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Voice Of A Mill Girl

The Bread and Roses Strike of 1912

By C. H. RichardPublished 10 months ago Updated 10 months ago 6 min read
Top Story - July 2023
38
Stairs in a Mill Building. Photo by C.H.Richard

Lawrence, Massachusetts, January 12th, 1912

I tried to quicken my pace up the wooden stairs of the Washington Mill that morning. My boots hit each step with vigor. The temperature was below freezing and the holes in my gloves let in raw cold causing my fingers to turn blue. I could hear several women in front of me racing before the toll clock struck seven. I kept my head low when passing the foreman who was looking for any sign among us as to who was an instigator of possible things to come. I walked swiftly past my station where I created wool for men’s high-end suits and women’s coats sold at places that I could not afford. I tucked my own coat filled with patches in the closet labeled for workers and headed back to my spot.

I could feel the eyes of the foreman, Mr Tenney, on me. I think he may have seen me passing out flyers on Essex Street. The flyers contained instructions if we received the word today. I started up my loom and started to unravel the threads as I pressed the floor pedal to pull the harp shaped metal piece towards me in the rhythm, I had done this routine every day except Sundays for the last five years. Since the week after my fifteenth birthday, I have worked here. Ten hours a day with fifteen minutes for my lunch, six days a week until all my bones hurt. Twenty years old and I had the pain of a woman twice my age. Today though things may change.

I looked up to see my friend Lucilia who was working on a loom closer to the window. She was able to position herself every other pull to check the happenings outside. We waited for the Polish women who had left their positions yesterday when their pay was reduced. They would signal when our time was to move forward. Mr Tenney was standing next to me. I tried to ignore him and unraveled more thread as I felt his hand grab my shoulder.

“Francesca, I hope you aren’t planning to participate in anything as was done at Everett Mill yesterday!” His large hands pulled me around to face his Winsor glasses and the largest belly I have ever seen a man carry. He moved his glasses back up on his nose while looking down at me.

“Let me tell you something young lady, we will run these looms with or without the likes of a troublemaker!”

I bowed my head and nodded. I turned back to my loom and my hands once frozen moments ago were now sweating. I was about to risk everything. Everything as in my job at the mills and I was not sure there was any other type of work for me. Before working here, I did attend school. I even thought I may be able to attend the teacher’s college. My parents both worked here. Both have passed now. I have a younger brother whom I care for. When my parents died within months of each other, I had no choice but to work so Samuele and I could eat.

At first, I thought I could handle the conditions which were unsafe and unbearable at times. We work so hard and we are not allowed even a break to catch some air. I have seen so many people get sick or hurt in the overcrowded mill. The looms will take your scalp if you get too close and yet we are forced to be close. When I heard that our pay would be reduced from already meager wages we receive, I volunteered to be a lead girl for the workers. The Polish women from the Everett Mill started to organize a strike. They came to the local market and to our tenements on Sundays. Groups of us started to join. There would be a plan for everything should we decide to walk down those steps. A way we would support each other to have food and keep warm.

There were even leaders of labor coming to Lawrence who would help send children to families out of state if needed. The strange thing was that we all spoke different languages. Polish, Spanish, Armenian, Greek, Italian, Gaelic, etc..,I’m not sure anyone was from Lawrence. We were all from different parts of the country and the world, yet we understood each other through symbols and nods. We all wanted something better and deserved something better. My eyes moved from the loom as I heard Lucilia call out.

“It’s time, they are here!”

I ran over to her and watched out the large picture window as the Polish women who walked out of the Everett Mill yesterday were joined by workers, mostly women, from the Ayer and Pacific Mills. I took a deep breath. We stopped our looms and tossed the pencil I had carried to girls in the next room as each then stopped their loom and gathered their things.

“It’s time!” Repeated over and over in all different languages. I put my coat on and then cast a smile at Mr Tenney as he watched his entire floor leave and march down the stairs, they had just rushed up an hour earlier.

Bread and Roses Strike of 1912 Courtesy of Zinnedproject.org

This is a story of historical fiction based on the Lawrence Textile Mill Strike of 1912 which I have always been fascinated with. The strike also known as the Bread and Roses Strike involved mostly women and some men who worked in the mills. According to the New England Historical Society, these women many of whom had been in the country less than five years faced harsh working conditions and low pay. When their pay was reduced due to a new law it was a tipping point to strike. The strike itself lasted two months but the planning and the organization of the women involved was extensive. They had organized and supported each other to supplement food and other costs. They wanted their pay reinstated and safer worker conditions. Children were even sent to live with families outside the community in states such as New York and Vermont. The mill owners had law enforcement on their side to break up the marches of protesters when they came to the street. Violence did break out. One woman was killed by a stray bullet. Two outside leaders of a union supporting the strike, Joseph Ettor and Arturo Giovannetti were charged and later exonerated.

Another horrific moment of violence came when about 100 women and children were attacked and beaten by police when the women were trying to send their children off to outside families. This incident caught the attention of the outside world by the press and led to the mills conceding to some of the strikers demands. Though the concessions did not last, they did show that even through impossible odds these women could stand up to the powers of the mill owners.

I have worked in these very mill buildings for many years which now have been converted into offices and loft apartments. Every time I take the stairs, I can feel a sense of the mill girls and what their lives were like. They worked hard, they suffered yet there was sense of community. This time during the Bread and Roses Strike gave them a sense of hope. This sense of common ground makes me think that if I could live in a different time, I would like to see their world.

Window in Mill building photo by C.H. Richard

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About the Creator

C. H. Richard

My passion is and has always been writing. I am particularly drawn to writing fiction that has relatable storylines which hopefully keep readers engaged

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Comments (31)

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  • Judey Kalchik about a month ago

    It’s that last bit where you share you work in this very building! Gave me shivers!

  • MGM3 months ago

    Bread and Roses Strike gave them a sense of hope. Beautiful sentence. Captivating, like it. You can ready my story as well. Best Regards

  • MANOJ K 9 months ago

    Great thank u for give me wonderful reading experience keep it up give suggestions my posts and subscribe me !! HAVE A WONDER FUL DAY

  • Lealyn Cruda9 months ago

    Congrats

  • Doc Sherwood10 months ago

    "Hearts can starve as well as bodies." I've always loved James Oppenheim's song, and this deeply moving historical fiction does justice to the courage of those who inspired it. Utah Philips gives a brief account of the strike on an old audio tape I have, that women were dying at the average age of 25 in Lawrence through dust-inhalation at the mills. Thank you for keeping their story alive. I'm awed that you've been to the actual buildings, and overjoyed to know they're still standing! A fitting tribute to the workers who in 1912 told the world: "Bread, yes, but roses too."

  • Lucis Caligo10 months ago

    A beautiful glimpse into the life and experiences of mill workers during that time and highlights the resilience and determination of the women involved. Keep it up!🖤

  • Kendall Defoe 10 months ago

    This deserves the TS crown, and it is a story that not enough people have heard... Thank you for this lesson on labor.

  • Congratulations on your Top Story✨😉🎉🎉🎉🎉🎉

  • Dana Crandell10 months ago

    This was so well done, Cindy! Congratulations!

  • Catherine Dorian10 months ago

    I love your narrator's bravery and also her insight that risking her job is better than the alternative, which is a greater risk because her job strips her of dignity. That moment when she realizes that despite speaking different languages, these woman are fighting for the same thing, is particularly powerful. Congratulations on Top Story. Well deserved!

  • Congratulations Cindy!!! Nice to see a quality story receive Top Story status!!!

  • Ashley Lima10 months ago

    Fantastic work. I love the photo you took at the end there. Wonderful bit of history intertwined with a captivating narrative. Bravo, and congrats on TS!

  • Dana Stewart10 months ago

    Congratulations on Top Story!

  • D. ALEXANDRA PORTER10 months ago

    C.H. Richard: Thank you very much for being a voice that will not let us forget a historical tragedy. "Another horrific moment of violence came when about 100 women and children were attacked and beaten by police when the women were trying to send their children off to outside families." Congratulations on Top Story!!!

  • Cathy holmes10 months ago

    Wtg, Cindy. Congrats on the TS

  • Donna Renee10 months ago

    Oh wow!! This is such a good entry. I loved how you included the photo of the window at the end, sometimes a modern connection to the past just makes it so much more palpable. My grandmother and her sisters all worked in a garment factory for years and the conditions were still pretty bad even at that point.

  • Congratulations on your Top Story

  • Great story & history lesson, Cindy!

  • Kristen Balyeat10 months ago

    Wow, truly incredible writing, Cindy, and what a fascinating story! Thank you for sharing this. So cool that you work in the building– I’m sure the energy of those brave women can still be felt inside those walls.

  • Lamar Wiggins10 months ago

    There are so many stories of the past that many of us are unaware of. Thank you for rekindling this one and giving it the attention it deserves. I also loved the video at the end. It put me right in the heart of the strike.

  • Tiffany Gordon 10 months ago

    My heart leapt when I saw that this was historical fiction Cindy! Your historical fiction is some of the best I've ever read! What an amazing talent that you have! Thx 4 sharing this beautiful story! It is brimming with courage & hope! I absolutely loved it! BRAVO!👏🏾👏🏾👏🏾👏🏾👏🏾

  • Babs Iverson10 months ago

    Awesome storytelling!!! Love your historical fiction!!! Magically, you transport the reader to another place and time!!!❤️❤️💕

  • Natalie Wilkinson10 months ago

    Great story! If you are interested in this topic, you may like “North and South” by Elizabeth Gaskell. It is set in England during the Industrial Revolution. There is also a great BBC series based on the book.

  • J. S. Wade10 months ago

    Great story Cindy. They were brave women. A most excellent entry. 🥰

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