Studies of Factory Life: The Village System

The first installment in a four-part series on American cotton manufacturing

James Fuller Queen / Library of Congress
This is part one in a four-part series. Read  part two here, part three here
and part four here.

It is especially in the history of European peoples that we learn how customs gradually harden into institutions. We perceive that in all ages the power of one class over another has grown in ways for which the political system of the country failed to provide. The European to-day finds himself facing all sorts of institutions and relics of institutions, and learns from their peculiarities the method of their growth. With this background of knowledge and customary thought, he is prepared to consider the future and its difficult problems in quite a different spirit from that of the average American. The man of American birth and descent does not readily conceive the idea that the forms of our society and government may become radically altered through the slow force of action, which is unintentionally unharmonious with them. He is used to think of institutions, not as the unpremeditated product of social growth, but as the deliberate result of resolutions, declarations, and enactments, suddenly affirming the faith of the people. He falls into this habit of thought because this was the way of the republic in its inception. It is a proof, moreover, of the high temper of his mind that he does not fearfully search about for tendencies that may be inimical to the social order of the nation. He believes so fully in the power of an idea—particularly if it be the American idea—that he thinks that it needed only to be incarnated once into words, as in the Declaration of independence, to be endowed with ability to go on forever, and to clothe itself fittingly in garments of law and custom.

Political revolution is a thing we understand, in this country, much better than political evolution. We expect people who have new views to do something about them with foresight and purpose. We look to have a convention called and resolutions proclaimed. Deliberate words and deeds tending to a definite end, — these are things which the American mind comprehends. The Northerner understood secession, a political word and blow, just as the Southerner instantly perceived the revolutionary significance of John Brown’s raid. So now the people have quite generally taken in the fact that something hinges upon the sudden birth among them of an autocratic organization like the Knights of Labor, with its manifestoes and its circulars, open and secret. On the other hand, it is not readily understood that men without ideas except those that appertain to ordinary life, men without intentions except to get their living and to please their fancies, may by their aggregate action evolve customs and develop institutions which shall have power to change the current of national life. It is not supposed that they may effect this while pursuing the common ends of business and of social life, and that they may do it by use of very simple methods, without the aid of resolutions or enactments.

Thus it follows that very little notice has been taken of what has been happening in many New England manufacturing villages during the last eighty years.

I propose to examine, in this connection, the history of only one branch of industry. The manufacture of cotton into various fabrics for personal wear has this peculiarity, that it employs as laborers great numbers of women and children. As a consequence, it affects the family life of its operative class more closely than those industries do in which men principally are employed. Various circumstances have contributed to increase this influence on the family life beyond the measure which the bare statement of the case naturally makes apparent at once. The laissez-faire principles commonly accepted by the last two generations have led to the result that this influence has practically become something like control, and that it has been largely unregulated by law and largely unperceived by the people in general.

Eighty years ago, when cotton manufacturing was in its infancy, an American mechanic would often start a little mill with a few dozen employees. Among them were probably his own children and the children of his relatives, the youngest of whom might not be more than seven or eight years old. It was not an ideal state of affairs, but everybody shared pretty equally in its unideal conditions. For twenty or thirty years the nulls grew in size and numbers, but the operatives continued to be of the same nationality and the same class as the employers. Social relations and intermarriages were not only possible but actual facts, as an investigation into the private history of some prominent manufacturing families would show. A caste feeling, however, began to develop as the profits of the employer grew greater than the wages of the employed, and the property thus acquired by some separated into classes those who a short time before had been equal neighbors. It became an objection to marriage, as local traditions relate, that “her” father worked for “his” father, although the youth in question might in early childhood have worked in his father’s mill, and might pride himself, in his successful old age, on the fact.

During this early period, it became customary for the mill proprietors to possess themselves of tracts of land about the factories, and to build thereon tenement-houses, boarding-houses, and frequently stores for the operatives. It was necessary that they should do so, as the sudden growth of the industry attracted into the river valleys where the mills were situated large numbers of people, who must immediately be provided with dwelling-places and markets in which to purchase food. The country was young, and there were no capitalists to hold the land and put up the houses but the cotton manufacturers themselves, the very men whose enterprise had called to the borders of the streams the sons and daughters of the inland farms. The standard of comfort was low. The risks of a new business must also be considered, when we scrutinize the villages that were built at that time. They were often far inferior to those established in later days.

The equality of condition moderated slowly but steadily. Traces of it lingered nearly as long as native Americans remained in the mill in any number. I have known of one instance of a very intimate friendship existing, during the middle of the century, between two thoughtful women, one of whom was the mill-owner’s wife and the other an operative in the factory. Just such a friendship would be scarcely a conceivable possibility under existing conditions. Only philanthropic intentions could bring about even its shadow.

Difference in wealth, with its inevitable result of difference in daily habit, had already proved a barrier between employer and employed, when, after the year 1850, a greater distinction arose. The mill population slowly altered its character, and this change naturally emphasized its distinctness from the mill-owners. Foreigners began to come, and the Americans who had hitherto worked in the mill rose into superior avocations, until few of the native women remained, and not many men except those who were overseers or superintendents. The next generation accentuated the change. The New England girls of this period did not go into the factory, as their mothers had gone. They sought higher employments during the interval between school and marriage. The governing class in the industry, including owners, clerks, superintendents, and overseers, was now of a different race and religion from the workers, who so far as many affairs were concerned had become a governed class. I do not mean that such of the men as had the franchise were improperly controlled in their political action. I do not believe that the manufacturers of New England are guilty of trying to unduly influence the votes of their laborers. It must also be noted, in this connection, that comparatively few of these operatives can be influenced in that way, since none of the women and few of the men are voters. When, therefore, I say they are governed by the manufacturers, I mean that the methods of their daily life and work are under control.

When the manufacturers had obtained possession of the mills where these foreign operatives must work, and the houses in which they must live, they were able to exercise a sway which was not the less real because it lay entirely outside of the legal authority. Whether the proprietor of one of these villages acted from conscientious or from selfish motives did not affect his ability to regulate in great measure the lives of the men, women, and children who worked for him, and who were his tenants. For instance, I remember when it was an acknowledged policy on the part of my father not to sell land to an Irishman, lest he should build a rum-shop on it. Yet in these later days people talk about the management of the town of Pullman, as though its founders had started a new principle of action there in forbidding land to be sold within its precincts. Of course this policy was never very fully carried out in New England. Foreigners have acquired much land, and have built themselves many houses, sometimes thereby creating suburbs to the central portion of the factory village, which is still owned by the manufacturers. The essential constitution of the factory domain, also, remains intact in the smaller towns where the cotton industry is prosecuted. In. large places, like Pawtucket and Fall River, the tenements do not always belong to the manufacturers. The peculiar financial exactions of town life have proved more or less inimical to the primitive organization. But in Rhode Island whole villages still belong to single firms, and several villages sometimes belong to one firm. Occasionally, also, a new village is created as summarily as was Pullman, and from less moral and more purely money-making motives. In many cases, the manufacturing families do not reside near their establishments. The tendency of the Rhode Island laws about corporations has been to keep each manufacturing property in the possession of the family and the immediate descendants of its original founder. This fact, in connection with the custom of owning tenements for the operatives, might have developed something like the ideal manorial relation between the employers and the people, had the former class resided among their tenants. They have yielded to such motives as would naturally influence them in the choice of a dwelling-place, and these have, in Rhode Island, generally led them away from the near vicinity of their mills and their tenement-houses. The manners and habits of action contracted during several generations have rendered the social and intellectual desires of the manufacturing families inconsistent with life in factory villages. Society such as they require cannot flourish in a community where only one industry is prominent, and where leisure and educated manners are consequently likely to be found in the possession of but few persons, — the leaders of that one business. No one would choose such a village for his habitation who wanted either social attraction or intellectual stimulus. Nor do the physical conditions of manufacturing tend to make beautiful a rural district, and to tempt persons who can dwell elsewhere to abide in it, through love of country homes.

Trifles occasionally bear witness to the nature of society in any given place or period. The hereditary character of manufacturing in the Rhode Island villages is indicated by the fact that the accounts of that business are in many cases kept in shillings and pence, and the wages of the “help” are estimated in the same way. The fictitious shilling is worth sixteen and two thirds cents, and the equally mythical sixpence is valued at half that sum. It is claimed that it is easier to calculate after this fashion than by means of dollars and cents. Whether that be so or not, the custom is simply one that has been handed down from father to son, in the family corporations which distinguish the cotton industries of the State. In Fall River, on the contrary, where the succession in the management of the mills has not been so strictly according to blood relationship, no such method prevails.

The inhabitants of typical factory villages come in contact with few people very different from themselves in ideas or education. Their employers know little of them except in the mass, and they know little of their employers save as represented to them by business officials concerned in the management. One factor in this management has undergone still another change, naturally succeeding those already indicated. While the head clerks and superintendents are still Americans, the lower overseers are now foreigners, who have acquired more skill in work, but not necessarily higher development in morals, than their fellows. The proportions of English, Irish, and French Canadians vary in different places.

When an operative who is the head of a family comes to a mill village, be tells the overseer or superintendent how many laborers he can enter into the mill, and he is assigned a tenement, with more or less liberty of choice as to the dwelling-place, according to circumstances. In the country districts of Rhode Island, the family find themselves in a village somewhat like one of which the owner has given me a description. He says that “the rents are about the same as charged by outsiders,” and that “the tenements compare favorably with the outside houses.” They are “probably a little older, but kept in better repair.” In this village, the houses are not supplied with water, the water in use being obtained from wells. The dwellings are situated on a rise of land above the mill, and the place is healthy. The proprietor considers that the sewage is properly taken care of, and the houses are small, occupied by only one or two families, and are not very near each other. The number of operatives employed in the mill is about one hundred and thirty. The number who live in the factory tenements and boarding-house is one hundred and nine, while seventeen rent houses of outsiders, and four live in their own houses.

The following statements are given concerning another establishment in the same region: Operatives, three hundred and twenty, of whom two hundred and forty are tenants of the company, thirty-six hire habitations of other persons, and forty-four are said to live in their own houses. This probably does not mean that there are forty-four householders, in the employ of the company, who own houses, but that forty-four of the operatives live in houses which belong to members of their respective families, each proprietary family very likely contributing several persons to make up the forty-four. The tenements in this village rent for about thirty-three per cent. less than outside tenements, and compare very favorably with them. Water is carried into nine of the mill-houses, and “it is the opinion of the manufacturers that sewage is satisfactorily disposed of.”

In the Blackstone Valley, factory towns are strung like beads along the river. In Pawtucket, the village system is nearly destroyed. Very few of the operatives in the employ of the Conant mill, for instance, occupy tenements belonging to the firm. Some of the larger and older villages are in a transitional state as regards this matter. The mills have either increased in size, or the work has so changed as to necessitate more laborers, for whose accommodation the mill-owners have not built additional tenements, but who have been housed by the enterprise of different parties. This has been possible, because the cotton industry has now attracted other industries and other capital into its neighborhood. The money made by the manufacture has also passed in part into the hands of people in the vicinity, and they have become proprietors of tenement-houses. The Lonsdale Company seem to be making, lately, an effort to abandon the primitive factory organization in some parts of their vast property. In many cases, however, when they have extended their business by building new mills, they have at the same time put up tenements enough to provide for the families of the entire force to be employed.

Valley Falls is one of the oldest establishments on the hard-worked river. I have received from Mr. Arnold B. Chace the statistics about the mills and the operatives. A large population unconnected with the factories reside in the place, and much business is carried on. As a consequence, there are now many owners of tenement-houses besides the manufacturing company. Number of persons employed by the cotton company, six hundred and thirteen: number renting tenements or rooms of the company, three hundred and thirty-one; number renting of outsiders, two hundred and thirty-one; number living in houses owned by the heads of their respective families, fifty-one; number belonging to families which rent of the company, but who themselves own houses situated elsewhere, twelve. The rents of the company’s houses average thirty per cent. lower than those let by outsiders, and are reported on the average to be as good. Water is carried into nearly all of them, and the sewage is emptied into the river by as good an arrangement as is possible under the conditions furnished by the character of the country and of the stream. The Blackstone, however, does not seem to be equal at all seasons to disposing of this burden. Senator Jonathan Chace, of Rhode Island, has kindly furnished me with some observations drawn from his own experience in the Blackstone Valley. He says: “In many cases (perhaps most), the factory tenements have been in times past very much poorer than similar ones owned by other persons in the vicinity. This was the case a few years ago both at —— and —— but three companies have recently spent large sums of money on their houses, and they are now fully up to the standard of comfort, convenience, and healthfulness of those owned by others.” The villages built recently are better than those of older date, which are so constructed as to render them difficult to modify.

Senator Chace continues: “The houses owned by the Lonsdale Company at Ashton, Berkeley, and the new village they are now building at Lonsdale are far superior to any rented houses in the neighborhood. Those now building at Lonsdale are models, and even sumptuous. … Very many factory houses have water in them now, and it is fast coming to be recognized by the owners of such tenements that such conveniences must be provided.” Another improvement, which Senator Chace does not note, is in the larger number of entrances provided to the dwellings. In the old villages, houses to accommodate four families were often built with only one or two outside doors, and tenement-houses put up by Irishmen and French Canadians in the Blackstone Valley are at this day constructed in the same barbarous manner.

Senator Chace says that at Albion very nearly all the operatives are tenants of the manufacturers, and adds that “the rule is almost universal that factory-owners rent their houses for about three to four per cent. of their cost. Outside tenements rent for from eight to ten per cent.”

It must not be understood that these facts are given with the intention of implying that they cover all cases, but it is believed that they indicate accurately the general condition.

It cannot be denied that a great moral responsibility as to the disposal of sewage rests upon a very few persons, when a whole village or a large portion of it belongs to one corporation, and that corporation, moreover, as a rule is made up of the members of one family. The introduction of water into the tenements, though a great comfort and help to the women, has unquestionably made it more difficult to find an adequate method of sewerage. Malaria, unknown for half a century, has in late years appeared and become very prevalent in the Blackstone Valley. Thirty operatives have been ill and absent from work on a single summer’s day, in one of these river villages.

Concerning this matter, Senator Chace writes me: “I think but little has been done about sewerage in American factory villages. … There is no doubt that the system which is almost universally adopted in this country is a criminal barbarism, only a little better than the old baronial plan, after each feast, of sweeping the remains of the meats and other viands from the banqueting-table on to the floor of rushes, — covering each contribution with more rushes, leaving them to rot, fester, and breed pestilence. We are too remiss in this matter, and if we don’t make haste to remedy the fault we shall have a ‘visitation of Providence’ in the shape of pestilence. Nowhere is the danger of such visitation greater than in the beautiful valley of the Blackstone.”

Tenement ownership by the manufacturers was a necessity in the past, and is both a convenience and a source of great difficulty in the present. It is a powerful engine of control over the working people, — a control that can be used for the pecuniary advantage of the mill-owners, in the hold which it gives over such operatives as they wish to retain in their employ. It seems also to have both good and evil effects on the character of the villagers. It will not do to overlook either the good or the evil, in attempting to form a judgment as to the value of the institution to the country. Mr. Arnold B. Chace gives it as his opinion that tenement ownership checks rum-selling and open immorality, and that it preserves a higher sanitary condition than could otherwise be at present obtained. On the other hand, he thinks that it is not friendly to the development of the sentiment for home, and that it tends to make the operatives a floating class in the population. In one of the largest Rhode Island villages, thirty families moved into the place and entered the mill service within five months, in the winter of 1887-88. Eleven of these went away before the five months were past, and nine other families also departed during the same period. Six moved on account of malaria. Their names indicate that about one third of the whole number were French Canadians. Probably, more were of that race, as these people frequently anglicize their names beyond the recognition of their nationality. If they do not effect this transformation themselves, it is often done for them at the factory counting-room, where the clerks dub them anew, after vain struggles to get their original appellations correctly.

If a family in the mill service, which has rented rooms from the company, withdraws its working members from the factory, it is required to leave its habitation within a reasonable time. This rule is apt to be strictly enforced, if the tenants retire from the mill because they are dissatisfied with their work or their wages, unless they are participants in a general strike. In that case, the company is forced to defer action until the issue of the matter seems probable. No one can be familiar with factory village life without perceiving that the control of the tenements might be a tremendous lever in the hands of an unjust person. This portion of the management devolves upon the superintendent. He rents the tenements to the people, admits and warns them out.

If for any reason there are plenty of houses to accommodate the operatives, tenants are frequently allowed to remain in possession who do not fulfill the rule that the number of persons in a family furnished to the mill must bear some proportion to the size of the tenement held. Instances of the kind have frequently come to my knowledge, such as that of an old couple who occupied a house for years, while the company waited till they should die, to tear it down. On the other hand, when it is necessary to provide more shelter for help than can be easily obtained, the rule is sometimes very strictly carried out. Cases often arise, therefore, of families, whose working force has grown smaller, being obliged to move from a home that they have had for many years. It is hardly fair to blame the companies for this rigorous action. It is sometimes an inevitable necessity of the whole system. This fact, however, does not alter the other fact, that the possibility that such things will frequently occur lessens the growth of stable relations between the employing and the employed classes. Such a possibility, also, does not tend to settle the whole people in permanent homes, or to develop the family life, which needs a centre for its affections to move about. Thus it happens that as the children grow up and leave the parents, no longer constituting a working force for them, the old man and his wife may be constrained to quit their roomy residence, and in one day all the associations of twenty or thirty years are destroyed. Since these movings are not voluntary, the sundering of old ties cannot be accompanied by the softening influence of the new hopes which are implied in the deliberate choice of a removal. The managers may regret these things, but they are themselves acting under pressure.

The superintendent and the overseers hire and discharge the help. In Rhode Island, until recently pay-day came once a month, and a superintendent has been known to require an operative who left him inopportunely to wait some weeks, till the regular day came, before he could be paid. A recourse to law would result in the man’s receiving his pay, but the law is too expensive to be always sought when it is needed. If an overseer is vexed with an operative who is leaving his work, or who is discharged for some fault, it is easy to delay for a day or two that casting-up of accounts which is necessary to enable the man to obtain at once the wages due him. Undoubtedly, the overseers have untold trials to endure in dealing with their underlings, and it is not strange that they sometimes fail not only to be patient, but to be just. Each overseer is responsible to his employers for the character of the work turned out from his rooms, and he is constantly disappointed and annoyed by the careless or ignorant service of the people whom he has in charge. He is generally a man of no education, except in factory matters, and of no especial refinement or moral development. He has a good deal of opportunity and much temptation to be tyrannical. A Fall River manufacturer has lately expressed to me the opinion that it was in this matter of “bothering” the operatives about getting their pay that overseers were most likely to be unjust. These delays, of course, often cause a poor wretch’s board-bills to increase, while he is prevented from going to another village in search of fresh employment. In all these matters, however, the overseer must be judged in the light of his situation. He is put by the system into a place where he is subjected to great pressure from above and much annoyance from below. He is required to furnish certain results, and the human material given him to use as means to those results is frequently of a defective kind. I believe that no record has ever been kept to show the proportion of the help leaving the service of a mill who are discharged and the proportion who go of their own accord, but a superintendent of experience gave it as his opinion that seven eighths went because they chose to go. A drunken spree is sometimes the way in which a man discharges himself. The fatally fluctuating character of the people is fostered by the system, and lends itself easily to changes which are beneficial to neither the employing nor employed class.

A large proportion of the operatives are always in debt; that is, the wages they receive each pay-day are nearly all due for the food already eaten, the clothes already worn, in the past month. A schoolteacher in a factory village reported, some years ago, that if a scholar needs a new book in the middle of the month, it is usually necessary to wait till the next pay-day before he can buy it, as the little surplus has apparently been exhausted which was left after the bills of the previous month were paid.

The advocates of monthly payments think the men drink less than they would if they received money every week. Monthly payments also require much less labor in the counting-room. Tuesday, instead of Saturday, was long ago adopted for pay-day in Rhode Island, so that a leisure day for drinking should not immediately succeed the one on which the wages were disbursed. If a family has very intemperate members, the clerks in the office often take pains to keep the money from falling into their hands. I have known of one case where the very dresses for two girls were purchased through the counting-room officials, to prevent the drunken father and mother from wasting all that these young creatures earned. A parent can, during the month, draw his child’s wages in advance, in the shape of orders on stores. In the case cited, the clerk simply refused to give the order, to which the parent was legally entitled, and then spent the money himself for the benefit of the children who had earned and needed it.

Sometimes an operative arranges to pay monthly installments to a storekeeper to whom he is in debt. Then the storekeeper receives his portion directly from the factory counting-room. If the mill company own a store, its bills against any of the help are subtracted from their wages, when the monthly accounts are made up. Rent and board are taken out in the same manner, and also the price of wood and coal furnished by the establishment. After these deductions are made, it often happens that, in the phrase of the mill-worker, very little cash “comes in” to him. Many firms have lately arranged to pay their help every two weeks. This was done as a compromise, the people having asked for weekly settlements. At the time the petitions were presented to the companies, two mill-boys were overheard discussing the matter, and one said, “I hope they won’t pay every week, for if they do the old man and woman will be drunk all the time.” My own impression is, however, that the cause of the drink evil lies rather in the poverty of the operatives than in the fact that they occasionally handle money, and that their tendency to run in debt, and consequently to grow poorer, is increased by the custom of infrequent distribution of wages to them.

Robert Howard, of Fall River, told me, several years ago, that he was convinced that it would be much easier, under a system of weekly rather than monthly payments, for factory families to get into such a position that when they received their wages they could have them to meet coming expenses, instead of being obliged to use them to liquidate debts. For instance, let us suppose a family to have two working members and three dependent ones. The monthly receipts might be from thirty-five to fifty dollars. This is a large estimate as to receipts, and a small one as to persons among whom those receipts must be divided. Such a family, while they feed and clothe themselves, pay rent, buy fuel and lights, and meet occasional expenses for doctors, births, and funerals, must save the amount required to support themselves for an entire month before they can begin to pay as they go. If they should move to another village, what ready money they have would probably be expended in moving, and then they must work some weeks before they receive any wages. Meanwhile, the old routine of debt begins again.

It is not the rule for the manufacturer personally to hire or discharge help. It is considered a sort of interference when in any case he mixes in such matters. Overseers are tenacious of their prerogative in this respect. They claim that since they are expected to turn out the right kind of work, they must have the sole responsibility as to who works under their direction. Requests from their superiors to hire certain persons may receive consideration, but commands are out of the question. Undoubtedly the overseers are often very kind. I have known one to take much trouble to provide a sick girl with such work as she could do. Still, it is evident that here again is an opportunity provided by the system for the action of favoritism, jealousy, spite, revenge, and that large room is given for the play of the ill-considered judgment of ignorant men. It must always be remembered, in view of this power delegated to them, that these overseers are chosen to their office because of their skill in work, not because of their superiority in those moral qualities which fit one man to rule justly over others, — over women and children especially. My impression is, that manufacturers generally hold that it is impossible to incorporate into the system of factory management any check upon this absolute authority of the overseers. It is urged that the competition of business, which requires each overseer to keep the work of his room up to a certain standard, renders it unlikely that he would ever act unjustly in discharging, from personal motives, operatives whose work was of a quality which entitled them to continued employment, there being a greater demand for skilled help than can be found. Yet unfit operatives are sometimes retained from personal motives. I have in mind a superintendent who seriously damaged the business he had in charge by hiring unsuitably. No philanthropic motives governed him, for he once told an overseer, who made to him some plea in behalf of one of the help, “I want you to understand that when you come into this mill you are to hang up your sympathies on the same nail with your coat and hat.”

If, then, superintendents and overseers may—being only average human beings—occasionally hire help to please their own whims, it seems possible that they may discharge them, also, from similar motives. In brief, no system of government was ever devised so perfect, no pressure of business was ever made so great, that impulse, passion, and greed did not find opportunity to work.

Some simple device, such as requiring overseers to send in reports to the office of all help discharged, and to state reasons for such action, might perhaps serve as a check, or as an indication of the tempers of the different overseers. Much also might be done if the manufacturer, who in the nature of things can hardly know personally many of his help, were to take pains to acquaint himself with his overseers, and to impress upon them his desire that justice and mercy should be regarded in the transactions taking place in his establishment. But first he must go into the depths of his own heart, and, balancing there his own greed of wealth against his convictions of right, make sure that he really feels a desire that justice and mercy prevail.

It has been held to be a fundamental axiom that each man possessed of a portion of this world’s natural products has a right to hire and a right to refuse to hire other men to work over those products. The corollary to this proposition is that each would-be laborer—that is, each man not possessed of natural products—has no right to insist upon being hired: no concrete right to be hired by any particular employer, no abstract right to be hired at all. His chance to earn a living is secured by no inherent right to the opportunity to earn his living. He has been given absolute freedom, — the freedom from all claim, as a human being, to a portion of the earth, whereto he is sent, presumably by the same Power as other men are sent, to whom certain rights in the earth are granted as soon as they are born in virtue of their relation to some person or family. The simple human being is allowed nothing in the way of possession. He may work if he pleases, and some one pleases to hire him. He has no right either to the soil or to employment on the soil. He is not like the Roman colone, who was obliged to labor on one spot of land forever, he and his descendants, but from whom and from whose descendants that land could never be taken. The colone was indeed bound to the land and to various hard conditions, but the land was also bound to him. He had a place to be born, to stand, and to be buried.

We bargain for the graves we lie in.

It is not well to exaggerate the deplorable phases of the modern industrial system. Many men, though poor, lead comfortable lives under this arrangement. Moreover, the growth of this system was consequent upon the recognition of individual liberty, which is infinitely valuable. The defect seems to be that liberty of thought and of motion is not all that is necessary to insure each human being his due opportunity in this world. Francis Walker comments upon the supposed liberty of the laborer to carry his labor to the best market, saying that it is almost as absurd as to talk of the liberty of a bale of goods to travel about, if there is no person interested to carry it. The fact is that, barring the purely intellectual pursuits, there are only two ways by which a man can support life: first, by possessing some portion of the natural products of the earth, which he can eat, drink, wear, and shelter himself withal; or second, by having the opportunity to work over the natural products for another person, who in return gives him food, drink, clothing, and shelter, or else the money with which he can purchase these necessities. Modern society has decided that a man, in virtue of his simple humanity, has no inherent and inalienable right to either of these two ways by which to support life. He may gain either, if he is able. He may have either given him, as a pauper or as an heir. He has no birthright to either. According to theory, the laborer of to-day is hung between heaven and earth in the social atmosphere, his feet on nothing. His mouth is open and he reaches out a pair of empty hands, in the hope that some other man will employ them in such fashion that they may, between whiles, grab and cram some bits into the mouth.

The right to live, which we call “inalienable,” has not always been considered a right at all. Now it is pretty generally granted that if a man is born, it is a sign that he has received from God, or Nature, or some Authority, the right to live. But that right translated into usage resolves itself into little more than the right to walk the roads, to breathe air, and to use water under some restrictions. The legal right to “take up” land in some, distant portion of the country cannot be placed in the same category with these others, since the exercise of it involves the sundering of domestic ties, and depends on emigration, the possession of some money, and on various conditions, which a man cannot fulfill without labor; and he has no right to demand the labor necessary to fulfill them.

It does not lie within the scope of this paper to inquire whether all or any of the theories are wise which society is beginning to consider, and which, if adopted, would lead to important alterations in our institutions. It may, however, be worth while to note that the question, What are the inalienable rights which are involved in existence on this planet? is met by Henry George with one answer, while various labor organizations, which inquire into the causes for which workmen are discharged, are suggesting a different reply. Mr. George maintains that man is born with a right to possess a portion of the natural products of the earth. These labor organizations do not yet affirm, but they do imply, that man is born with a certain less definite right to be employed. These two solutions of the problem are theoretically antagonistic to each other. Grant one, and the other falls to the ground. A man cannot have as a birthright a claim upon the soil, and in addition a claim to be employed by some person who also possesses a claim upon the soil. Modern society has denied both in practice, and the “labor movement” has begun. Its agitation is a hopeful sign. It is especially hopeful because in consequence of it people are seeking for fundamental ideas by which to modify institutions. The ideal atmosphere is I the only atmosphere in which a practical world can breathe, and not grow sordid and squalid.

The discovery of the principles upon which society should be founded is helped by the study of existing imperfect conditions. As a contribution to the materials for such study, it has seemed worth while to call attention even to this small group of facts, which bear on the condition of the laborers who have received religious freedom, and a portion of whom possess or may attain political prerogatives, but who have no heritage in the soil, and no claims upon society insuring them work and wages. These facts may be verified in every New England factory village. Taken in connection with what is called the labor movement, they remind one of what M. Fustel de Coulanges says of a certain period in ancient Greece and Rome: —

“La démocratie ne supprima pas la misère; elle la rendit, au contraire, plus sensible. L’égalité des droits politiques fit ressortir encore advantage l’inégalité des conditions. … Le pauvre avait l’égalité des droits. Mais assurément ses souffrances journalières lui faisaient penser que l’égalité des fortunes eût été bien préférable. Or, il ne fut pas long-temps sans s’apercevoir que l’égalité qu’il avait, pouvait lui servir à acquérir celle qu’il n’avait pas, et que, maître des suffrages, il pouvait devenir maître de la richesse.”

How tenaciously the subordinate officials in cotton factories cling to their authority may be illustrated by an incident which has come to the writer’s knowledge. A short time ago a strike occurred in a Rhode Island mill. Most cotton manufacturers of this generation have been long in the business, or have succeeded their fathers and grandfathers, but one of the firm managing this establishment was new to the complications of this sort of industry. He had not inherited traditions as to government, and resolved to see what he could effect by summoning to an interview one of the principal strikers, and talking the matter over fairly with him. He told the spinner the exact truth: that he and his partner had lost money for a year or more, and that it was impossible for them at that time to raise the wages of their work people. Nobody would be more glad than he should be to make such a raise as soon as it was practicable. He appealed to the other as a generous-minded man would appeal to one whom he believed could understand and appreciate the situation. The spinner seemed astonished. “Why,” he said, “I had no idea that the firm were not making money.” He appeared to be completely won, and promised to do everything in his power to allay the discontent of the strikers, and to induce them to return to work. The employer congratulated himself on his wisdom in daring to treat the spinner like a man possessed of sense and just feelings. The next day, his satisfaction was destroyed, for he learned that this individual was more active than ever in fomenting the passions of his fellows. The manufacturer’s partner laughed at him good-humoredly for the failure of his attempt to introduce “moral suasion” into the struggle. He himself experienced a natural revulsion of mortification and disgust, till a new view of the affair suggested itself, and he became convinced that the spinner had been honestly moved by his statements and persuaded of their truth when in his presence, but that as soon as the spinner went away the mental habits of a lifetime reasserted themselves. The man had always been taught that the masters deceived and cheated the people. The experience which had come to him was unique. When he thought it over, he did not believe in its sincerity. He decided that masters did not tell the open truth to their operatives. This pretended confidence was a new and clever dodge on the part of the manufacturer. The spinner undoubtedly grew enraged at his own momentary credulity. His fellows probably laughed at him for a first-class dupe, just as the manufacturer’s friends afterwards laughed at him. Of course the malcontent became tenfold a malcontent in consequence. The strike, however, was a small affair, and soon collapsed. Then came the question of taking back the help into the mill. The superintendent refused to employ this one spinner. The manufacturer desired to have him given his place. The superintendent insisted on the maintenance of his authority, and the superior was forced to submit to the will of the inferior. The spinner was obliged to seek work elsewhere, and it is likely was still more embittered by thus being specially singled out for punishment. Wherever he is now, it is safe to conclude that he considers himself the victim of tyranny, but is thankful that he did not allow the smooth-spoken employer to make a fool of him.

It may well be urged that the genius of the American political method is opposed to the development of dangerously autocratic power on the part of the employers of labor in this country. On the other hand, it may safely be asserted that the constitution of human nature is such as to render probable the increase of despotic authority on all occasions and by all means of which a class can avail themselves who are possessed of the materials, moral or physical, for supporting such authority. In view of this, it should be seriously considered whether human nature has been so modified that it will not in future attempt such action as has marked its entire course in the past.

Tenement-house laws, ten-hour laws, school regulations, and laws requiring seats to be furnished for working women, all go to show that men are beginning to fear that the employers of New England have hitherto subordinated the interests of their employees to their own desires, and that this subordination has had a tendency to assume an institutional character. The methods by which cotton manufacture is prosecuted are especially open to this fear, because, by its use of women and children, and its habit of providing dwelling as well as working rooms, it vitally influences domestic life, domestic economy and happiness, and all those matters which determine the health and efficiency of coming generations. It is evident that the moral and social needs of a community must be very different where hundreds of men, women, and children work for one man, and live in that man’s houses, from the social and moral needs of a community where most persons work for themselves, or only a few labor for another, who is himself but slightly removed from their own position in life. The action of an autocratic power on the part of the manufacturers has hitherto been almost the only engine to meet such needs of the operatives as they cannot themselves supply. It may fairly be questioned how far this autocratic power has worked in favor of the operatives.

Senator Chace, in the letter which he has permitted me to use, says, “Pecuniarily, the factory is a success, but in my judgment the sanitary and moral influences are bad.”

This is part one in a four-part series. Read  part two here, part three here
and part four here.