Tales from the mill

Thursday February 21, 2013

BENNINGTON -- Mary A. Palmer was a 19th century mill worker with a keen power of observation, sharp sociological insight, and the ability to offer telling details peppered with incisive commentary.

Local resident and historian Anne Bugbee presented Sunday at the Bennington Museum a talk on "Recollections of a Mill Worker" based on a 1906 pamphlet by Palmer of her experiences working in mills in North Bennington and Bennington from 1859 onwards. The title page is somewhat intimidating: "Recollection of a Mill Worker, an interesting and comprehensive review of the cotton and wool industry in New England for a period of nearly 50 years, showing the development and growth of these important chapters in our history. Also, facts and figures relating to the hours of labor, wages, cost of living et. cetera of factory operatives in 1859. Compiled and written by one who has practical experience as a mill worker from childhood."

Said Bugbee, "That sounds pretty overwhelming, but when you start reading it, it is her reminiscences."

Mary was born in Ireland and came with her mother and father to North Bennington in 1859, Bugbee said. "They may have answered an ad similar to one that appeared in the Vermont Gazette in 1821: "Wanted in Bennington, wanted in the Bennington Cotton Factory, several families that can furnish a number of children each, to such constant employ will be given. Wages paid to the ability of the children."

Factory hours in 1859 were from 5 a.m. to 6 p.m. The summer workday ran to 7 p.m. During a typical day, at 7 a.m. workers went home for breakfast -- they all lived within walking distance. For many families, breakfast was molasses, bread and water. They came back to work by 7:35 a.m. At noon, the bell rang again, for dinner, (what people now call lunch), the big meal of the day. Again, they had to be back in 35 minutes. The last bell, to go home, rang at 6 or 7 p.m.

"Now this sounds like very grueling, especially when you think of an 8-year-old child. However, most of these workers came from the farms, and most young men and women who came from a farm were used to hard work, they were used to long hours," Bugbee said. "But the difference, especially for the girls, was they were getting paid. So the mills were very, very attractive at that particular point."

Though she worked at several mills, Palmer in her narrative never mentions the name of any mill or any mill owner where she worked.

Her first job was as a spooler, a job reserved for girls. She would attach the thread to the bobbins; when the bobbins were filled the bobbin girl would run them up to the weaver's platform. It usually took about 2.5 hours to wind one bobbin. If the spooler was an expert she could spool a bobbin in 1.5 hours. She then had an hour to herself and could go out and do as she pleased, Bugbee said.

Palmer made $2.75 per week. All the girls in the carding and spinning rooms were paid the same. Older boys, 10 to 12, called piecers, crawled under the loom to fix broken threads. They were paid $4 to $4.50 per week. Weaving in a cotton mill was done by the older girls and women. They ran four looms and averaged $1 per loom during a six-day week.

"The weavers were looked upon with admiration by everyone in the mill, as it was considered astonishing for a girl to earn $1 a day," Bugbee said.

In the early days, employers were benevolent, though paternalistic, and the work schedule had breaks that would be unthinkable today.

In the 1850s, "the mills would shut down on the least occasion. If a holiday occurred on a Thursday, they shut down for the rest of the week. If the circus came to town, they shut down." This was wise because everybody would go to it anyway, Bugbee said.

Mills would also shut down for one or two days for cattle shows and county fairs. "And if the owner did not close on the first day, the adult workers would take him by storm and demand for the time until he gave in," she said.

"Mary remembered many times after the bell in the morning had called them to work, the girls and boys would go coasting on the hill or slide on the mill pond and some of them would take off in the fields or go rowing on the pond. They were never discharged for any of those pranks." For a good worker or family to be fired, it took a very serious offense, such as willfully breaking machinery or public immorality.

In spite of the hard work and low wages, the workers were, in Mary's words, "treated with humanity." If it snowed five or six inches, the factory team of horses were hitched up and the women and children were taken to their homes. The workers were not expected to come in after a heavy snowfall until the roads were "rolled," Bugbee said.

Owners would not be friendly with workers but knew their circumstances and would assist those who were struggling, especially when there was an invalid father or a widow with small children.

Palmer insisted this humane attitude was true of all country mills around 1859, particularly small mills in small towns. Her judgment of the state of mills and the morality of mill owners in the early 20th century was much more negative.

In the early days, the typical manufacturer in her experience was "interested in his employees and he treated them as equals. He was satisfied with a reasonable profit, and didn't need the luxuries that big owners desire today."

However, "the manufacturer and businessmen of today are ambitious to become multi-millionaires, own yachts, maintain one or two lady friends in luxury, and buy husbands for their daughters from the dissipated, debauched nobility of Europe," Palmer wrote. "Their ambitions in other directions do not allow them the time to become interested in their employees, who have and are creating all of their wealth. If we express dissatisfaction, why, we are told that labor is noble and man was made to earn his bread by the sweat of his brow -- everyone but them."

The atmosphere in manufacturing began to change for the worse after the Civil War.

"I was a mill worker and have been thus employed in intervals since, and I am a mill worker still. I often ask myself a question: Is our condition much improved?" Palmer wrote. "I am full aware that there are more educational advantages for young men and women in the country than there were then. I know that labor's hours are shorter, too. I also know that in order to keep our work and make a living wage we are in a perpetual grind from the time we begin in the morning until the mill closes at night."

By the end of the Civil War, the owners no longer lived within the mill community. They built big houses and lived in other towns. "They were not the paternalistic overseer of the workers. Granted, the hours were shorter, not 15 hours a day but 11 hours, but they had to work twice as hard," Bugbee said. "Instead of four looms, they had eight to nine looms."

Even though workers by the early 20th century worked harder, they were paid less. "Cotton weavers who had earned 15 to 25 cents per cut (portion of woven cloth) of 45 yards...now made 8 or 10 cents (for) a cut of 50 or more yards. There was an influx of immigrants, and if (the workers) complained, they were fired, because they were plenty of people to stand by and take their place."

Safety conditions in big mills also left something to be desired.

Still, Bennington was fortunate, because the mills were small and the attitude of benevolent paternalism and care for employees generally held, Palmer said. The town's good fortune ended at 3:15 p.m. on Jan. 20, 1874 when gas accumulating in a basement at the Green Mountain Knitting Mill in Bennington ignited, causing a thunderous explosion that was heard as far away as Arlington. Nine people were killed, seven women and two men, and seven other women were hurt. Different accounts exist of what set off the explosion.

Despite the detailed and insightful work she left behind, Mary A. Palmer is also something of a mystery. Bugbee said her maiden name is unknown, as is her date of death or burial place. In the 1880 census, Mary Palmer was listed as married to William Palmer; they had three children, and they lived in North Bennington. By the 1910 census, Mary had moved to Shaftsbury and lived with their son, William. Beyond that, her fate is a mystery.

Mark Rondeau can be reached at mrondeau@benningtonbanner.com and on Twitter @banner_religion. He hopes to write in detail about the 1874 mill explosion in the near future.


If you'd like to leave a comment (or a tip or a question) about this story with the editors, please email us. We also welcome letters to the editor for publication; you can do that by filling out our letters form and submitting it to the newsroom.

Powered by Creative Circle Media Solutions