As we witness a renaissance of xenophobia and the rise of ethnic and racial discord, echoes of Maine historical threads of such intolerance quickly comes to mind.

One in particular was sparked by a national investigation of child labor in the early 20th century by Mrs. John Van Vorst, author of The Cry Of The Children (1908). Textile mills she investigated while in Maine included the Goodall Mills in Sanford. When she queried the owner on the question of child labor, he tersely replied with the guilt-free remark, “I don’t have much conscience about using French little help.”

His abbreviated comment was a rather dehumanizing, negative perception of French-Canadians and could serve as a template of prejudice  experienced by French-Canadians in Maine.

In the later part of the 19th century, the French-Canadians, were described as the “coolies of the East,”  a “horde of industrial invaders,” who were “swarming” into the state and working for cheap wages. They “cared nothing for our institutions, political, civil or educational,” and were “the most undesirable class of ignorant French Canadians with whom it is utterly impossible to reason,”

They did not generally “seek to be naturalized,” nor “will they send their children to school if they can help it, but endeavor to crowd them into the mills at the earliest possible age.”

In seeking employment for their children they “deceive” the age and schooling of their children and thus “smuggle” them into the mills “at the earliest age possible.” This accusation of parents exploiting their own children appeared to be commonplace.

The lime workers of Rockland offered the view  that the French-Canadians were not only working for a dollar day, but their importation meant exposure to smallpox and an “assortment of diseases unknown here.”

In a letter to the Rockland Opinion, a worker shouted  “If Frenchmen are brought they will be the meanest scum of humanity. The great mass of Frenchmen when they come are entirely without education and their habits of living are by no means such as we would desire to see become the rule among American workmen.”

A Bowdoin scholar declared “it can hardly be doubted” that French Canadians were “nowhere received with cordiality,” or “commonly referred to save as an inferior class.” He noted their religion was “denounced as un-American, and the influence of the church little regarded or else misconstrued.”

He further observed that while the law required them to send their children to school,“ public schools offer scanty advantages to children who can neither speak English or read French.”

The pervasiveness of discrimination against French-Canadians was also reflected in comments by state officials investigating the working conditions of  women in the textile industry: A “strong race felling” prevailed, “particularly against French girls,” who were “often hated by their co-workers.”

Frequently criticized by the rising chorus of protest against child labor from a growing labor movement and middle-class humanitarians who cried out against the “enslavement of little caucasian children in the factories,” (primarily French-Canadian children who labored 10 to 12 hours a day), Maine factory inspectors generally traced the problem to the “foreign” element which readily translated into the “greedy” French-Canadians parents and their cultural values.

A spokesperson for the Maine Department of Labor (then called the Bureau of Industrial and Labor Statistics) appeared to give this view a semi-official standing when she stated “It is said that American parents work for their children, but the foreigner makes his children work for him.”

Children were known to have been whipped, beaten, and abused in the process of “enriching” their “greedy” parents, “who do not care what happens to their offspring, morally or mentally, so long as their puny bodies can earn the pittance ‘ill the growler’ and replenish the parental pipe.”

It was not unusual to see “small boys” employed in different parts of the mill who had “maimed hands or bodies.”  Observers noted that children, as well as adults, were subject to a “fining” system for imperfect work or accidental damage to property.

The French-Canadians did have “one good trait,” however. They were ”indefatigable workers, and docile,” which was great news for employers seeking cheap labor, and an orderly, stable, and predictable workforce which maximized their profit in competition with Southern mills.

Southern competition was always found in the portfolio of arguments use by the textile industry in opposing labor reforms of any kind.

In seeking to grapple with the rising issue of child labor,  a state’s factory inspector offered a glimpse of the nature of opposition of those who subscribed to a negative “laissez-faire“ view of government relative to the lives of its citizens:

“By what right, you ask, does the State step between these parties and forbid any child labor under a certain age, and all child labor of any age, except on certain conditions? How can the State justify its denial  to law-abiding people, of the God-ordained privilege of earning their bread by the seat of their brows, or by the moisture of brows dependent upon them for sustenance: The State benignly answers: We too, plead the law of self preservation, a preservation without which life for you, the employer, and for you the employed would not be worth living.The State pleads the higher divine right of your children, and all children, to grow to maturity intelligently and morally trained men and women, not ignorant and bestial monstrosities; fitted to govern, not merely governed; to buildup and adorn cheerful homes; to make the world better for their having lived in it”

The employment of children could  easily be construed to be a virtuous act for “When the parent does not find employment for their children, the Devil will.” Employers could thus readily see themselves as engaged in a larger social mission beneficial to society by rescuing children from the streets and alleyways, teaching them the values of work and aiding their struggling families in need of additional income.

Appealing to employers was the action taken by French-Canadians assembled in convention in Waterville in 1881 in adopting resolutions which condemned strikes as detrimental to public interest and against the moral and religious duties of Catholic citizens (although, in fact, they did sporadically rebel against employer expectations of compliance).

In 1904 the Maine Federation of Women’s Clubs (MFWC), not exactly Maine’s resident radical organization, launched a state-wide investigation of child labor. An MFWC investigator of child labor in the textile mills of Biddeford quickly revealed “that it was merely necessary to stand at the mill gates and see the little girls and boys obviously not more than 8 or 9 years old (some were reported to be a young as 7 or 8) who go to work at 6 o’clock every morning,” children who were “obviously” under 12 years of age (in violation of existing law.)

When she queried mill officials about the age of a young girl within her view, they simply pointed an accusing finger at the parents laboring next to the child and remarked that they “want her wages and they swear that she is 12 years old, and we have to take her.” Employers were not responsible for the presence of children under legal age working in their mills, even though the spirit of the law suggested that they should question any certificate of a child whose stature would cast doubts upon the validity of such certificates.

The investigator for (MFWC) noted that the machinery was “entirely unprotected” and often caused injury to the young workers who sought to clean it while it was in motion. She reported that it was not unusual to see “small boys” employed in different parts of the mill who had “maimed hand or bodies.”

The air, she reported, was “so filled with cotton lint that it made me choke and the noise was so deafening in some rooms that my tongue seemed paralyzed and on emerging it was with difficulty that I could speak above a whisper.”

Other observes noted that children, as well as adults, were subject to a “fining” system for imperfect work or accidental damage to property.

When mill officials were queried about the age of a young girl view, they simply pointed an accusing finger at the parents laboring next to the child and remarked that they “want her wages and they swear that she is 12 years old * and we have to take her.”

Employers were not responsible for the presence of children under legal age working in their mills, even though the spirit of the law suggested that they should question any certificate of a child whose stature would cast doubts upon the validity of such certificates. Thus, child labor in mill and workshop, “was a sweet financial morsel “ for employers and parents.

Nor did the comments of an apologist for the textile industry in Lewiston (The American Cotton and Wool Reporter ) aid the cause of the children or  that of  factory inspectors and enforcement of the law when he wrote:

These people  [French-Canadians] live up to President Roosevelt’s ideas on the race question, and their children are raised to work in the mill as naturally as a banker’s son is raised to succeed his father in the bank, and it is not doing the mill children anything but harm to raise ideas in their minds that they are not in their proper station.

Again, readers were alerted to the subtle differences between ethnic groups which they should consider before rushing to judgment about the ages of the children who labored in the city’s mills:

Now, in the Lewiston mills there are two distinct nationalities employed, the Irish and the French-Canadian.  There is no mistake about estimating [the age of] the husky, big-chested, Irish boys and girls, as they are full sized and healthy and wide awake, with hardly an exception, but the French-Canadians are entirely the reverse as regards stature and appearance.  Naturally a small race, with a pallor, or delicate features, they at first give one the impression of being sickly, of a retiring nature, or perhaps a more high-strung temperament than are the Irish operatives, they do not appear such hale-fellows-well-met, but a brief investigation finds but few cases where mill work has been injurious to them . . . .  They are undersized as a general thing, with delicate features and a haphazard judging of their ages is liable to lead to errors.

Maine labor unions, while they contained rank and file members who shared in prejudice against French-Canadians, generally traced the primary cause of child labor to low wages and poverty, and the insatiable demand for profit by employers of labor, rather than to  parental “greed” and “ignorance” or some other individual or ethnic “defect.” Maine’s young Socialist Party (1900) viewed child labor as a necessary and inevitable feature  of the “real” problem, i.e., the capitalistic move of production and thus shifted the focus from the “greedy” foreign component to “greedy” capitalists and the capitalist system which if viewed as beyond redemption.

Child labor was the “perennial plant” and an enforcement nightmare. A federal investigation of the textile industry in 1908 revealed that every mill visited in Maine was in violation of the child labor law.  Not surprisingly, in 1910 John Golden, President of the United Textile Workers of America, addressing the National Child Labor Committee, remarked:

Who interests themselves in this matter?  Is it the capitalists?  No.  Is it the churches? No.  They pray for the children Sunday and prey upon them the rest of the week.  It is the labor organizations that are coming to the rescue.  Here is a civilized State and children eleven years of age working in factories and, this is temperate Maine!

He would later return to Maine in 1916 to say:

The worst stigma of Maine is that up to this time you have allowed the women and children to be exploited; their blood to be used to lubricate the machinery to grind out profit for capital.

In 1910,  John Golden, President of the United Textile Workers of America, addressing the National Child Labor Committee, remarked that:

I ask any of you to go out among the textile workers, either the organized or the unorganized, of any New England state, ask them to what extent they are protected by factory inspection, ask them how rigidly the labor laws on the statute books–placed there after years of struggle of the labor unions–are enforced, and I will warrant that ninety-five per cent will tell you that factory inspectors are a joke, and that factory inspection is a farce.

State Sen. W. R.  Pattangall of Waterville, who observed the “slight frames and pale faces” parading through factory gates, echoed the observations of Golden when, in 1910, he remarked that “If all the children working in the mills in the State are 14 years of age then we are indeed fast becoming a Lilliputian race.” ( the age limit had been raised fourteen)  Little Lilliputians continued to be “smuggled” into the mills and factories, however, and hidden in or behind boxes or otherwise made invisible to factory inspectors.

Based upon figures gathered from the Maine School report for 1906, a writer for New England Magazine asked the question “Where are the Missing Children? and took note that the number of children of school age in Lewiston, the heart of Maine’s textile industry was 8,018 but only 2,002, or less than one-fourth, actually attended the spring term. Similar results were revealed for other textile centers such as Biddeford, Augusta, and Saco. While taking account of parochial and private schools as a factor in the lack of students in public schools, the author was convinced that young children was one of Maine’s best  “money crops.”

In very large measure, the French-Canadians helped to build one of the leading industries in the state (textile), and while the state could boast of its national standing in the industry, it said very little of those countless, anonymous French-Canadians and their children who formed the spine of the labor force in the industry and helped to make such  economic boasts possible.


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