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Pawtucket, America’s First Factory Strike

This week 194 years ago, Rhode Island textile workers waged the first factory strike in US history. It was organized by young women.

The Old Slater Mill, Pawtucket, RI, the oldest cotton mill in the United States, erected 1793. Painted by Alfred Carufel. Boston Public Library / Tichnor Brothers collection #80580

On Wednesday evening a tumultuous crowd filled the streets, led by the most unprincipled and disorderly part of the village, and made an excessive noise — they visited successively the houses of the manufacturers, shouting, exclaiming and using every imaginable term of abuse and insult. The window in the yellow mill was broken in. … The next day the manufacturers shut their gates and the mills have not run since.

So read Pawtucket, Rhode Island’s Journal in late May 1824 as it detailed the beginnings of the United States’ first factory strike, and the country’s first strike of any kind led by women.

One hundred two young women textile workers organized the action — at the time called a “turn-out” — which lasted through early June and successfully won concessions from mill owners. These young women deserve to be recognized as central to the early US militant labor tradition.

First Factory, First Resistance

The 1824 strike was called in immediate reaction to the Pawtucket textile mill owners’ decision on May 24 to declare an hour increase in the workday for all workers, and a 25 percent pay decrease specifically for power-loom weavers. The additional work hour was not to be an additional pay hour, but was to be taken out of workers’ meal breaks.

The factories were strictly divided along gender lines, and the weavers being targeted were entirely young women between 15–30 years old. The policy shift affected every factory in the city, a collective decision on the part of an organized class of Pawtucket’s mill capitalists.

The owners rationalized the changes by attacking women workers, saying they already made what were “generally considered to be extravagant wages for young women.” The owners believed the young women would passively accept such wage decreases.

They were wrong. When the weavers learned of the owners’ decision, they immediately refused to return to work.

The bell rang to begin the factory day on May 26, and 102 women workers, accompanied by sympathetic community members and coworkers, gathered around the entrances of the mills, blocking anyone from entering. The women held a meeting — of which we are told the “most active and most talkative” acted as chair — and determined not to return to work until the old hours and rates were restored.

While nothing like this had yet occurred in America’s young textile industry, the strike was not a spontaneous rebellion, but rather the result of three decades of skirmishes between mill owners and workers to establish the norms of the new industrial system.

Pawtucket was home to America’s first successful textile mill, built by Sam Slater in 1793. Slater had grown up in Belper, England, and trained to become a mill master under the tutelage of leading UK industrialist Jedediah Strutt. As a teenager, he learned the ins and outs of building and operating water-powered textile machinery, as well as the designs for the new industrial society that was already so violently consuming England. Slater brought those technological and social innovations to Rhode Island, where they would soon spread throughout the region and the country.

From the very first days of the factories, the Pawtucket community rebelled against the negative effects of looming industrialization. When Slater built his dam on the Blackstone River to power his initial mills, it was the largest dam in the country. Such a structure dramatically transformed the landscaped: it cut off anadromous fish, flooded the land above the dam, and drained water power from artisans with smaller water powered shops downstream.

In response, residents in Pawtucket sued Slater over the construction of the dam. The litigation failed to stop the construction. But, in our country’s first instance of industrial sabotage, residents decided to attack and dismantle part of the dam by night.

The Challenge to Industrial Order

Conflicts between communities and early textile capitalists were common throughout Rhode Island and broader New England. Disputes arose over water rights, taxation, and increasing demands from capitalists that towns provide publicly funded infrastructure to support mills.

In the most extreme cases, mill owners simply broke off and formed new towns so they could be free of community accountability. Such was the case when Slater broke off the industrialized section of Dudley-Oxford, MA and formed Webster, MA, where he owned two-thirds of the land and employed two-thirds of the population. Or when the Blackstone Manufacturing Company grew tired of negotiating with residents in Mendon, MA and formed the new town of Blackstone.

In the early years, Rhode Island’s textile mills employed exclusively young, white children aged 7–13 years old. The state had a significant population of free people of color and a large number of enslaved people of color, but capitalists established northern mill work as white labor and people of color were systematically barred from employment.

Initially most of the child workers were pauper apprentices, young people who were taken by state or local governments from parents who were considered vagrants or otherwise undesirable and forced to work as indentured servants until they reached adulthood. Slater found these children too rebellious and believed the costs of housing and feeding these pauper apprentices too great, and soon switched to wage-paid child workers draw from local families.

Slater and other mill owners intentionally recruited these children from poorest of the poor, often making trips to areas with struggling populations to entice them to send their children to work. The kids earned around 40–60 cents per week, working twelve hours per day in the darker months, and up to sixteen hours a day when the summer sunlight allowed. Both boys and girls were employed, though even at this stage boys were paid higher wages than girls. The machines were dangerous, the mills gloomy, and the work more repetitive and draining than any labor children performed pre-industrially.

Some argue that child labor in early mills poses no moral issue, since children performed agricultural and household work in preindustrial times. It’s true that children helped on the farm and in other workplaces, but factory work was fundamentally different. Aside from a few areas of work, never before had children, or any laborers for that matter, worked with such rigidity and in such conditions to produce a product which their family did not own.

Our best evidence the factory system was deplorable even by eighteenth-century standards is the resistance put up by the children and their families. Child workers ran away in large numbers, and parents regularly pulled their children out of the mills. In 1795, three parents simultaneously took their children out Slater’s mill to force a wage settlement. A father named Arnold Benchley repeatedly removed his six children from work to negotiate higher wages. In 1796, the entire child workforce didn’t show up to work one day because their parents needed them to collect whortleberries, a seasonal berry that was a staple for people without much food access.

The constant departure of workers led to a labor shortage for the first two decades of American factories. Slater wrote to his partners that he had so few workers that he could not keep “half the spindles in motion.”

But the market and pro-industrial legislation began to encroach further into earlier American society. White New Englanders without resources found themselves in an increasingly difficult position. Their land was dwindling or was so poor that children could no longer expect to inherit a large enough portion for a sustainable life. The American fantasies of the self-sustaining yeoman farmer or master craftsman were becoming more and more out of reach.

Some chose to migrate north or west, but many had no other option than to stay and seek industrial work. The mills were finally developing a consistent labor pool.

Following the 1809 Embargo Acts and the Tariff of 1816, which protected American textiles from cheaper British imports, the textile industry exploded, and Pawtucket went from a small town to the country’s most important industrial village. By the 1820s, the city had eight textile mills, six machinery manufacturers, eighty-three houses, twelve stores, two churches, a bank, two schools, and a population of around 3,000. The Pawtucket mills were now an essential node in the cotton economy that built America in the early nineteenth century through the interconnected development of the northern textile industry and the Southern slave cotton plantations.

With expanding operations, increasingly complex machinery, and a larger and more impoverished population willing to work for low wages, the mills began employing fewer children and more adults. The introduction of the power loom beginning in the 1810s sped the demographic transition, as the machinery was too demanding for young children.

From 1820 to 1831, the percentage of the workforce made up of children declined from 70 to 40 percent, while the percentage made of women increased from 16 to 30. The remainder were adult men working in more skilled positions.

Slater’s mill system exploited existing preindustrial patriarchal relations to diffuse tensions during these rapid changes. Often entire families would enter into contract with the mill, each member filling a role in the mill hierarchy. When there was a male head of household, the entire family’s wages would be paid through him, creating the illusion of a continuity of male household authority.

In addition to earning higher wages, male workers were, for a short while, allowed some autonomy in their departments. Mule spinners, for instance, were authorized to directly oversee child laborers and to manage certain pieces of production. Most of these privileges would soon be stripped away, but the initial gendered diffusion of managerial authority allowed mill owners to more smoothly establish power.

The adult factory workforce developed new forms of resistance. In 1810, six male workers fought with Slater over wages and ultimately decided to leave and create their own factory. As strict, protestant discipline began consuming industrial towns, workers rebelled by retaining preindustrial cultural habits. They consumed great quantities of alcohol, swam naked in the Blackstone River, and held festivals. “Blowing-Out carnivals” in the spring, for example, celebrated the coming of longer sunlight hours and the end of reviled nighttime work by oil-lamp, something still considered a profound violation of old work standards.

Workers revered early working-class celebrities like Sam Patch, a former Pawtucket factory employee who performed daredevil feats jumping off mills into the Blackstone River before he became famous for his leaps off Niagara and Passaic Falls. Mill workers commonly stole materials, showed up late or not at all, and a number of burned down, likely as a result of arson.

The preservation of preindustrial norms and individual-level protest could only go so far, though. As the workforce grew and a reserve pool of labor was created, workers sporadically quitting had little effect on wages or conditions. Workers were creating the basis for a more sustained resistance, but the capitalists’ economic and power was growing too quickly to be fought solely by cultural defense and disorganized protest.

Escalation

In response to continued disobedience, mill owners began establishing what E.P. Thompson called the “moral machinery” of the industrial society: the set of institutions which would transform Rhode Island’s population from a disorderly preindustrial mass into a disciplined factory workforce.

Following the patterns he learned in England, Slater started one of the country’s first Sunday schools where children, after working twelve to sixteen hour days Monday–Saturday, would be indoctrinated in the Christian virtues of hard work and subordination. Textile capitalists formed the Pawtucket Bank to create credit lines to fund business expansions.

In 1814, mill owners petitioned the state government to form a police force in Pawtucket, stating that it “it has often been found difficult to preserve order and due subordination.” Following the 1824 strike, owners and the local government further petitioned the city council to create a night watch to guard the town from 9 AM to sunrise from anyone disturbing the peace.

Mill owners founded a number of churches of different Protestant denominations, and formed the Pawtucket Moral Society to combat drinking, open sexuality, and Sabbath breaking. The list goes on. A significant number of the institutions we imagine as permanent, timeless fixtures in our society were created in these early years of industrialization in order to quell discontent and solidify capitalist domination.

Explosion

Despite the capitalists’ efforts at complete social and economic control, workers continued to rebel, and by 1824 a general culture of resistance had taken root in Pawtucket. The coming strike was an outgrowth of these years of discontent, consciousness development, and small-scale action.

Similarly, the capitalists’ collective action to cut wages in May 1824 was also the result of years of collusion and development. Mill owners were long in the habit of acting in unison to fix wages and recruit labor. Mill financier Moses Brown wrote to Slater in 1802, saying that “in order to save the business from immediate ruin We thought best to so far unite so as not to interfere with each other in workmen nor wages.”

When the 102 women weavers refused to work on May 26, they quickly enlisted the support of the community and other workers. It’s clear a significant portion of the population stood in opposition to the mill owners’ rapid acquisition of social and economic power over the past three decades. During the week-long action, the rebellious group visited the mill owners; mansions — the ruling class at the time still built their grand homes nearby the poor — and hurled rocks and insults. They blocked the entrances to the mills.

On the strike’s final day, a mill was set on fire. No one explicitly claimed responsibility, but the fire was set at the factory of Edward Walcott, one of the leaders of the mill owners’ organization, and so we can assume this was an intentional action by at least some of the strikers.

Sadly there are no remaining documents from the workers’ themselves, and so we can’t name the women who led the strike. We must rely on the ruling class’s journals and statements. But these are instructive: they show a great deal of anxiety.

In one entry during the beginning of the strike, the journal of prominent judge and politician George F. Jenkes reads: “I have just returned from one of the moste gloomy assemblage of people I have ever witnessed, from the street form the Pawtucket Bank across the bridge to Josiah Mill’s shop is literally filled with Men Women and Children — making a mob of very daring aspect, insulting the managers of cotton mills in every shape — pulling and hauling — screaming and shouting thro the streets.”

The capitalists were so fearful of the workers’ unprecedented collective action that they moved to negotiate the day after Wolcott’s mill was set ablaze. Newspapers say that mill owners and workers reached a “compromise” and mills returned to full operation by June 3. The capitalists’ committee released a highly defensive statement that again attacked women workers but also went at length attempting to explain the economic necessity of the owners’ actions.

That the capitalists negotiated at all and felt obligated to explain themselves speaks to the power of the strike and the culture of resistance which had built up since 1793. With their turn-out, these women had unleashed a powerful new weapon.

The strike set off a wave of organizing in Pawtucket and across the region. Despite the capitalists’ efforts at dividing the workers along gender lines, at least some portion of the skilled male factory workforce supported the strike and were inspired to take their own action.

At the tail end of the strike “200 mechaniks assembled at the hotel … [and] resolve[d] not to work more than 12 hours per day nor less wages than they have had.” The strike ended soon after this meeting on June 1, but immediately afterward mule-spinners began publishing a notice for a meeting to form a new society to establish “rules and regulations for their profession.” The mule-spinners notably held their meeting in the middle of the workday on Monday, July 5 at 11 AM — effectively another work stoppage.

In coming years, workers organized strikes at textile mills in Lowell, Providence, Waltham, Woonsocket, and more. Many of these actions, particularly the Lowell strikes, either contained or were led by women.

With the Lowell strikes in the 1830s, we finally get to hear the voices of women leaders, and they clearly see their workplace fight in gendered terms. They formed the Lowell Factory Girls Association and denounced the “grand plan of the proprietors … to reduce Females … to dependence.”

Women’s roles in these early wave of strikes is regularly overlooked in our visions of American labor’s past. Even in Rhode Island, the 1824 strike is rarely discussed, and the state’s early labor history focuses entirely on the Dorr Rebellion in 1841. While the Dorrites were certainly a historically significant movement, their place in history is also secured by the fact that they were led by male, middle-class reformers.

Their Struggle Continues

Since the first factories, capitalists have given women workers lower wages, worse jobs, and less respect than their male counterparts. From those earliest days, women workers have responded through collective resistance. That fight continues today as teachers lead the largest strike wave in our country’s recent history. Eighty percent of American teachers are women, and given our history it’s no surprise they are criminally underpaid. Now, like the women who led the 1824 textile strike, these teachers are withholding their undervalued labor and winning concessions from a powerful and well-organized ruling class.

As teachers join with workers in other heavily female industries like health care and hospitality to lead the labor movement, we do well to celebrate women like the 102 Pawtucket weavers who helped start the movement 194 years ago.