© 2020 Donna Hébert, all rights reserved.
I come from generations of Québecois and Acadian farmers and millworkers. Even if my original Acadian ancestors were pioneers, their descendants worked in mills in New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Vermont from 1870-1970 and many also sent their children to work until the law put a stop to such things. Historically, education was for the wealthy, while the children of farmers and millworkers were expected to work as soon as they were able. We like to close our eyes to this reality, but child labor and effective slavery still exist in other parts of the world, where too many children make the clothes that fill our stores while simultaneously our own coddled darlings are taking music lessons.
Until the U.S. Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938, children under 16 could be hired for factory work. Some states made education compulsory long before that but what really changed education was that 1938 law. Massachusetts led the states in instituting public education in 1852, while Mississippi, the last, took until 1918 to require it but after 1938, children stayed in school until at least age 16.
The barons of industry that America spawned were empire-building, not underwriting reform and they weren’t concerned about educating their workers. They wanted productivity, reluctantly granting Sunday as a day of rest. Anyone who thinks that mill or factory work was or is easy, or that you wouldn’t choose to do something else if you could, needs their head and their privilege examined. People were regularly injured, maimed and killed with no compensation. My own grandfather was injured in his sixties as a mill repairman in the factory that had employed him for decades and they let him go, no compensation, nothing. He spent almost a year in the White River Junction VA Hospital recovering. Pre-OSHA, no Workmen’s Comp, of course. Injured, he still had to get another job when he got out of the hospital.
In my youth, I tried factory work and failed three times. At age 17, I lasted only a few months in the basement of the Braverman shoe factory in Haverhill, and a year later, less than a summer in the Foster Grant sunglasses plant in Leominster. They took me to the emergency room halfway through my first shift at the D.D. Bean match factory in Jaffrey NH when I had an asthma attack from the particulate matter in the air. I’d have been dead of TB before puberty a hundred years ago in the mills. As it was, my father, who worked in mills and factories his whole life, was deaf by his mid-fifties, while his later dementia could be linked to the chemicals he handled for decades. And let’s talk money: millworkers, factory workers, the people who actually finish the job someone else started, are not getting rich. Since the ‘80s, the U.S. has been on a union-busting spree, so in fact, it’s getting worse, not better, for workers.
The people who physically built this country – slaves, indentured servants, construction, steel, railroad and factory workers – didn’t get much back in return, nor did they accumulate enough wealth to enrich their inheritors as the/their owners did. Their collective labor, taken for little, if not taken altogether by slavery, also collectively enriched a powerful few whose own descendants continue to influence our lives today in ways large and small.
Mamie Laberge, in the photo above taken by muckraking photographer Lewis Hine, has inheritors who may not work in an American factory but you can bet they work in factories somewhere in Sri Lanka, Vietnam, China or Indonesia and that companies in America sell what they make. It wouldn’t surprise me to learn I’m wearing an item of clothing from a questionable source without knowing it. In fact, I’d bet on it.
Maybe I should go back to making my clothes again. I owe it to Mamie.
PHOTO CAPTION: Mamie’s photo, taken in 1913, struck me hard when I first saw it. She could have been me but instead of being a millworker, I’m a songwriter. I wrote “The Shuttle,” when I was singing with Josée Vachon and Liza Constable in Chanterelle. This track is from the Smithsonian/Folkways CD anthology “Mademoiselle Voulez-Vous Danser?”
To learn more about the history of Franco-Americans in New England, see:
David Vermette’s “A Distinct Alien Race: The Untold Story of Franco-Americans.” Baraka Books, Montréal
Charles Scontras in the Lewiston Maine Sun-Journal, “Society Turned to Prejudice to Justify Exploiting French-Canadian As Labor”