On her 90th birthday, in 1912, Dorcus W. Nutter sat down with reporters at her daughter’s home in Saco. One of the oldest people in the city, the former factory worker’s health had been declining in recent months, but she was still quite sharp, an avid reader and a great conversationalist. The newspapers wanted to be sure they interviewed her while she was still alive, for she had seen firsthand the dramatic transformation of Saco from a tiny backwater to an industrial center. She was also among the 400 women who took on the mighty York Manufacturing Company in 1841.
Born in Groveville, a village of Buxton, Maine, on July 25, 1822, Nutter attended the local country school until 1835, when, at age 13, she was hired to work in the spooling department at the York textile mill.
“All the money the girl spoolers received in the pay envelope each week was 60 cents,” she recalled. “We had to clothe ourselves and pay other expenses out of that. There were no nickel picture shows or trolley cars to take our money, but if there had been we could not have patronized them. The board was nothing to brag of. I only stayed at the [company boarding house] a short time as I was homesick. The girls told me that for dinner they had broth and water, for supper ‘applesass’ and bread and butter. They had some meat and some fish occasionally, but no one who lived at one of the mill boarding houses ever suffered to any extent from indigestion.”
Shortly after Nutter arrived in Saco there was a smallpox outbreak, so she went home to her family until the epidemic swept through the factory. “The contagion frightened many of the mill hands, but the factory did not shut down,” she said. “Many people were stricken with the dreaded disease. That was the first time smallpox ever raged in York County, they said. After the scare was over I came back.”
The women often complained that the boarding houses were crowded, uncomfortable and poorly ventilated, which enabled infectious diseases like smallpox to more easily spread. They wanted the right to seek their own living arrangements, but the company insisted in a March 23, 1841, decree that they live, with a few exceptions, in the boarding houses.
A few years after Nutter began working there, the York Manufacturing Company announced it needed to slash wages amid the financial crisis of the late 1830s, but promised to restore them when times got better. By 1841, the company was prospering once again, but the agent Samuel Batchelder failed to honor his promise to the workers. The operatives decried this failure as being “severely reprehensible and calculated only to enrich the few at the expense of the many.”
“We went to [Batchelder] and asked him to put our pay back to the former schedule and he refused to do so,” said Nutter. “It was at this juncture that the girls held a meeting and agreed to strike.”
On March 29th, 1841, half the factory workforce — about 400 women — marched out of the mill with the village band and chanted “We are not slaves! We scorn the name! We are freeman’s daughters!”
“This was the first time labor war was ever inaugurated in these parts and the rest of the textile operators hardly knew what to make of it,” Nutter recalled. “Their eyes stuck out, you can bet.”
The mill operatives then crammed into the Free Will Baptist Meeting House on Temple Street, where “the utmost harmony and enthusiasm prevailed,” according to an observer writing in the Boston Post. They chose officers, made speeches to “deafening applause,” and unanimously adopted a resolution of grievances to send to the company.
“Daily we met in the old edifice and discussed our grievances,” Nutter said. “The girls talked as well as the boys.”
In a letter to Batchelder, the women wrote that they would cooperate “in preserving purity of morals and maintaining a high moral sentiment,” but they made their demands clear. After a few days of “fruitless negotiations” with the company, Batchelder told the workers that if they did not return the next day, they shouldn’t bother coming back at all. A half dozen went back to work, Nutter recalled, but the “majority of the young women proved loyal” and sought work elsewhere.
“We did not win,” she told the reporters. “We had a just grievance, but that did not make any odds. The Corporation was too strong for us.” Nutter later moved to New Hampshire, where she got an easier, better-paying job that gave her more freedom at the mill in Somersworth run by the Great Falls Manufacturing Company.
A week after the Saco strike, on April 6, a public meeting was held, chaired by Captain John Spring. Capt. Spring, a veteran of the War of 1812 and a successful merchant, had been one of the founding funders of Saco (now Thornton) Academy, and formerly served as a state representative and York County Sheriff. At the meeting, a committee of 11 leading men in the village was appointed to investigate the “unpleasant disturbances among females” at the factory. Although they directed the committee to “take into consideration” the complaints of the workers, the citizens who assembled were primarily concerned that the village not be deemed “hostile to manufactories.”
A second meeting, on April 8, placed full confidence in the committee and resolved to “cordially invite capitalists to invest their money here … and pledge our support.” The citizens denied having anything to do with the “internal arrangements” made by the company, but wished “prosperity to the Corporation.”
It was pretty obvious from the outset that the fix was in. Before it addressed the workers’ grievances, the committee emphasized that “no grievance could justify proceedings so incompatible with the retiring delicacy of the female character.” The men found the women’s complaints to be without merit and blamed the strike on “a few of the older females,” who were “personally aggrieved” and who misled the naïve, younger workers into striking.
Company doctors testified that the boarding houses might be a little overcrowded, but they argued that only one operative died of an illness in the previous year. They praised Batchelder for ensuring the workers received medical attention when they were sick.
The committee concluded with a libertarian sermon that conveniently ignored the power imbalance between capitalists and workers.
“The operative is no more a slave of the Company, than the Company is a slave of the Operative,” the men lectured. “The one can agree to work or not. The other can agree to employ or not. Both are equally independent and equally free.”
A thousand copies of the report were published as pamphlets and distributed throughout the city, and in the following weeks Democratic and Whig newspapers battled it out in editorials over who was at fault for the strike. The Whigs blamed Democrats for pitting “one class against another” and inciting the workers “to demand higher wages.” The Democratic Eastern Argus insisted the women had every right to reject the terms of their employment.
The Bay State Democrat, in Boston, went further, claiming that Batchelder told the women their wages had to be reduced because of Democratic policies and that conditions would improve if Whig Party candidate William Henry Harrison was elected president. “Whiggery and treachery, like the Siamese twins, are united by a constitutional ligament!” the paper blustered.
Amid this blizzard of news coverage, not one worker was quoted in the local press until the Biddeford Record sat down with 90-year-old Dorcus Nutter.
Although the operatives failed to win concessions, the Saco strike was “one link in a chain of women across the centuries who demanded to play a direct role in shaping their own lives,” University of New England professor Elizabeth DeWolfe wrote in a piece about the strike for Maine Women Magazine. The strike proved that women, despite their status as second-class citizens with few rights, had the collective power to bring a mighty corporation to a standstill.
Seven years later, women reformers held the first women’s rights convention in Seneca Falls, N.Y. Suffragists like Susan B. Anthony and Lucy Stone lectured throughout Maine in the 1850s. On Independence Day in 1865, female mill workers in Lewiston marched in the parade carrying a banner inscribed with “Freedom with all its antecedents” on one side, and “July 4th 1865, Right of Suffrage to Every American Citizen” on the other.
As Maine labor historian Charlie Scontras noted, although some viewed the Saco strike as “an unpleasant and isolated aberration of things,” it was in reality part of a larger struggle between capital and labor growing out of the industrialization process and driven by fears that this new corporate “‘aristocracy’ threatened republican values.” These corporations dramatically changed social and economic relations, and it was through this process that Maine workers developed class consciousness. When 850 female workers walked off the job at the Bates Mill in Lewiston in 1854, strike leader Sarah Wilson, a self-described “poor, ignorant factory girl,” explained that the strike was not just for their own narrow self-interests. It was also about solidarity and the struggle for all working people.
“It is not the money that I look at. I have had good pay. … It would have been much better for me to have held my tongue as far as regards money matters,” Wilson told her sister textile workers. “But that is not what I look at. I consider the rest of the girls. I consider the rising generation; and want to see them have their rights.”
Will Chapman is the Librarian and Archivist at Museums of the Bethel Historical Society. Andy O’Brien is the communications director for the Maine AFL-CIO. You can reach them at email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.