On Monday, March 29, 1841, 500 young women marched out of the York Manufacturing Company on Factory Island. They paraded through the streets of Saco and Biddeford waving banners with slogans like “We Scorn to Be Slaves” as the village band marched along with them playing jaunty tunes.
Six days a week, the textile workers wove and spun cotton in the deafeningly loud mill on Factory Island. They labored from 15 minutes before sunrise until 7 p.m. in the spring and summer months, with just a half hour each for breakfast and lunch. In wintertime, they often worked by oil-lamp light. The air was thick with tiny cotton strands that got caught in their throats and caused respiratory illnesses.
Nevertheless, most were grateful to be free of the boredom of life on lonely family farms in the rural hamlets. For the first time in their lives these women were able to earn real wages and live relatively independently. But there were grievances simmering.
The women were fed up with living in crowded company-owned boarding houses, sleeping in cramped, uncomfortable bedrooms that had poor ventilation and lacked privacy. They were constantly under the watchful eye of boarding house attendants who made sure the rooms were kept “scrupulously clean and carefully supervised.” The previous year the company had imposed a wage cut, allegedly necessary to remain profitable, and there was talk of another.
Then came the breaking point — the company announced a new rule prohibiting workers from seeking their own housing. As a citizen review committee later reported, the women, “who had previously been distinguished for growing intelligence and hitherto perfect propriety of behavior,” “turned out” right after breakfast and “greatly disturbed the quietude” of the “usually peaceful village” of Saco.
According to an account in the Boston Post, between 8 and 9 a.m. the strikers “waded through the clay-mud, for which Saco is peculiarly distinguished.” Most of them wore “India-rubbers,” but many of them had only thin shoes to trudge through the muck. Some bystanders were disgusted by the workers’ decidedly un-feminine behavior and their flagrant disregard for authority.
“Vile!” shouted one. “Wretch!” spat another.
But the textile workers defiantly chanted back:
We are not slaves! – We scorn the name!
We ask not friend’s or foreman’s favor.
We’re freeman’s daughters – and we claim
The rights that woman’s father gave her!
Not all the locals were offended by this act of defiance, and some men even joined the strikers to support the “weaker party” in the labor struggle — “especially when the party is women,” the committee observed.
It was the first “turn-out” of female workers in Maine and part of a broader struggle by textile workers throughout New England for dignity and fair treatment in the early days of the Industrial Revolution. As young Yankee Protestant women in the 19th century, they were expected to be submissive, pious and pure. But when they found themselves among an emerging working class in the machinery of a profit-hungry corporation, many realized the power they could wield if they withheld their labor to force their demands.
The Saco women were also part of a much larger story about the birth of the modern corporation and how it laid the foundation for the global capitalist system we live under today. As historian Sven Beckert argues in his book Empire of Cotton, the formation of this new economic system began in the 15th century with the militarization of trade, massive land expropriation, genocide and slavery. Beckert calls this “war capitalism.” The military power of American and European states was essential to the emergence of the global cotton industry and the development of the Industrial Revolution.
War capitalism entailed the financing of armies to invade and expropriate the lands and waters of native people, the building of roads and canals to ship the cotton, tariffs to protect the domestic textile industry from cheaper imports, and the chartering of corporations to fund and organize this hugely expensive new global enterprise. It required governments to use their power to enforce private property rights on land stolen from indigenous people, as well as the legal right to own the enslaved people who picked the cotton grown on that land. As Beckert notes, governments also encouraged global capitalism by creating courts and other bodies to arbitrate business disputes, enforce contracts and maintain trading standards.
The Saco strikers weren’t chattel slaves like African-American workers in the South, but the term “wage slave” was commonly used in the 1800s in reference to the fact the workers were dependent on the capitalists for their daily bread. The Saco women’s scorn for the term, like their claim to be “freeman’s daughters,” drew on the nation’s revolutionary heritage and the promises of liberty and equality. Worker resistance in the North to this new form of exploitation happened simultaneously with the revolts of enslaved people on Southern plantations.
“Slavery, colonialism, and forced labor, among other forms of violence,” wrote Beckert, “were not aberrations in the history of capitalism but at its very core.” He goes on: “The empire of cotton was, from the beginning, a site of constant global struggle between slaves and planters, merchants and statesmen, farmers and merchants, workers and factory owners. … [A]s in so many other ways, the empire of cotton ushered in the modern world.”
Industrialization had been a polarizing issue in the early days of the United States. Observing the unwashed working masses in the urban slums of England, Thomas Jefferson expressed hope that the United States would remain an exporter of raw materials and those factories would remain in Europe. He famously envisioned a largely agricultural republic of self-sufficient “yeoman farmers.” These hard-working, virtuous, salt-of-the-earth people, Jefferson believed, were the most trustworthy citizens to run the country. As he wrote in 1781:
It is better to carry provisions and materials to workmen there [in Europe], than bring them to the provisions and materials, and with them their manners and principles. The loss by the transportation of commodities across the Atlantic will be made up in happiness and permanence of government. The mobs of great cities add just so much to the support of pure government, as sores do to the strength of the human body. It is the manners and spirit of a people which preserve a republic in vigour. A degeneracy in these is a canker which soon eats to the heart of its laws and constitution.
Jefferson argued that because lands in Europe were “either cultivated, or locked up against the cultivator,” the English were forced to develop a manufacturing industry to support the surplus population of newly landless people. In the 18th and 19th centuries, England and other European countries began to confiscate and divide land that had for centuries been used in common by villagers to graze livestock and grow food. As Marxist geographer David Harvey writes, this process of enclosure was anything but peaceful. It “entailed taking land … enclosing it, and expelling a resident population to create a landless proletariat, and then releasing the land into the privatized mainstream of capital accumulation.”
The English aristocracy claimed they could farm these newly fenced properties more efficiently and profitably than the peasants who’d relied on the land for subsistence. A similar process occurred in Maine with the theft of indigenous land, but in the early 19th century 90 percent of the white settlers still farmed on small plots, and industrialization didn’t seem inevitable.
Britain soon dominated the cotton manufacturing industry. It relied on slave labor in the U.S. to produce 77 percent of its raw cotton at the dawn of the 19th century. However, after President Jefferson passed the Embargo Act of 1807, cotton and other exports rotted in domestic storehouses, prompting trade-dependent New England merchants to consider investing their capital at home.
In 1810, Moses Brown, an abolitionist whose family had made a fortune in the slave trade, enlisted the assistance of English industrialist Samuel Slater — who’d stolen some English textile machinery designs — to build the first automated cotton yard mill on this side of the Atlantic, in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, in 1815. The “Rhode Island System” had many features that later textile mills would be known for, like a company store, company housing, and callous exploitation.
Brown and Slater’s company initially employed a workforce of local farmers’ wives and daughters, but as it scaled up and added more looms, workers became scarce. The firm’s recruiters searched all over what was then Southern Massachusetts before they finally found some young female workers 200 miles north, in present-day Hallowell, Maine.
Children were also employed at the Pawtucket mill. According to some accounts, Slater’s floor managers would occasionally drag child workers into “whipping rooms” and brutally flog them for various infractions. This practice continued throughout the 19th century, including in Maine.
By mid-century, the first textiles mills were in operation here, and women from all over the state also headed south to toil in Massachusetts’ textile factories. Portland’s anarchist journalist, Jeremiah Hacker, wrote in 1849:
There are hundreds of young females shipped from [Maine] every year to the factory prison-houses, like cattle, sheep and pigs sent to the slaughter. Every steam boat and car that leaves this State for Massachusetts carries more or less of these victims to the polluted and polluting manufacturing towns where they are prepared for a miserable life and a horrible death in the abodes of infamy.
The Industrial Revolution had arrived, and it was never going to leave.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.