When 8-year-olds demanded more: The little-known child labor strike of Brunswick

The blog French North America and website for the New England Historical Society have in recent months raised awareness of an oft-overlooked episode in Maine labor history: The time child millworkers in Brunswick went on strike for a better deal.

According to the historical society and newspaper accounts of the time, workers at the Cabot Manufacturing Co. textile mill in Brunswick between the ages of 8 and 14 years old learned in August of 1881 that children in a similar mill in Lewiston were making a penny more a day than they were.

French North America reported that A.G. Tenney, editor of The Brunswick Telegraph at the time, explained that “[i]t is stated that the wages in the mill have been rather under than above the average of the cotton mills of this state — that some of the young children work at $1 per week, and some as low as 8 cents per day” (although Tenney was skeptical about the lower figure).

It was a grim existence for the youngsters, who the New England Historical Society described as largely Franco-American children of immigrants from Quebec.

“Some were only seven years old,” the society reported, in part. “They worked in the Cabot textile mill, which employed 550 workers in 1881, 375 females and 175 males. The millworkers lived in Brunswick’s Little Canada along the Androscoggin River, four blocks of filthy, decrepit, company-owned tenements. Smokestacks spewed carbon monoxide from burning coal. Rats infested the mill buildings, and workers had to shake the vermin out of their clothes when their shifts were over. Typhoid and diphtheria stalked the millworkers and their families.”

The younger workers served as so-called doffers, doing the long-since-mechanized task of replacing full spindles with empty ones on the spinning machines.

Often barefoot, they ran the risk of getting hands and feet caught in the wheels of the machines, or breathing in air dirty with lint and contracting an often fatal condition known as “brown lung.”

News reports cited by the historical society and French North America didn’t seem to get into great detail about the children’s strike, mentioning it largely in the context of a subsequent strike among the adult workers.

The Telegraph reported generally that the “boys 8 to 14 years of age struck for higher pay, got it, and thus led to strikes in [the] spinning and mule rooms,” which at least temporarily shut down the mill.

Essentially, the grown-ups said, “Hey, the kids demanded more money, we should do that, too.”

Led by the children’s example, the striking adult male millworkers were able to get raises from $1.42 per day to $1.50, while their female counterparts were given raises from 90 cents per day to $1.05.

The historical society reported that by 1886, the state of Maine demanded Cabot clean up the squalid tenements, and in 1887, started taking steps to limit exploitation of children in manufacturing, namely by passed a law requiring students under the age of 15 to attend at least 16 weeks of school before being allowed to work in mills.

By 1915, the state would pass even more progressive child labor rules, preventing anyone under the age of 14 from working during school hours. These Maine laws came decades before Congress passed the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act, placing the minimum working age during school hours at 16, among other things.