Studies of Factory Life: Black-Listing at Fall River

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

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

In the winter of ‘81-82, I was in Fall River, and spent an afternoon and an evening going about in company with a lady friend, under the escort of Mr. R. H., who was at that time secretary of the Spinners’ Union in that city. He has since been a state senator, and has become a prominent member of the Knights of Labor. I had been familiar all my life with some portions of the town and its inhabitants, but he conducted us to other parts and among other people, wherever he thought we could learn something of the life of the men and women who work in the factories.

In most cases, he explained to no one who we were or what was our object. We were taken at one house for women in search of employment, and were heartily recommended to try for a job at a neighboring mill. The good woman here overwhelmed us with hospitality, insisted on making tea for us, and was very kind. It gave us a rare opportunity to see the mistress of such a home when she was perfectly unconstrained and natural, and the interview left a pleasant impression. She was a vigorous, handsome, cheery creature, with plenty of children in her small quarters, yet finding room for another nursling, whose own mother had to leave him through the day, while she worked in the mill. “Sankey Sallaser” the little boy said was his name, and his hostess declared with amusement that he “could smoke a pipe like a man.” She herself was exultant because one of her boys had recently got a job at a mill which paid high wages. “Plenty of money there,” she said. “I shall play the lady soon.” A small urchin came up to her, and she called him her baby; then sighed and explained, “We had another baby here a week ago. It died, — the only sickly child I ever had. Ah, well, I’d liefer keep ‘em than bury ‘em.” So much was genuine maternal sentiment. Perhaps not less genuine nor less natural was the feeling which prompted her to add, “It’s cheaper.”

We visited several tenement-houses where the occupants were all strangers, obtaining admission by making some simple pretense that we wanted information. Once we descried the figure of a man lying on the floor of an inner room, while the woman with whom we talked tried politely to keep us at bay at the door. We respected her pitiful reserves and came away uncertain of the cause of “his” alleged sickness. In another house, a dirty bed and a heap of quilts were huddled on the floor, unwashed dishes occupied a table, the walls were smeared with grime, and a ragged, wild-eyed boy, who looked as if he had been suddenly roused from sleep, came into the middle of the kitchen, and stood there, answering our questions, and eying us as if we had descended upon him from an unknown world. Through a dim window could be seen the mill building near by, where the boy’s father worked. His sister had “gone away,” he knew not whither, and there was no woman living in the den. There was something indescribably suggestive in the child’s appearance, as if he were created to be a type.

Mr. H. got us admittance to the hall of the Spinners’ Union. We were perhaps the only women of our class who had trodden its floors since it came into the possession of the work-people. There was, of course, no meeting in progress, and only one or two men were there. In an anteroom a small number of books were ranged on shelves. In the hall itself, what interested me most was a chalk drawing of a man’s figure, roughly sketched on a big blackboard. It was incorrect and rude, but it had grotesque character and vigor in its outlines. “One of the members is always trying to draw,” Mr. H. said. While we sat there, our guide told us some stories of violence offered by different parties in strikes that had lately occurred. He condemned all violence, but it seemed as though he felt, and it also seemed natural that he should feel, that it was worse for a “knob-stick” to throw a stone at a “striker” than for a striker to jostle a “knob-stick” off the pavement, or to commit some similar small outrage, especially if an element of rough humor mingled in the affair.

As we went about the town after dark, we saw the young factory boys and girls frolicking on the pavement. The girls were wilder and ruder than the boys, we were told. Possibly, if this be a fact, it may be because in such towns more recreations are provided for the lads than for the lasses; and the relaxation of amusement is what they both need, after the long, close confinement of days in the mill. It is probable that it is because they have no other way to vent their pent-up spirits that these untaught young women rush into the streets to jest and jostle with such companions as they find there.

We visited several fairs which were holding at that time by various temperance societies. These societies, in their ordinary sessions, afford opportunities to their members to play games and to take exercise, but their members are all of the male sex. Women, however, were present at the fairs, and we saw some dancing. The boys usually did not uncover when on the floor, but in one hall a notice was posted up requesting gentlemen to take off their hats while dancing. These temperance associations were both Protestant and Catholic, and numbered their members by the hundreds. One was called the Robert Emmett Society, and a nice young fellow, a weaver, showed us over its rooms. He said that he and about fifty other men formerly belonging to the Irish-American Society started this second organization, and induced a set of wild men and boys to join. “Those are the kind we want,” he added. He let us look into the gymnasium, where some lads were practicing. Cards, as well as some other games, were allowed on the premises. He thought cards “rather objectionable,” but, he added, “we had to let them in,” though all forms of gambling were prohibited. There was something pleasing and even winning in this young man’s appearance and manner, a certain naive sweetness and confidence which suggested that in such social circles as he moved he was probably a petted favorite.

Mr. H. took us to a little reading-room which had been started recently by twenty-five mill operatives. It had been a natural growth. A shoemaker bad a little shop where his comrades were accustomed to meet, and talk, and read. After he died, these men bought the shop for eighty dollars, and one of them, who had taken the land on which it stood, agreed to give the land rent for two years, although he was still in debt for the fee, which he was paying for by installments. Three men were sitting in the room, smoking, when we entered. They seemed taken aback by our sudden and unannounced advent, and we, in our turn, felt rather embarrassed; but Mr. H., who seemed to have a perfectly calm way of doing whatever he chose, in his relations with these people, motioned us to sit down, and quietly introduced us as some “lady friends.” Such an introduction was generally quite sufficient wherever we went, for his leadership appeared to be accepted tacitly by all his acquaintance. Nor did we meet on this occasion with more than a temporary reserve of manner, which I thought was quite justified by our intrusion. One stout young man leaned on a table, and, supporting the back of his head on his hand, stared and smoked with an air of defiant indifference, till we began to talk with an older man, who proved to be the land-owner. He answered our questions pleasantly, and in two or three minutes both the others grew courteous, and willingly joined in the conversation. They told us all about their society with eager interest. Each member paid twenty-five cents initiation fee, and ten cents weekly afterwards. At the end of each week they sold by auction among themselves all the newspapers taken by the club. The men frequently bought them to send to friends in the “old country,” and sometimes they bid each other up above the original value of the papers. That was so much more for the common good. They had a library—and were quite proud of it—containing forty-three books and various magazines which had been given them. The books, on examination, proved to be largely such as people are willing to give away, because they are of no interest to anybody. All the members were foreigners. They permitted chess, checkers, and dominos to be played in the reading-room, but forbade cards, gambling, swearing, and drinking. At this period a number of the Fall River mills had adopted the system of weekly payments of their help, while others still retained the custom of monthly pay-days. We talked this matter over with these men, and found that they all preferred to receive their wages every week, and one of them was able to give sensible reasons for his belief that it was the better way. I do not here repeat his argument, as it is substantially the same as that set down in a former paper.

About a year before this time, the manufacturers of the city had retaliated for some “labor troubles” that had vexed them by “black-listing” about thirty men who had been employed in their different mills. By the terms of this measure, these men, once discharged, were prohibited from receiving work in any factory in the place. Various plans seemed to be adopted by the manufacturers in carrying out their policy. At any rate, some of the men who afterwards found themselves to be “black-listed” were discharged after being accused of certain definite offenses, while others claimed that they were dismissed on trivial and flimsy pretexts, or without any ceremony worth mentioning. Mr. H.’s feeling about this action of the manufacturers was very bitter, and it probably reflected as well as influenced the sentiments of the thoughtful as well as the more emotional working-people of Fall River.

We met at one of the fairs a young man named William F., who had an intelligent and serious face. Mr. H. informed us that he was a “black-listed” man. We asked him if he would tell us his experience, and he consented to do so. He talked quietly, without pretentiousness or any attempt to make capital out of what had happened to him. He used good and generally correct language. He said that during the previous winter there had been much trouble over bad work in the mill in which he was a spinner, and he was delegated by the men to go to the office and make some complaint on their behalf. A few weeks later, he was chosen to be the spokesman of a committee who asked for higher wages. “Somebody had to do the talking,” said he, “and, unfortunately, it happened to be me.” Soon after this, he was discharged, and the reason was said to be that a bad cop was found in his spinning.

Of course I tell the story simply as he told it; not in order to vouch for its truth, but to show what sort of things were said to be true and were believed to be true, during the period when the present strife was brewing between labor and capital. Incidents such as this man related and the relation of such incidents undoubtedly had their share in that brewing.

Mr. H. said that before his discharge the young fellow had not been much interested in labor matters, and his theory was that the mills were each bound according to agreement to sacrifice to discipline a certain number of workmen; and so, when nobody more offensive could be found, this lad was pitched upon to fill out the list for his establishment.

William F., when first dismissed, did not suppose that he had been black-listed. He went to another mill, and obtained work. In about two weeks, when in the course of things his name would naturally have been received at the company’s office, he was discharged. He tried two other mills, and the same thing happened: each time he obtained work, and then in a fortnight or there-abouts was sent away. Finally, at the last place where he applied, the overseer happened to leave his desk open while talking to the young man, and he saw lying there a paper with a long list of names on it, and his own, William F., was the third from the bottom. He believed this to be a list furnished to the overseer that he might know whom he must not employ. Against a few of the names “aliases” were written. This was accounted for by the fact that some of the black-listed men had assumed false names, which they gave when they asked for work at mills where they supposed themselves unknown, hoping thus to remain untraced; but it appeared from this paper that the persons who made it out had discovered their identity, and had thus sought to provide against their obtaining employment.

After seeing his name on the overseer’s paper, William F. decided that his fate was sealed, and gave up the effort to get work in any cotton-mill. He had a small sister dependent on him, and the Union helped him till he found other occupation. Some of the black-listed men left Fall River, and I was told that in other places they obtained the opportunity to earn their living and keep themselves from becoming paupers. Their whereabouts was confided to me, with an injunction to preserve a secrecy which I could hardly believe was necessary to insure them against continued persecution. The earnestness of the request, however, served to indicate the fear felt by their friends lest they should be still further molested. Some others took up that one business which never fails to tempt a starving man with the promise of prosperity: they went into rum-shops and tended bar. Perhaps the strictest moralist would not consider them wholly responsible for the increase of evil in the world thus resulting from the black-listing scheme. William F. did nothing quite so bad as to sell liquor. He became only a book-agent, and earned more money than he had gained as a spinner. Possibly, however, the experience, while in the end it led to the bettering of his fortunes, led also to his taking a livelier interest than formerly in the “labor question.” Black-listing is, indeed, a very good method by which to educate “labor reformers.”

One old Englishman, Mr. W., whom we visited, was a more intense character. Mr. H. guided us to the house, with the remark, “Now I want to show you a place where you’ll see how these Englishmen surround themselves with the comforts of home.” And then he added that the man had been out of work so long—about nine months then—that he had had to sell some of his things; but “still,” said he, “the house looks pleasant.”

It was an up-stairs tenement, and the kitchen was also the sitting-room. The walls were covered with small pictures. In the place of honor hung a deep frame containing a large doll. The table was spread with a white cloth. A neat towel, which had a lace edge, was laid over the sewing-machine. The chairs were decorated with tidies, and little wire baskets and brackets, fashioned to hold papers and ornaments, were fastened about the sides and corners of the room. The cooking-stove divided one end of the kitchen into two recesses, and in one of these Mr. W. lay on a lounge when we entered. His old wife—who had been the mother of seventeen children—occupied an easy-chair on the other side. A large wooden frame stood behind her, hung with freshly ironed clothes. A troop of children came in soon after we did, and made a joyful clatter for a moment over some candy, and then retired. We judged them to be grandchildren and the offspring of neighbors. It was a home-like place, and after our serious talk with Mr. W. we regretted that we could not linger to accept the invitation which he and his wife extended to us to remain and drink tea with them. The firewood piled high behind and beside the stove suggested good cheer, till, in the course of his story, Mr. W. pointed to it, and said that a year before he had been able, by that time in the season, to lay in fuel enough to last him for months, and this year that heap of wood was all he had yet had money to buy.

He was a small, elderly man, with a gray mustache. He rose to a sitting posture when we came in, and after Mr. H. explained the object of our visit, he fixed his eyes on me with disconcerting intensity, and inquired what questions I would like to ask. He was quite willing to answer, and had phrases ready. Though he was really intelligent, he had reached only that stage as to language when a man catches up words that have lost savor or have acquired absurd interpretations to cultured people, and thinks them pregnant with weighty meaning. Ignorant persons are often wrongly accused of insincerely handling the English tongue, because they use expressions which have the flavor of clap-trap; but the fact is that their literary senses are not sufficiently keen for them to perceive that flavor in the words, and the thoughts they seek to utter are honest. Once in a while, however, if Mr. W. did not get beyond his own depth in the vocabulary, he got beyond mine. He began the relation of his late experiences thus: “First I will say that on this matter no word of sophistry will fall from my lips. I may commit myself, perhaps, but we all commit ourselves sometimes.”

The story he told had a serious sound. One Friday in the previous April the mules he tended were stopped, under the pretext that they needed to be repaired. The following Wednesday, being pay-day, he asked if he should start them up, and was told that he was to have no more work. “It was a heavy heart I had that night,” he said, “for I’m getting’ to be an old man, and my old woman there, when I told her, — well, you know what women are, — she broke down a-cryin’; an’ that night you remember, Bob,” to Mr. H. — “I told you, an’ you said I was black-listed.”

He could not believe that this was true, so he went to another mill, to an overseer who was a friend, and applied for work. This man answered, “I’m sorry. I’d give you work if I dared, but I daresn’t. It’s my bread an’ butter, too, that’s in question.” The overseer further told W. that it was admitted where he was discharged that no fault could be found with his work. “You may think it a weakness in me,” said the old man, telling us of it, “but that pleased me, an’ it pleased the old woman, an’ made her proud to think they couldn’t find no fault with me.” He said he had been to the office of his employers several times with other spinners, but he added, “I was quiet; never one to stir up enthusiasm or to argue for strikes.” He had heard that he had been accused of being “a committee-man” in the Union. “I never was,” said he, “in this country.” He continued, with a touch of pride, “In the old country I’ve been a committee-man and a president too.” Although he protested that he had been inoffensive, it was easy to see that he had a vehement spirit, and a gift at talking which might sometimes have rendered him a very uncomfortable person to deal with. He had participated in strikes, and this day he spoke with great bitterness about the outside spinners—“knobsticks,” as they were then called—who had taken the places of strikers, and so had defeated the last great effort. He also told of a talk which he had once had with the superintendent of the mill where he had worked, and gave it as his opinion that that talk was the cause of his discharge. He accused this man of running the mill over time and violating the law, and said to him, “When I’ve seen you crowding work onto us, and stealing a minute of time here, an’ creeping up minute by minute till you was running a quarter of an hour over time, I’ve gone home at night an’ said, ‘John ——‘ll be the death of me yet.’”

One of these men once said to me that a person in his situation often found it difficult to know what he ought to do. “He wants,” explained he, “to do his duty by his employer, and get as much work out of the hands as possible, and yet he can’t do that without pushing some laborer beyond his strength and hurting his health.” A step farther in inquiry into this situation leads to the manufacturer, who says that he is so pressed by competition that he will fail unless his overseers see that “the full complement of work is turned out.”

This black-listed spinner spoke as if he felt that the superintendent was personally to blame for what others might hold to be the fault of the situation. He did not seem to go back as far as the mill-owners in his thought, when he uttered bitter comments and accusations, and maintained that cruel exactions were laid upon the laborer. His ideas were perhaps wholly wrong and his feelings mistaken, but the fact that people in his class have such ideas and feelings is not the less important.

Mr. W. stated that whereas the spinning-mules formerly made three and a fraction movements a minute, they now make four full movements in about fifty-four seconds. This brings a great strain on the shoulders of the men tending the mules; and incidentally he confirmed a statement which I had heard before, that a spinner of average strength can rarely work a full month at a time. He showed us the movements which the mule-spinners were obliged to make to keep time to the motion of their machines, and said that when he had seen the superintendent stand by timing with his watch the fearful action of the machinery to see if it were going at full speed, he had cursed him in his heart for the fatigue and pain that he was suffering as he toiled. Finally he told us that, worn out with the long struggle with poverty, he had got his name taken off from the black-list. He sprang to his feet as he spoke, and cried out, “I’m humiliated, — I’m less of a man than I was! I had to sign a paper, put my name to it,” — here he made a rapid pantomime of writing with his finger on the table, — “and promise as I would never belong to the Union any more, as I would never give my opinions about these things, as I would never join in a strike, if it was voted.”

Commenting on this story, Mr. H. said afterwards that in Lowell efforts were made to induce the men to sign agreements not to belong to any union, and he thought it a bad thing, especially for the younger fellows, who signed without any intention of keeping the promise, and thus were demoralized. It was a period when rumors were rife, and bitter feelings were engendered by them. The different parties in the “labor struggle” were measuring their strength with each other, and threats easily were made. It has seemed to me since that the manufacturers have grown more respectful in their tone in speaking of the operatives. At this time each readily believed evil of the other, and neither was dilatory in promising retaliation. Experiments in tyranny were undoubtedly made on both sides, to see how they would work, and this black-listing was such a tentative enterprise.

I do not propose in this place to discuss the wisdom or rightfulness of strikes, but the events I have related lead the mind inevitably to that subject, and it seems to me appropriate to say one thing. It is not unusual to hear strikes condemned as foolish efforts resulting simply in waste of money, and scorn and indignation are expressed at the stupidity which the strikers show in thus jeopardizing their bread and butter. It is easy to see that men sometimes strike as they might catch the measles, because such is the prevalent epidemic, or as they might drink because they have formed the habit. Still all such action cannot be relegated to this category of irresponsible movement, for though some strikes may be unwise, or some leaders unprincipled, the average workman strikes because he believes that by so doing he may help his fellows and in the far future benefit his children. There is an element of the pathetic and the heroic in the most foolish strike that has ever been inaugurated. There is an element of loyalty in it; moreover, there is the deliberate preference of a future and an ideal good to the enjoyment of present comfort. It was this faith which sustained the old English spinner when for months he refused to sign away his independence to get his name off the black list. Demagogues may deceive, honest leaders may make mistakes, but the hearts of the people are sound when they are willing to sink into still deeper poverty in order to maintain what they believe to be their rights. Judged by the standard which has no word for their action but to condemn it as stupid, what could prove more hopeless imbecility than the sacrifice made by many an ignorant farm boy for liberty and the Union in the days of the War for that Union?

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