Guiding Question:

What were the options available to the 1912 Lawrence strikers and their families?

If you were a member of one of these families, what would you have done?

Introduction

lawrence map

 

In 1912 Lawrence was one of the greatest textile centers in the world. The primary owner of the mills was the American Woolen Company with thirty-four factories. Over 40,000 people, or approximately half of the population of Lawrence, were employed by the mills.

Men, women, and children often worked fourteen hours a day, six days a week, in unhealthy and hazardous factory environments. The factory floors were brutally hot in summer and painfully cold in winter. The machinery was dangerous and the constant pressure to speed up production increased the risk of accident and injury

Image of two children in Lawrence, MA 1911 - from the Lawrence Survey p. 72The cost of living in Lawrence was higher than elsewhere in New England. Wages were low, rents were high, and living conditions in Lawrence were crowded, unhealthy and often dangerous. Mortality rates for children were high and 33% of adults died before they reached age twenty-five. Under Massachusetts’s law, school was compulsory for children until age fourteen. Many children took full time jobs in the mills when they reached 14 years old and many poor parents lied about their children’s ages and sent them before they reached fourteen years old.

On January 1,1912, in response to the hazardous conditions in the mills, the Massachusetts Legislature enacted a law reducing the work-week for women and children from 56 hours per week to 54 hours per week. At that time, half of the workers in the mills were women and children. Families were financially dependent on these wages to survive. This decrease in hours resulted in a lower weekly take home wage for all women and children in the mills.

Worker in the woolen mills of Lawrence, MA.  Photo from Lawrence History Center, taken by Kathleen GraceUpset with the pay cut, immigrant employees of the American Woolen Company Mills went out on strike on January 11,1912. The first to strike were Polish women. Soon other immigrant women joined the strike and within a week more than 20,000 workers were on strike. This strike became known as the "Bread and Roses Strike."

Mill management and city and state officials responded to the strike with force. The Mayor ordered a company of the local militia to patrol the streets. The state militia broke up meetings and marches.

Law and order in Lawrence - cartoon from time of Bread and Roses Strike

The I.W.W. union raised funds to help to striking workers. The union also arranged for several hundred children of strikers to temporarily live with sympathetic families in New York, Philadelphia and Barre, VT.

The questions are:
  • What were the options available to the strikers and their families?
  • If you were a member of one of these families, what would you have done?

Header, Background and Top Image: Map of Lawrence, MA,1876;
Courtesy ofNorman B. Leventhal Map Center at Boston Public Library

Middle Image: Two Boys in Lawrence, MA (1911), p. 72The Report on the Lawrence Surveys: Studies in Relation to Lawrence, MA
made in 1911, under the advice of Francis H. McLean by Robert E. Todd and Frank B. Sanborn at the procurement of the White Fund

Middle Image: Worker in the woolen mills of Lawrence, MA.
Photo from Lawrence History Center, taken by Kathleen Grace.

Bottom Image: "Law and Order in Lawrence" by Art Young, Industrial Worker, March 21, 1912. From Labor Arts.