The Cotton Business in 1835 and Now

The Cotton Business in 1835 and Now

A fond farewell to child labor and throstle frames.
by Stephen A. Knight

Engraving of Stephen A. Knight, 1907.
Stephen A. Knight. Engraving from Representative Men and Old Families of Rhode Island, published by J.H. Beers and Company (1908).

The following article began as a short speech before the National Association of Cotton Manufacturers in 1906. A longer version was subsequently published in several newspapers and journals (including the Providence Sunday Journal in July 1906), and in the three-volume Representative Men and Old Families of Rhode Island, published by J.H. Beers and Company in 1908, from which this transcription was taken.

Perhaps no other branch of industry illustrates more forcibly the changes that have taken place in conditions of employment and the lives of mill workers, during the past three-quarters of a century, than the cotton spinning industry. One whose memory does not go back to the early days of the industry in New England can hardly realize the striking comparisons that are offered between conditions of 1835, when I first entered the mill, and those of to-day. We may sigh, at times, for the "good old days," as they are called, but this is only because the actual conditions of those old days are half forgotten, and the memory of their hardships softened by the passage of the years.

During my connection with the cotton industry I have seen the hours of work reduced over thirty per cent., wages increased some two hundred per cent., such child labor as was the unquestioned custom of those days prohibited by law, and an increase in educational and social advantages that we little dreamed of. All these changes have been of gradual development, so that only those of us whose memory goes back to the earlier days, and whose experience includes the new standards as well as the old, can appreciate how sharp is the contrast.

It was in the spring of 1835 when I began my labors in a cotton mill as bobbin boy, or back boy, as it was called in those days. The fact that I was then less than seven years old, and that my entering the mill at that youthful age was in harmony with the ideas of the time, illustrates better than anything else could do the changed point of view in regard to child labor between then and now.

The mill was in the town of Coventry, its owner [Elisha Harris] was one of the progressive and intelligent manufacturers of the day, who had been governor of the State, and whose standards were as enlightened and humane as any. And yet his attitude toward his help, as illustrated in the following incident, though typical of all manufacturers of that day, was such as would not be tolerated to-day.

It was his custom to make a contract with his help on the 1st of April, for the coming year. On one occasion the mother of several children who were employed in the mill, when making the contract for them, complained that the pay seemed small, and suggested that a better contract might be offered her.

"You get enough to eat, don't you?" asked the employer.

"Just enough to keep the wolf from the door," she replied.

"And you have enough clothes to wear, haven't you?" he continued.

"Barely enough to cover our nakedness," said she.

"Well," said the employer, ending the interview, "we want the rest." And he undoubtedly considered his point of view the just and reasonable one.

My services as bobbin boy brought me forty-two cents a week [adjusted for inflation, that comes to just $10.54 in 2019.—ed.]. For this sum I worked in the mill, on an average, fourteen hours a day for six days a week, or a total of eighty-four hours. Thus my pay was at a rate of half a cent per hour.

No daylight was wasted by the manufacturer. During the summer months we went in as early as we could see, without having waited for anything to eat. After working about an hour and a half we had half an hour for breakfast. At twelve o'clock we had another half-hour for dinner, and then we worked until the light began to fail. The stars were out as we walked home for supper, and bedtime came quickly after the evening meal. There was neither time nor energy left for evening pastimes.

During the winter months, from September 20 to March 20, the hours in the mill were from 5 o'clock in the morning to 8 o'clock in the evening, with the same hours, or half-hours, for meals as in the summer time. As may readily be seen, there was little time for "schooling" for the children of the mill village, and opportunities for education and recreation were extremely limited for all. The mill bell was the only clock that was needed in the village. By it the lives of the workers were regulated, and it left time for little else than work.

What little opportunity we had for education was chiefly on Sunday, and it was in the Sabbath-school that I, like many other children who were mill workers, practically learned the alphabet. The Sabbath-school of those days and in the mill town was much more general in its teaching than is ordinarily the case to-day. We had primers to read from and found there the opportunity to learn to read that we were unable to secure during the week.

There were also at times during the winters evening schools taught by private individuals which we could attend, but these accomplished little, since a child who had worked fourteen hours in a mill, ending at 8 o'clock in the evening, was poorly fitted to devote much time to study. My own first regular attendance at school was when I was about twenty years old, after I had earned money enough to enable me to devote time to study. I had come to realize the necessity of as much education as I could get, and I gave as many hours to study as I had given to work in the mill.

The pay for mill workers was as small as the hours were long. For the younger children fifty cents a week was about the maximum. Good spinners could earn from $2 to $2.50 a week. Weavers made from $3 to $5 a week, the latter being regarded as unusually large remuneration. Overseers were paid from $6 to $7.50 a week, but he was an uncommonly good man who could command the higher figure.

Pay-day came only four times a year, instead of every week, as now. Practically all the family trading was done at the company store and the amount charged against the employee there was deducted from the wages for three months. It took from four to six weeks to balance these accounts before pay was ready for the operative for the preceding three months.

The frequency of pay-day is one of the changes that have come gradually during the years. From one in three months it was changed to once a month, then to once in two weeks, and finally to once a week.

The mill worker who, after the manner of many to-day, moves frequently from mill to mill and from town to town, would have found his infrequent pay a serious handicap, but in the early days this phase of the question was not involved, since contracts were for the year, and the mill worker rarely changed locations except at the time when these yearly contracts were made. Moving vans were rarely seen in the mill villages except during the early days of April.

I have referred to the manner in which these contracts were made by each operative or by parents for their minor children who were employed. It is worthy of note that such contracts were almost never broken. Once signed, each party to it considered himself bound by it for the year, and to violate one was considered a mark of disgrace.

It is indeed an impressive comparison that is afforded by these figures of hours and wages that prevailed in Rhode Island mills seventy-one years ago. The comparison in other ways is no less striking. Conditions of living have steadily advanced, as is natural where more leisure and more money are available.

Our homes are larger to-day; the houses are better built and kept in better repair; their furnishings are better; sanitary conditions are greatly improved; adequate schools are provided; opportunities for recreation are present in ever-increasing variety. In the old days, if we wished our homes papered or painted, we had to do it at our own expense. Even necessary repairs to our houses we often had to make ourselves. Nowadays many employees have houses of their own, a thing almost unknown seventy years ago, while those who are living in houses owned by the mill companies have them kept in far better condition than was the case in my boyhood.

Many of the changes and improvements are provided for by statute, but the laws merely reflect the advance in standards of living that has taken place, and many features of modern mill village life are due, not to the requirements of law, but to the closer and better relations that exist between employer and employed.

With all the improvements that have been made in mill machinery during the past seventy years, nearly all workers are more familiar. I worked in my first mill for eleven years, and even during that period many changes were accomplished and many improved devices introduced. My first work as back boy was to put in the roving on a pair of mules containing 256 spindles, three hands [—a spinner, a foreside piecer and a back boy—] being required to keep the pair of mules in operation. The power for the mill was taken from the Pawtuxet River onto a breast wheel connected with segment gears to an upright shaft. The wheel was nearly in the center of the mill, occupying a space on the first floor about twenty feet long, and about three-quarters of the width of the mill, taking also the full height of the first story, which was the weaving room. The belting for the transmission of power was made from sides of leather just as it came from the tannery, the overseer in each room making his own.

The cotton as it came to the mill was easy to work, being in large, uncompressed bales from which it came soft and fleecy. It was fed by hand onto an apron attached to the card. The stripping was done by hand, and an expert stripper could earn 58 cents a day, this being three shillings and sixpence, which was the form of reckoning.

Much of the machinery was clumsy and crude in comparison with that which we have to-day, and automatic attachments were rare. Then, as now, however, improvement was steadily going on. Wider cards were introduced, lappers installed, geared speeders adopted, and ring spinning substituted for throstle frames. These and many minor improvements tended to improve the quality of the goods and cut down the cost of manufacture.

Antique throstle spinning frame, 2019.
An example of a throstle spinning frame, from the Locks and Canal Company, Lowell, Massachusetts, circa 1835, on display at Old Slater Mill National Historic Landmark, Pawtucket. (September 28, 2019).

These changes in machinery and mill equipment, however, are less impressive, except to the mill expert, than are the changes in living conditions of the operatives, to which I have already referred, in showing the vast advance that we have made since the period that we term the "good old days," which in reality would be termed extremely bad days were their conditions suddenly to return.

Not only are we living amid better surroundings, with better conditions of working and living, but the opportunities for individual advancement are keeping pace with the other advances. I am often asked if I think the young man of to-day has as good a chance to rise in the business world as did his elders. To this I answer that, in my opinion, never since our Pilgrim Fathers landed on the shores of Plymouth were the opportunities for a young man's success greater than they are today.

It is for the young man himself to determine whether he will be a success or not. The gates and the avenues are open to him; it is for him to elect whether he will or will not avail himself of the golden opportunities awaiting him.

Success, however, requires concentration and persistence. I am a believer in the old proverb that a rolling stone gathers no moss. In my mill life of seventy-one years I have worked in only four mills, first in the Coventry mill I have already described, and which has now been torn down, next at Riverpoint, and later in Pontiac, then in Hebronville, [Massachusetts], where for fifty-three years I have acted as superintendent, agent, or president.

In this experience of uninterrupted mill work for more than threescore years and ten, which, I believe, has not often been equaled, I have seen the development of the textile industry to proportions we little dreamed of when I entered as bobbin boy, and I have watched the working out of steadily improving ideals of employment, which, I believe, is sure to continue.

Stephen A. Knight (1828-1907) was the brother of Benjamin Brayton Knight and Robert Knight, for whom the firm of B.B. and R. Knight, once one of the largest textile manufacturers in the world and creators of the Fruit of the Loom brand, was named. Stephen served as general manager for the company's Hebronville, Dodgeville, and Grant Mills. He is buried in Swan Point Cemetery in Providence.

Last Edited