Visual history shows the life of textile mill workers

By Annie Gentile - ReminderNews
Manchester - posted Tue., Mar. 19, 2013
Guests at the lecture got to see what it was like to work in the old textile mills. Courtesy photo. - Contributed Photo

Take a drive through many eastern Connecticut towns and you will catch glimpses of the mills that once operated throughout the area. Most of those mills today are closed, often converted into apartments or preserved as historical artifacts.

The “Silk City” of Manchester owes much of its growth and development to the mills, and their importance to local history lives on. On Sunday, March 17, at the History Center at 175 Pine St., the Manchester Historical Society welcomed historian, archaeologist, author and preservationist Bruce Clouette, who presented an illustrated lecture entitled, “Working in the Textile Mills of Eastern Connecticut, 1890-1940.” The images presented came from the People at Work Collection at Quinebaug Valley Community College.

“Textile mills were the major economic engine of this part of Connecticut for generations,” said Clouette, who through the benefit of a grant in the 1980s was able to put together a permanent archive of photographic images and collected memories from families that worked in Connecticut’s mills. “Wherever there was water power - falls in a river or an area that could be dammed up - mills were built up around them,” he said.

Clouette said that unlike the modern-day employee, a family’s entire life was encompassed by their work in the mills. To begin with, they often worked 10 to 12-hour days, which left little room for outside activities. In the larger mills, families often lived in mill-provided housing and shopped using company scrip at the mill-owned store. Workers often worshipped in churches built by the mill owners and played baseball on mill teams. Children 14 and over who worked in the mills and their older unmarried siblings who lived at home often did not even collect a paycheck. Rather, in the patriarchal society of the day, their pay was dispensed directly to their father.

Clouette’s collection of images spoke volumes about the work environment in the mills. The sheer largesse of the machines in the photographs and the seemingly few people in comparison actually needed to operate them depicted a work environment that was completely dominated by machinery. “Keeping the machines running successfully was the first focus,” said Clouette. “Humans were secondary elements.”

“The idea that the workplace should be a safe and healthy environment is basically a modern perspective,” said Clouette.  He said the environment for the mill worker in the late 1800s and early 1900s was both cramped and dangerous, and it was not uncommon for workers who were not quick on their feet or who had become wearied from the long day of repetitious activity to have his or her hair or a piece of clothing get caught in a machine, or worse, lose a finger or two. In addition, occupational diseases like emphysema from long-term inhalation of cotton dust or suffering serious burns from the boiling vats of dye in the dye rooms were not uncommon, as were hearing losses due to working long hours beside the constantly slamming shuttles in the literally deafening loom rooms. “In comparison, we live pretty charmed lives today,” he said.

Another example of how machinery came first could be seen in the photographs of young boys going barefoot working in the mills. Clouette explained that because the machines needed to be constantly well-oiled, the floors would often be covered in oil and many workers would not dare ruin their only pair of shoes walking around in that environment. Instead, they went barefoot.

While the work was not generally physically hard, Clouette said it could be wearying. Many of the occupational roles were gender-specific, with winding and spinning functions often performed by female workers, and carding, picking and loom-operating performed by males. “Women were lucky to make about half of what men earned,” he said.

Labor was cheap and mill jobs were generally filled by the latest wave of new immigrants - Irish, French-Canadians, eastern European, middle-eastern or Puerto Rican immigrants.

With the advent of the information technology age, Clouette said the world of the mills has been receding back into history. “These images preserve and create a sense of what it was like to do that work,” he said.

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