The origin and significance of Labor Day, as with other holidays, appears inevitably lost with time or drawn into the vortex of consumerism, disconnecting it from its roots. Surely, those who first experienced the birth of Labor Day in Maine in 1891 were closer to the “spirit” of the holiday which represents the dignity and value of those who do the work of the world. While Labor Day did not usher in a worker’s utopia, it did serve to remind others of the life, working conditions and intrinsic value of the countless and anonymous workers who paraded through various workplaces to help create the wealth of the state.

The birth of Labor Day in Maine was not unrelated to the level of industrial strife in the state and nation. Between 1881 and 1900 the nation witnessed at least 23,000 strikes. Maine counted at least 176 strikes in that period and at least 21 strikes in 1886, its largest strike year up to that point. Federal or state troops were called out in over 500 labor disputes between 1877 and 1903. Such industrial unrest flowed from working conditions and the treatment of workers who were often viewed as simply units of energy or impersonal costs of production whose “value” was determined by the inexorable laws of the market place.

A glance at the work lives of some Maine workers on the eve of Labor Day aids in appreciating the meaning of Labor Day and the promise of change many believed was signaled by its genesis.

Perhaps it was the lack of fire escapes in the boarding houses and workplaces or the quality of the drinking water that attracted attention of a sensitive observer. A textile operative asked: “Do you not think there should be fire escapes on the corporation boarding houses? Many operatives are up four flats, with only one way to get out, unless by jumping from the windows. And what of the water we drink. Are the great tanks in the top of the tower containing the water kept as clean as they should be?. . . I think water standing open to the dust and dirt of a factory, and exposed to rats, mice and cockroaches should be looked after pretty often”

A textile weaver remarked “When we go into the mill, the door of the mill is locked, and if a fire should break out in the absence of the second hand or overseer there would be great danger.” Maine’s Inspector of Factories, Workshops, Mines and Quarries reported “There are workshops in our State five stories high, employing from one to five hundred hands, which have no fire escapes outside of the buildings, and the means of egress from which in case of fire, is very bad indeed.”

In 1912 after the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in Manhattan, New York City, on March 25, 1911, one of the worst industrial disasters in the nations’s history in which 146 garment workers (123 women and 23 men) died from the fire, smoke inhalation, of falling or jumping to their deaths, the Maine Department of Labor and Industry reported “it would be folly to contend that conditions prevailing in the Maine factories and mills regarding the possibility of loss of life in case of fire are in any sense satisfactory.”

One could not fail to note that toilet facilities, if available, often failed to discriminate between the sexes and left uncovered, and that sometimes textile workers used cotton waste to cleanse themselves after relieving themselves. (Although toilet paper was generally provided by the textile corporations, many female operatives often used it to put their hair in ‘crimps,’ frequently making it necessary to use the cotton waste as a substitute for the original purpose of the toilet paper, thus exacerbating the sanitation problem produced by the notoriously poor toilet facilities.)

Reports from state officials investigating women workers stated “Among the different necessities that go to make up a perfect, healthy and moral work room, is the matter of separate closets or toilet rooms. This calls for prompt action by our law makers. Employers should be compelled to provide suitable accommodations so that women would not have to submit to the embarrassment they now compelled to undergo….In several (workplaces) where from fifteen to twenty women and men were employed, the only toilet room was found in a dark basement, and in one the water closet was found in the boiler room where all were compelled to pass back and forth in full view of the firemen.…”

One investigation reported “In one cotton mill visited, there were no doors to the closets, and there never had been, and the men’s and women’s closets were adjoining. There was a turn in the ?nishing, which acted somewhat as a screen. In one shoe factory, whose pay-roll shows the names of sixty-?ve females, mostly young girls, there is only one closet on each floor for men and women. When I spoke of this to one of the proprietors of the factory he instanced, in excuse, a railway car! Another employer, on whom I urged the necessity of a closet other than the one in the establishment where seventeen women were employed, gave this information: “Before this was put in the girls had to go to the -—— Hotel.” Think of it! A girl obliged to go from the heated atmosphere of a laundry in mid-winter to a hotel some little distance away, up stairs and down! This one closet, now provided, is used by the public in connection with bath-rooms!”

A stenographer and type writer in Portland commented “It does seem strange that several blocks I know in Portland do not have toilet rooms for the women employed in them. Cannot something be done to compel the owners to make some suitable arrangements? There are many of us women who are situated in pretty difficult circumstances on account of sanitary arrangements.” A woman shoe finisher remarked “The most objectionable thing in our factory is that the men and women use the same water closet,” , etc.

In the summer, mill workers could count themselves among the more fortunate if their employer provided them with ice for water when the oppressive heat of the workplace taxed their endurance. Other employees might find that they had to share their meager earnings to purchase the valued ice. In the winter, workers employed in rooms that did not require much steam, frequently found themselves uncomfortably cold and forced to wrap themselves in shawls and jackets.

Nor could an observer fail to note the lack of privacy among women textile workers who generally changed their street cloths for lighter garments and had to do so behind the spinning frames and weaving machines which proved morally repugnant to those sensitive about such matters.

State officials further noted that a place to sit and rest could be a luxury. “Humanity calls for some action among the employers of women in the matter of providing suitable seats to be used, even when only a few moments of rest can be obtained, when not actually engaged in their duties. In many instances I have found women siting on the floor, where no other accommodations were provided.”

Hear the plea of the sales woman who labored from seven in the morning until six in the evening that such “is long enough for any girl to stand on her feet.” Listen to the horse car drivers who stood for fifteen hours or more a day pleading for seats for a momentary relief from standing for such a long period of time or the cries of a woman shoe finisher who remarked “All girls sit, except the finishers, the dressers, and packers. No seats are provided for them, and it is hard to stand all day.” (Not until 1911 did the Legislature begin to address the issue.)

The fining system was a common feature in many work places. A stitcher and folder, in a book bindery and an advocate for “equal pay for equal work” remarked “I do not think as a general thing that girls get enough wages for the work they do. For the same work a man does they frequently receive but half as much pay. The girls in our shop are compelled twice a day to walk up three long flights of stairs when there is an elevator in the building. If absent form work fifteen minutes from whatever cause, it is deducted from the week’s wages.” A clerk for the American Express remarked “Wages retained if by accident any goods are injured while in immediate charge of same.” The work rules of the Ara Cushman Shoe Company of Auburn included the rule “Damage will be charged for cases passed with shoes out or damaged, and for inferior work or mistakes.” The women garment workers of Gardiner were fined for a loose thread in the garments. A clerk in a publishing house noted “we have three holidays a year, but our pay is taken out. If we are out for an hour or five minutes, it is taken out of our wages.” Indeed, one could be fined for a fainting spell or failing to return immediately to work following the funeral of a family member. Even children were not exempt from this “disciplinary” practice. (The severity and prevalence of the finning system can be gleaned by an official Department of Labor report in 1908: “Some workers have the entire amount due for weaving the article taken from their pay, others only a portion.” In 1910 a labor organizer for textile workers reported that one who fell victim to this penalty might in his pay envelope the following terse summation of his earnings: “John Smith $5.40, balance, nil.”)

A regular pay day was not something a worker could assume. Picture, for example, the response of a quarryman when asked how often he was paid. He replied “For a man who has not been paid in fifteen years, I find that question is a stunner.” He and many others lived off the ubiquitous company store and it was often a condition of employment to trade there where the prices were generally higher and workers paid in “shelf currency.” Many workers considered this a form of “bondage” or “slavery” since it prohibited workers from trading elsewhere and leaving them in debt. The situation of payment of wages was aggravated when small firms failed, leaving the employees with “no protection at all.” On the eve of the birth of Labor Day it was not unusual for an employee to possess “due bills for work done years ago that have never been paid.”

Workers, as a condition of employment, signed contracts which withheld part of their wages. Such contracts were a means of providing working capital for employers, served as a means of disciplining workers, preventing them from leaving work without notice, and serving as protection against spontaneous strikes as a means of addressing grievances.

Employers relied on imprisonment for debt, called “a relic of barbarism” by Governor Harris Plaisted in 1881, and the trustee process for enforcing the laborer to pay his/her obligation. Faced with many debts, the laborer was frequently in a situation in which he was forced to assign his goods to a trustee or his wages in advance to a creditor. (In 1908, an investigator of the textile mills for the Bureau of Industrial and Labor Statistics labor took note of the state’s trustee law and remarked that “Cases were cited where a bill which was small in the beginning, became so increased by fees that the original amount was quite submerged, and the entire earnings of a man or woman were absorbed, leaving nothing for them on which to live from week to week.”)

Children, some reported to be not more than seven years of age, joined their parents for the morning procession through the mills which began in morning darkness for lengthly hours of toil. Child labor, the “perennial plant,”which was variously attributed to the pressures of poverty, family ignorance and greed, the employers’ insatiable hunger for profits, and the capitalistic system itself, led to cries to “end the slaughter of children’s tender bodies and innocent souls” and rescue them from serving as “fuel for the Octopus Trusts.” (While a measure of relief for children began in 1887, the fact that laws are not self-executing was reflected in a federal investigation in 1908 which found Maine to be the worst violator in New England of its child labor laws.)

Work related death, injury, and disease were features of the industrial workplace and was reflected by those ensnared by belting, torn by circular saws, scalded by escaping steam, dismembered by premature explosions of dynamite, fell to their death from staging, or into an elevator shaft, or quarries, and otherwise suffered from the infinite and varied wounds inflicted upon them by a modern industrial climate.

An observer of Maine’s textile operatives in the late nineteenth century, for example, might wonder if “the jar” experienced in the weaving rooms related to the health of the weavers, and how much of the deafness, which was occasionally found among weavers, could be traced to the noise of the machinery. Weavers often filled their ears with cotton for protection against such noise.

She might also wonder how the health of the operatives was affected by “threading the shuttle by holding it to the mouth and drawing the thread through by suction,” or by the discomfort to the nose and eyes produced by gas lights which were “hurtful to the eyes,” particularly during the winter months.

Perhaps she was compelled to note the ever present lint that entered the throat of textile workers which often produced chronic catarrh, an inflamed condition of a mucous membrane, usually that of the nose or throat, causing a discharge of mucus. Women often took to the practice of using snuff to relieve the irritation to their throats. This resulted in much spitting which carpeted the floors and simply exacerbated health problems.

In the year that workers were marching in Labor Day parades in 1891, Maine’s Bureau of Industrial and Labor Statistics reported that in the Auburn shoe factories “Poor ventilation, variable temperature, insufficiency of water closets, and constant muscular and nervous tension, make shoe workers far from contented, and while the condition of the man who leaves for out door work in the spring, returning late in the fall, is to be seen with sympathy, what, may I ask, can be the conception of the sufferings of those continuing year after year in the shop? Kidney, stomach, liver, lung and membraneous afflictions are a few of the disorders from which they suffer.”

One could also hear the monotonous pleas for fresh air among workers. A stitcher on shirt collars remarked ”one of the great needs of the working people is better ventilation. The most of us are obliged to work in overheated rooms, with no pure air, only what we get from window. If we obey orders we are not allowed to open them.” (The Biddeford Pepperell mills ultimately place ground class in the windows to prevent workers from being “distracted.”)

Such examples could be multiplied and illustrate the human cost of industrialization and the cultural lag in addressing its advance.

Included in this partial mosaic of Maine workers on the eve of Labor Day was the widespread intimidation and bribery of workers during elections which was reflected by worker protest and in legislation enacted in 1889 to prohibit the sale of votes. The purity and extension of democracy was advanced with the enactment of the secret (“honest”) ballot in 1891 which coincided with the genesis of Labor Day!


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