialistic remedy for these evils, there yet remain means by which improvements may be made. The most pressing necessity is for the schoolteacher, and there is abundant room for the philanthropists and many kinds of social reformers. The owners of the factories owe duties to the ignorant people they employ, but in the past they have not performed them except in a very few cases. If they would exert themselves they could do much good. There are many hardships, and little praise or compensation, for one who desires to engage in the task of elevating these people, and for this reason it would be a good field for missionaries, though it would not be so picturesque as going to India.