Mapping the history of New England’s once-booming textile industry

“Spinning cotton yarn in the great textile mills, Lawrence, Mass.” is one of the images from the exhibit “Industry, Wealth, and Labor: Mapping New England’s Textile Industry” at the Osher Map Library at the University of Southern Maine. Osher Map Library and Smith Center for Cartographic Education, University of Southern Maine

A bird’s-eye view of Lawrence, Mass., in 1910 shows a dozen mills along the Merrimack River surrounded by immigrant neighborhoods.

Jews and Portuguese, Syrians, Italians, Germans and Poles were crowded into a few blocks within a half-mile radius of City Hall. Franco-Belgians occupied a block just outside that circle.

The aerial drawing of this “City of Immigrants” is among the detailed maps, lithographs, slides and photos in an exhibit titled “Industry, Wealth, and Labor: Mapping New England’s Textile Industry.” The exhibit is on display at the Osher Map Library and Smith Center for Cartographic Education on the University of Southern Maine campus in Portland.

Textiles were “integral to the region’s urbanization, industrialization, population growth and diversification, and labor unionization,” according to exhibit curators.

Cotton mills brought the industrial revolution to the United States via New England when the first mill city was built in Lowell, Mass., between 1822 and 1846. The city is split by the Merrimack River, which supplied the water power for the early mills. Maps in the exhibit show the sprawling “city” of brick behemoths. The first mill complex in Lowell was built by the Merrimack Manufacturing Co. in 1824, according to the exhibit.

A map of Lowell, Massachusetts, and its mills along the Merrimack River is on display at the Osher Map Library exhibit at the University of Southern Maine.

“The complex consisted of at least three dozen interconnected buildings accentuated by two smokestacks marking the addition of steam to the original waterpower,” according to the exhibit.

Such an immense enterprise required a massive workforce. These jobs brought immigrants from Eastern Europe as more textile mills opened in Massachusetts and New Hampshire.

Maine’s first mill was established in the 1840s in Biddeford along the Saco River. Waterpower was essential at the time — which made Lewiston, with its roaring falls on the Androscoggin River, another prime location for a factory.

Bates Manufacturing Co. was founded in 1850 and became the largest employer — with 6,000 workers — in the state by the 1860s.

Historian James Myall

“The textile industry was probably the foundational manufacturing industry in Maine during the 19th and early 20th centuries,” along with paper and shoe manufacturing, according to historian James Myall of Topsham.

Myall served as coordinator of the Franco-American Collection at USM’s Lewiston-Auburn College and is co-author of “The Franco-Americans of Lewiston-Auburn,” a general history from 1850 to the present.

“Industrialization had a huge impact on society,” he said in an email interview. “It led to the growth of several places from sleepy towns to cities.”

Lewiston’s population grew from 1,500 in 1830 to 35,000 by 1930, he said, “with a huge rate of growth that included a lot of immigrants.”

First, Irish people fleeing the potato famine in the late 1840s and 1850s, then French Canadians, pouring in on the Grand Trunk Railroad from rural Quebec beginning around 1870.

Italians and Eastern Europeans joined the migration in the second half of the 19th century, Myall said.

The men worked digging canals and foundations and railroad lines. The women and children worked in the mills.

Before the mills expanded and needed more workers, they relied on local labor, employing mostly farm girls and young women.

A map of the interior of the Androscoggin Division of the Bates Manufacturing Company from 1949 hangs on a wall at the Osher Map Library and Smith Center for Cartographic Education at University of Southern Maine in Portland. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal

“There were a couple of reasons for this,” Myall said. “Weaving was traditionally seen as women’s work, anyway, and the use of machines meant that in many cases the work didn’t require a lot of physical strength.”

Perhaps a more compelling reason, from the industrialists’ point of view, was that women and girls (ages 15 to 18) could be paid half as much as men, according to a history of the Lowell Mills.

The mills “constituted some of the first paid labor outside domestic servitude available to women,” according to “Lowell Mills: The Factory Town in Massachusetts.”

Mary W. Mitchell

The first woman to graduate from Lewiston’s Bates College, Mary W. Mitchell, Class of 1869, paid for her education by working in the mill, according to Rachel Ferrante, executive director of Museum L-A, which is housed in the Bates Mill Complex in Lewiston.

Mills in Maine remained a booming business for well over 100 years, Ferrante said.

“Looms turned out material for everything from blue jeans and airplane wings to hammocks, uniforms, parachutes, flannel and bedding,” she said.

In the second half of the 19th century, Bates textiles were highly desired by middle- and upper-middle-class consumers, she said.

“Without a Bates bedspread, a bride’s trousseau was considered incomplete — a testament to the product’s established place in American domestic culture.

“By 1950, Bates products were utilized in almost every aspect of daily life, including domestic and institutional bedspreads, draperies, table linens, bags, shoe linings, clothing, home sewing, and more.”

Bates “went global” with its cotton fabric during this time, said Roberta Ransley-Matteau, co-curator of the map exhibit.

She noted that a “Queen Elizabeth” bedspread hanging in the gallery was designed in 1950 for the young queen’s coronation in 1952.

“The medallion design and the puffy, trapunto-type Marseilles weave was applied to white quilted cotton fabrics,” according to the exhibit. “The name ‘Marseilles’ was chosen for the weave because the French city had a long association with expensive, hand-quilted, and early quilted-look machine-made fabrics and bed covers.”

Bates Manufacturing wove its first basic bedspread in 1858. In 1915, the company expanded and upgraded its looms to make Jacquards, crochets, satins, brocades and damasks, according to the New England Historical Society.

The first “heirloom” bedspreads were made on a specially designed loom in 1939 and went on sale in 1940 under the motto “Loomed to be Heirloomed.”

“Weavers worked seven days a week making Bates bedspreads, but they couldn’t keep up with demand,” according to the New England Historical Society. “In its heyday, 200,000 Bates Bedspreads were sold each year.”

A Queen Elizabeth bedspread from around 1952 made by Bates Manufacturing in Lewiston hangs on the wall at Osher Map Library and Smith Center for Cartographic Education at University of Southern Maine in Portland. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal

‘HARSH CONDITIONS’

The textile industry got its start in 1769 when a British inventor devised a mechanized system for spinning cotton into yarn, using multiple spindles.

This was the system used in New England mills.

“Raw cotton would arrive in bales at the mill,” Ferrante said. “Workers were responsible for all aspects of cotton preparation to the material end-product.”

Workers operated machines that aided in carding the cotton — cleaning and untangling it —and spinning it into thread, she said. Thread would then be wound onto large spools, called beams, and loaded onto a loom. A weaver would operate the loom to create the desired cloth.

The process created “harsh conditions” for the workers, Ferrante said.

“A typical workday would be 12 hours long with a break for lunch,” she said. “Temperatures often topped 100 degrees and the air was kept at 100{1668a97e7bfe6d80c144078b89af180f360665b4ea188e6054b2f93f7302966b} humidity to tamp down the lint in the air, reducing the risk of flash fire.

The noise on the weave floor would have been deafening and workers would have to stand nose to nose and scream to be heard.”

Wages were between $2 and $4 per week. That would be about $67-$114 today.

Workers lost fingers, hands and legs in the high-speed machinery. Children got caught in the machinery while working on the running looms.

The 1870 U.S. census reported that one out of every eight children was employed, and by 1900 the rate increased to more than one in five across the United States, Ferrante said.

“The children were able to move around in the small spaces of a mill where adults couldn’t fit, often resulting in their working in tight, dangerous places,” she said.

Children were easier to manage, asked for little in terms of safety measures, and accepted significantly less pay than adult laborers. In many cases, children weren’t paid at all, their wages either going directly to their parents or to cover their room and board. When they did earn wages, children often earned 10{1668a97e7bfe6d80c144078b89af180f360665b4ea188e6054b2f93f7302966b} to 20{1668a97e7bfe6d80c144078b89af180f360665b4ea188e6054b2f93f7302966b} of what an adult would earn for the same job.

These children sometimes suffered horrible, even fatal, injuries.

An account published in Lewiston Today (now the Sun Journal) in 1906 recounts an injury to a 12-year-old boy whose head was caught in the machinery when he slipped while working in the Androscoggin Mill.

“With his skull so terribly fractured that he cannot possibly live,” the boy lay unconscious when a reporter visited his tenement on River Street.

“His hoarse rattling breathing could be heard through the door … The whole top of his head was swathed in bandages.”

He died three days later.

An 1856 colored lithograph of the countryside from Prospect Hill in Auburn shows the Androscoggin River and mills in the background. The lithograph hangs on a wall at the Osher Map Library and Smith Center for Cartographic Education at University of Southern Maine in Portland. It was dedicated to the citizens of Lewiston by the artist, John Badger Bachelder. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal

MILL WORKERS GO ON STRIKE

Photographs at the Osher Map Library depict the so-called “Bread and Roses” labor strike of 1912 in Lawrence, Mass. One photo shows strikers face to face with armed militiamen, bayonets at the ready.

The strike was initiated by Polish women who walked out after learning of a pay cut, according to the exhibit. The strike quickly spread to Lawrence’s other mills and had wide support among the city’s newest immigrant groups.

“This strike spurred the rise of labor unions as well as future strikes, eventually resulting in the demise of the New England textile industry and its move to the South,” according to the photo text.

“The strike, which brought together recent immigrants speaking at least 25 different languages, was led by the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). It was prompted by a two-hour pay cut resulting from a Massachusetts law enacted January 1, 1912. This legislation shortened the workweek for women from 56 to 54 hours.

“Ten days later, the female Polish workers at the Everett Mills discovered that their pay had been reduced, along with the cut in hours. The strike spread rapidly through nearly every mill in Lawrence, growing to more than 20,000 workers.

“Carried on throughout a brutally cold winter, the strike lasted more than two months, from January to March. The success of this strike defied the assumptions of conservative trade unions within the American Federation of Labor (AFL) namely, that an immigrant, largely female and ethnically divided workforce could not be organized.”

However, labor unionization was slow to come to the textile industry in Maine, historian Myall said.

“With a large number of immigrant workers, and a lot of people moving between companies, it was hard to organize workers into a union,” he said.

A map of the interior of the Hill Division of the Bates Manufacturing Company from 1949 hangs on a wall at the Osher Map Library and Smith Center for Cartographic Education at University of Southern Maine in Portland. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal

Also, the Catholic clergy was suspicious of unionization efforts, associating union organizers with socialism and anti-church sentiments, he said.

“You do see plenty of instances of organized action in the textile mills, however, with workers going on strike for higher pay and better working conditions,” he said.

When the textile industry was at its height, workers could demand higher wages at their own factory to match what was being offered elsewhere or even in other states. And management knew some workers were mobile enough to pack up and go elsewhere if they could get better pay.

Even without union representation, safety conditions became increasingly important in the later part of the 19th century, Myall said.

“With only the barest minimum of a social safety net, a workplace injury could mean a life of poverty for a worker and their family,” he said. Workers sometimes created insurance funds for themselves in case something happened, he said.

Eventually, the demand for cotton textiles declined and the expenses of higher pay and better conditions led many companies to move South in the 1950s, map library curator Ransley-Matteau said.

Museum L-A’s Ferrante noted that even as late as 1948, Maine mills employed 28,000 people.

“However, beginning around this time, the future of mills saw a change,” she said. “Overseas manufacturers were able to apply economic advantages, which left American mills unable to operate profitably.”

American mills lost contracts, cut jobs, and even the original Bates Mill closed in 2001.

Today, the rehabilitated Bates Mill Complex houses many other businesses, including the Baxter Brewing Co., TD Bank, Androscoggin Savings Bank offices and The Symquest Group, Fish Bones Restaurant, Davinci’s Eatery, Grand Rounds, Northeast Bank, Bates Mill Dermatology, Community Health Options, Cross Insurance, the Lofts at Bates Mill mixed-income apartments, and Museum L-A.

Almost 2,000 people live and work in the complex, according to Wikipedia.

The Osher Map Library exhibit will be on display through June 30. Admission is free.

Reactions to the exhibit have been “very positive,” Ransley-Matteau said.

TEXTILE MILLS

6,000: Number of employees at Bates Manufacturing in the 1860s.

28,000: Number of employees at Maine mills in 1948.

12 hours: Typical length of workday at textile mills.

$2-$4: Weekly wages of millworkers in 1850 ($76-$152 in today’s dollars for a 60-hour work week).

100 degrees: Temperature inside many mills in the summer.

25: Number of languages spoken by millworkers during 1912 strike in Lawrence, Mass.

1852: Year that Mill No. 1 was completed by Bates Manufacturing.

11: Number of buildings eventually built at Bates Mill.

200,000: Number of Bates bedspreads sold each year during the mill’s heyday.

2001: Year original Bates Mill closed.

Sources: Various

THE OSHER MAP LIBRARY

About the Osher Map Library and Smith Center of Cartographic Education:

½ million: Number of maps, books, atlases, globes.

1475: Date of oldest material.

75,000: Number of items available to view freely online.

Visit: The map library is open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday-Friday and by appointment from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday. Free.

Make a Reservation: https://omlscce.rezgo.com/details/273927/gallery-visit

FMI: oshermaps.org/news

Sources: Executive Director Libby Bischof; Osher Map Library (oshermaps.org)


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