During the winter of 1912, headlines from a Massachusetts mill town captivated the nation. The drama began on a bitterly cold Friday in January. Just after paychecks were passed out that morning, thousands of workers stormed out of the massive textile mills that lined the Merrimack River north of Boston. They were protesting a pay cut, but they were really on strike for their lives.
By noon that day, dozens of power looms that wove worsted wool and cotton cloth had been smashed. Thousands more were idle. Broad, expansive mill rooms that only hours before had roared with the drone of machinery were eerily silent, empty. Outside, police had responded to a riot call. Teeming crowds poured through the streets shouting “Strike!” in thirty different languages. By the following Friday, 15,000 workers stood on picket lines that stretched for blocks, running all the way around some of the world’s longest buildings. Facing them were whole battalions of state militia, their bayonets fixed. On both sides of the divide, stars and stripes waved in the drifting snow.
For the next two months, Americans followed the latest dispatches from Lawrence, Massachusetts. Lawrence was embroiled in a bitter labor standoff, newspapers reported. Radicals preaching “industrial revolution” were stirring up uneducated immigrants in a strike that could lead to nationwide anarchy. Rich mill owners and their hired militia were barely keeping order at bayonet point. America watched and waited. Wherever workers huddled together, from the lumber camps of Oregon to sweatshops on New York’s Lower East Side, the talk turned to Lawrence. Workers pooled their wages and sent them to strikers. Rallies led by fiery speakers ended with coins raining down on the stage, coins for hungry families in Lawrence. Meanwhile, in the finer homes, men with trim moustaches and starched collars read about Lawrence and shuddered. Sometimes they even shared their fears with their wives. Any day now, they predicted, some radical would say something incendiary. Some fool would throw a rock. The militia would open fire and dozens would die. Any day, the name of Lawrence would become as notorious as that of Haymarket or Homestead, an inspiration for further anarchy.
But as the winter deepened and the strike dragged on, unprecedented events caused old certainties to falter. Police found dynamite stashed in the city’s tenement district but soon became suspicious about its origins. Then the nation’s most feared radical, “Big Bill” Haywood, arrived in Lawrence to join the strike. Ten thousand met him at the train station and twice that many heard his thunderous voice ring out over the Lawrence Common. Later, a protest turned violent and a woman was shot. The strike’s leaders were arrested for inciting her murder even though they had been a mile from the scene. And state militia came by the thousand, turning Lawrence into an armed camp.
As journalists from around the nation flocked to Lawrence, they found a surprising scenario. Workers were not in despair; they were singing. On sidewalks, women locked arms and marched together, cheering, calling out to others to join them. Reporters who journeyed into the dark maze of tenements found similar surprises. Immigrants from fifty countries were not at each other’s throats, as mill owners had hoped. Germans with Jews, Italians with Poles, Syrians with French-Canadians, they were sharing food, translating speeches for each other, and creating a community rarely seen in the savage strikes that had scarred America since the 1870s. The New York Sun reported: “Never before has a strike of such magnitude succeeded in uniting in one unflinching, unyielding, determined and united army so large and diverse a number of human beings.” There was something different about this strike, reporters said. Their suspicions were confirmed in mid-February.
After nearly a month without work or pay, strikers tried a tactic used in Europe but never before in America. Scores of mothers dressed their children in their Sunday best, took them to the train station, bid tearful goodbyes, and sent them into the custody of total strangers. In New York, the “Children of Lawrence” were paraded through the streets. Dirty-faced, malnourished, bewildered, they were housed by sympathetic families who gave them their first decent meals in a month and took them the zoo, to museums, to wonders beyond their wildest dreams. The Children’s Exodus made headlines around the nation and made Lawrence police determined it would not happen again. Two weeks later, when more mothers took their children to the train station, police were waiting. What followed shocked even the most jaded observer. And still, despite Congressional hearings, hunger, sporadic violence, and bedrock solidarity, the strike went on. . .
Through the mysterious process that propagates fable and folk song, what happened in Lawrence is now known as the “Bread and Roses” strike, although the slogan was probably never used during the uprising. “Bread and Roses” has also come to stand for labor’s long struggle for decent wages and the eight-hour day. Activists of all stripes use the phrase with pride, yet in the decades following the strike, pride was hard to find in Lawrence. For two full generations after that headlining winter, a curious silence prevailed throughout the city. Fearing repercussions from mill bosses, few would talk about the strike. Children grew up hearing little about it from parents or teachers. Generations passed without a single anniversary. In the 1970s, when the strike’s new name surfaced, it was deeply resented. Only in the last few decades has Lawrence begun holding annual Bread and Roses festivals on its Common. The first few were attended by a handful of people in their nineties who shared memories. Then these witnesses died, leaving the strike to be pieced together by children, grandchildren, and historians.
What happened in Lawrence has been too often relegated to history’s ghettos. But the so-called Bread and Roses strike is a quintessentially American event, one of which the entire nation can be proud. People from all over the globe, having packed their belongings and come to America, found themselves on the nation’s bottom rung. They bore their burden well… for a while, and then rose up. Once merely workers, they became citizens — in name or only in spirit — demanding a living wage and a little respect. Their story, even if they were afraid to tell it, is rife with heroes, many still unknown, a few notorious, most known only to their families. The story takes place in a quaint and curious year.
Though less than a century ago, 1912 lies on the far side of a fault line carved by radio, TV, and world wars. Hence, it seems to have occurred not just in a different century but in a different nation. How different? During the year in which Lawrence went on strike, went back to work, and went on, the Titanic sank. The Boston Red Sox won the World Series in their brand new Fenway Park. America grew from forty-six to forty-eight states. In a hotly contested election, the incumbent president came in third and the Socialist candidate earned almost a million votes. That summer, the first full-length movie came to America, but most people still sought entertainment from vaudeville, the Ziegfeld Follies, or the waning strains of ragtime. Only a few Americans had even heard the names Freud or Picasso.
It was the last era in which kerosene lit more homes than electricity and horse drawn carriages outnumbered automobiles. It was a highly moralistic age in which morals were just beginning to loosen. Despite proper principles that would forever be named Victorian, wholesale injustices were accepted as the nature of things. Women could not yet vote, and millions of children still toiled in factories, mines, and mills. Each week, a few black men were lynched, and aside from the black press, few beyond the scene of each crime seemed to care. Poverty and wealth lived side by side. The great rudder of a stable society, the middle class, had not yet been invented, hence Americans faced each other across a chasm of mutual resentment. Glittering mansions sat on hillsides and seashores. Their inhabitants, adorned in top hats and jewels, enjoyed oysters and champagne at fine restaurants. Meanwhile “the other half” lived in tenements and boarding houses, survived on bread and molasses, and imagined a future that would offer their children a better chance.
Progressives had begun enlisting the government to fight corruption and trusts, yet millions accepted things as they were, or else, while toiling sixty or more hours a week, had little time to change them. But there were some who believed things would only change when the “workers of the world” arose, and there were others who would stop at nothing to keep that from happening. When the two sides clashed in a Massachusetts mill town, the epic struggle wove a fabric of community that reminds us of what America can be. The weaving began at dawn.
The work day started with whistles. It ended with bells.
Shortly before six a.m., while the city slumbered, a factory whistle blasted through a blanket of arctic air. Across a dark skyline silhouetted by big shouldered buildings and pierced by smokestacks, another whistle followed, and another and another. Each was sharper than usual because the morning was brutally cold, even for Massachusetts in January. A low front had settled over most of the nation. Temperatures of forty and fifty below had hit the Midwest and there was snow on the beach in Galveston, Texas. In New England, a mass of icy air was locked above the long, low Merrimack River twenty miles north of Boston. A factory whistle slices through such air like a child’s cry cuts through the night, and from the mills — the Pacific and the Ayer, the Everett and the Atlantic, the Washington and the Arlington, the small Kunhardt and the awesome Wood Mill — the whistles screeched.
While streetcars rumbled through downtown, tepid bulbs and oil lamps lit up row after row of tenements. Bleary-eyed people, shivering, stamping their feet, muttering their own peculiar curses, shuffled into dingy kitchens. Water taps were turned on but emitted only the dull thud of frozen pipes. Babies cried for no reason and parents knew exactly how they felt. Finding what privacy they could, women squeezed into starched white shirtwaists while men elbowed for room at mirrors and began shaving with straight razors. Breakfast was served — molasses and bread in some homes, just bread in others. Then, with the city still dark as midnight and the rest of its denizens asleep, the workers of Lawrence headed for the mills.
From a warren of bleak alleys and decaying slums came Labor incarnate. Clusters of women, their long skirts billowing, their hair piled on their heads, emerged from wooden hovels and walked with arms intertwined. Whole families surfaced from homes that were little more than holes – eight, ten, twelve people stepping as if by magic from two rooms. Men in cloth caps rattled down fire escapes. Boys in knickers took shortcuts across flat roofs, dodging stovepipe chimneys, leaping the narrow gaps between buildings, hustling down rickety stairs and spilling onto the street. And within minutes, twenty-eight thousand people — a city within a city — were on their way to work.
They were as miscellaneous as any populace on earth. Seven out of eight were foreign born or children of immigrants. Half had been in America less than five years. In the newly-coined metaphor of the time, this “melting pot” contained the seasonings of fifty-one different nations. There were Poles from Galicia, Italians from Sicily, Syrians from the Ottoman Empire. There were Jews from Riga, Odessa, and other exotic ports of call. Beside them marched Scots, Armenians, Portuguese, Belgians, Germans, English, French-Canadians, Russians, Greeks, Irish, and dozens more nationalities. Their faces were coffee colored, pale as the sky, and every shade in-between. Dark bushy moustaches sprouted from the men, accentuating sad brown eyes, while women’s faces — pretty, plump or skeletal — were framed in shawls or crowned by flowery hats. Their given names were as rooted in the earth as the families they had left back in the “old country.” Maria and Giuseppe. Hans and Helga. Sadie and Otto. Yet workers had many other labels. Mill payrolls catalogued them by job titles – doffers, spinners, weavers, spoolers, yarn boys, carders, pickers. Mill foremen called them Wops and Dagoes, Sheenies and Kikes, Canucks, Polacks, Huns, and Micks. And to the upper crust of Lawrence, old Yankee families tracing their American heritage to colonial times, they were simply “those people.”
As “those people” headed for work, age was another measure of their miscellany. They ranged from tall twelve-year-olds whose forged work papers claimed they were fourteen to men and women approaching fifty. Some were slightly older, but not many lasted that long in the mills. Inhaling fibers that floated through dank, humid mill rooms, a third died within a decade on the job. Malnourished, they succumbed to tuberculosis, pneumonia, or anthrax, known as “the woolsorter’s disease.” They were crushed by machinery, mangled by looms and spinners. In a single five-year span, the Pacific Mill had a thousand accidents, two for every three days on the job. Those who avoided accident or disease just wore out like an old suit. Doctors and ministers in Lawrence lived an average of sixty-five years. Mill bosses could expect to live fifty-eight years. The typical mill worker died at thirty-nine. Yet on this icy morning, defying the odds, Maria, Giussepe, Hans, Helga, and twenty-eight thousand others were marching to work. In the eyes of the mill owners, this gave them a final generic name — Labor.
Like the streams that flowed into the Merrimack, Labor trickled through the streets. Passing alleys reeking of garbage, they followed grimy avenues with ironic names — Oak and Elm, Valley and Park. Then, emerging onto Essex Street, the workers flowed together into a torrent of heads, caps, and faces sweeping past the ornate five-story storefronts of downtown. With the start whistle just minutes away, they picked up pace, powered, it seemed, by rumors. The night before, the rumors had swept through alleys, up stairwells, into cramped tenements. The rumors were ominous, inspiring, amazing: two hundred Polish women had stopped work at the Everett mill on Thursday afternoon! They did not shout or walk out, just stood like statues beside their looms. Through an interpreter, they were asked why. “Not enough pay,” they replied. When they refused to work and were ordered out, they began shouting, urging others to join them. A thousand looms were shut down! All night, the rumors had flown through the tenements. Now they came into the dawning light and a single word circulated in dozens of tongues. Sciopero in Italian. GrÀve in French and Portuguese. Strajkuja in Polish. Streikokim in Lithuanian. Shtrayken in Yiddish. Streik in German. And in English – strike.
Fanning out toward the dozen mills that lined the river, the crowd flowed through the streets, across bridges, and along the menacing facades of red brick buildings several blocks long. Pouring through the yawning gates, twenty-eight thousand workers seemed to melt into the mills. Past time clocks, up creaky wooden stairs, along aisles crowded with machinery, they made their way to their stations. Then each gate was locked. Final whistles signaled the morning “speed-up.” And with a great groan and surge of muscle, steam, and turbine, thousands of machines all over the city started up at once. Another workday had begun.
A mill room, with its panoramic perspective, resembled some Italian Renaissance sketch. The room’s vast ceilings were latticed by overhead beams, each propped by pillars that receded — twenty, forty, a hundred yards — toward some distant vanishing point. Through rows of tall windows, filtered light caught airborne fibers like the sun breaking through the clouds. During winter months, this was the only sunlight mill workers saw from Sunday sunset to Saturday noon. The only sound they heard was an incessant din drummed into their brains. As the mills accelerated into the morning, workers knew something was up, yet they could not share their concerns because a mill at full bore was no place for conversation. No sooner had the machines started than talk abruptly ceased. Along each aisle, men in bib overalls and women in long dresses dutifully tended their machines in silence or with an occasional shout of instructions.
Each mill’s weaving room was its nerve center. On lower floors, women and children cleaned cotton or wool, spun it, then wound it onto spindles and warps, but it all came together on the top floor. There stood the power looms. Shorter than a man but wide as a truck, a power loom was a steel scaffold from which hung three wooden warps, or frames, each laced like a harp. Hooked to pulleys that timed movements to the split-second, frames raised and lowered in sequence. Up-down, clack-clack. With each lift, steel arms hurled a thread-bearing shuttle from one side to the other, whizzing it back and forth more than two “picks” a second. From below, the loom was fed by a spool four-feet wide, like something a fairy tale giant’s wife might use to darn his socks. And rolling off the back end was the fabric — broad, smooth and ready for inspection. Each loom moved so fast a weaver dared not avert his eyes, yet many had to watch a dozen at once, absorbed by their incessant clatter and clash. Take the noise of a single loom, multiply by hundreds of machines spread out across a room that spanned several acres, and the product was the cacophony of millwork. Some workers insisted they got used to the clatter, others said it drove them mad, but many found something hypnotic about it. Instead of a random drone, a weaving room played its own sinister music. Few machines ran at the same speed, so their drumbeat was constantly changing. For a half minute, the room seemed syncopated — RA-ta-ta, RA-ta-ta. Then, when some machines caught up and others fell behind, the whole room marched in a steady clack-CLACK-clack-CLACK. Just when a worker adjusted to the new rhythm, the machines fell out of step and back into syncopation. RA-ta-ta, RA-ta-ta. Clack-CLACK-Clack-CLACK. Ten hours a day. RA-ta-ta, RA-ta-ta. Clack-CLACK-Clack-CLACK. Six days a week. A Sunday off was not enough to get the rhythm out of one’s head, and it started again on Monday. It was still roaring on the morning of Friday, January 12, 1912. It was supposed to last ten hours but within two, the trouble began.
Shortly after the speed-up at the Washington Mill, a crowd of young men and boys began gathering outside the gates along the North Canal. No one paid them much attention. In the small office near the gate, the mill’s paymaster, Charles Kitchin, was finishing the payroll. As he did every Friday, Kitchin expected to spend the morning wheeling his small hand truck from room to room, handing out checks. But at nine a.m., the paymaster heard a roar. Looking through his window, he saw a blur of arms and backs surging through the mill gates and into the courtyard. He immediately called the police. Nightstick in hand, the lone cop on the local beat arrived a few minutes later to find 2,000 people swarming outside the mill. Inside, pay time was approaching when above the steady slam of machinery, a dull roar echoed through several rooms on the ground floor.
The strike began “like a spark of electricity,” one overseer recalled. Racing into the mill, men and boys shouted, “Short pay! All out! All out!” Hundreds bolted past startled workers, heading deeper into the mill. Within minutes, more had left their machines. They stormed through the Washington mill, shouting, whooping, calling to others. Pulling knives, a few slashed the belts that rose like giant rubber bands connecting machines to overhead camshafts. With a long, sickening zip, shreds of rubber and canvas fell to the floor. Machines coasted to a stop. Men tore bobbins from spinning frames and heaved them. Fresh-faced girls recoiled in terror. Boys grinned nervously. Several women fainted, but others left their stations and joined in.
Rampaging through the mill, the workers unfurled two flags — the stars and stripes beside the Italian red, white, and green. The flags were soon paraded along the aisles as workers stopped at stations, begging, threatening, pleading with others to walk out. Bellowing above the din, overseers tried to keep their “hands” from joining the frenzy.
“Tony, if you don’t get back to your place, you’ll lose your job!”
“To hell with the job! I’ll pitch it!”
Station by station, room by room, workers were told to “come out.” Those who tried to intervene were beaten down. In the jack-spooling room, an overseer was hit with a spindle that sent blood gushing from his head. Another was struck by a flying bobbin. False rumors, the first of hundreds, spread like fear itself. One young woman had refused to leave her machine and was stabbed! Another had been shot! Unchecked by police, bosses, or those who just wanted to keep working, workers tore at the mill. They hammered motors. They slashed the threads laced on power looms. They ran knives through finished cloth, shattered lights, threw whatever they could grab. While most of the mill’s employees stayed at their jobs, some 800 joined the strike or were dragged from their machines. Outside, strikers from other mills began gathering at the gates. More calls went out to police, and two officers entered to find fights breaking out with wrenches and other tools. But soon the mob decided the Washington mill was not its prime target. Revenge would be sweeter if aimed at the most hated man in Lawrence. And so, enraged workers stormed into the street and headed for the Merrimack and the world’s largest mill along its banks. . . .