Former CBS News producer Moran examines the broken promises that led to abysmal conditions in the New England textile mills and then to sharp retaliatory responses by their workers.
Thanks to the industrial spying of Francis Cabot Lowell and the mechanical inventiveness of Paul Moody, New England became the textile center of the world in the early 19th century. At first, mill towns like Moodus, Connecticut, Manchester, New Hampshire, and Lowell, Massachusetts, displayed a measure of social enlightenment, offering their workers adequate if hardly sumptuous boardinghouses, libraries, evening lectures (Emerson and Thoreau might be on the ticket), and music. But as Moran explains, soon the “aging mill owners in Boston grasped at the steady dividends they awarded themselves and their stockholders and let slip away the credo of social responsibility.” You needn't be a radical (and the author isn't; he plays on a level field) to find reprehensible the resulting cuts in wages, failure to keep technology current, decline in housing stock, and insidious introduction of child labor, all of which made mill work increasingly dangerous both physically and emotionally. Moran traces the demographic evolution of mill workers, from young New England women when the mills started in the 1820s to Irish on the run from the 1845–49 potato famine, French Canadians whose land gave out after that, and Eastern and Southern European laborers by the end of the 19th century. He charts their ethnic warfare and moments of solidarity, the growth of labor unions (and the vital importance of women in this development), and the great Lawrence strike of 1912. He also follows the mill owners’ subsequent flight to the South, cheap labor, and a union-free environment, a process all but complete by 1950.
Gimlet-eyed, ethically poised history: readers will have plenty to think about the next time they visit one of those prettily restored mill museums. (8-page photo insert)