In March of 1845, between 1,500 and 2,000 delegates attended the first convention of the New England Workingmen’s Association. They made passing legislation mandating a 10-hour workday a key priority. Saco resident E.P. Fernald was elected one of the five Vice-Presidents of the Association. While little is known about Fernald, the new VP was likely Edith P. Fernald, which would make her one of the first female labor leaders in Maine.
In the spring of 1848, the Association drafted petitions calling on state lawmakers to pass a 10-hour day law, and sent the petitions to local mechanics’ associations throughout Maine. As Maine workers circulated the petitions, they were said to have sung:
We will have the Ten Hour Bill
That we will — that we will;
Else the land shall ne’re be still
Never still — never still.
Nearly 3,200 Mainers from all over the state signed the petitions, which were forwarded to the Maine Legislature. Democratic State Sen. Hiram Chapman, of Damariscotta, formally sponsored the 10-hour bill the signers demanded.
One such petition, submitted by the Workingmen’s Association of Bath and published in the Bangor Whig and Courier on May 2, 1848, read in part:
“Look out upon the troubled waters of Society. See imperious wealth and haughty power, indulging in pampering luxuries and lording it over the humble creature of God who is apparently born to poverty and ignorance, and crushing every noble aspiration of the God-created soul in a human brother, for no fault of his, but for the mere accident of condition or color.”
Unfortunately, as still happens today, the Legislature watered down the people’s bill to make it effectively toothless. Lawmakers hesitated to break from the ideology of free laborism, which stressed that anyone could climb the ladder of success by the sweat of his brow, and that government shouldn’t interfere in the relations between capital and labor. As a result, the bill explicitly exempted workers who signed contracts with employers agreeing to work longer than 10 hours a day. The measure was also amended to exempt agricultural workers and work performed on a monthly basis.
During the House debate on August 8, 1848, Rep. Asa Coombs, a Democrat from Thomaston, said he preferred the bill without the exemption of farmworkers and monthly work, but feared “the prejudice existing in the House would kill it, unless the amendment should be made.” Coombs declared that he had personally led the petition effort in Thomaston and collected 160 signatures of “men who were stout of heart and strong of arm — intelligent and good citizens, who sought to be placed upon an equality with their fellows. … [T]heir prayer should not be disregarded.”
Ultimately, the final version of the bill was split into two parts, which were passed in the House by a vote of 67-39 and 72-41, respectively, and then signed into law by Democratic Gov. John Dana. The votes on the first part, reported in full by the Augusta Age, reveal that the split was partisan, but not exclusively so. Of those legislators whose party can be determined, Democrats favored the bill by a 53-to-20 margin, while members of the Whig party opposed it 19-to-12.
The following year, lawmakers passed an amendment through both chambers repealing the section in the law that limited the workday for children under the age of 16 employed in manufacturing to 10 hours a day. But Gov. Dana defended the new law, arguing that “thousands of children in our state are absent from our public schools” because factory bosses offered “a constant pecuniary reward” for parents to disregard “their true interests” and send their kids to work.
There had been earlier efforts to keep kids out of factories. In 1841, female textile workers in Saco demanded that children under 13 work no longer than eight hours a day. But it wasn’t until the state strengthened truancy laws in the 1850s that work hours were reduced for children.
When the new workday law took effect on April 20, 1849, many Mainers had already been forced to sign away their right to a 10-hour day as a condition of their employment. But in the following years, a wave of workplace struggles kicked off in the coastal towns, as workers demanded their employers follow the spirit of the law. Handbills declaring this demand were posted throughout Portland.
The day after the bill took effect, workers at the Portland Company — a factory employing 200 people manufacturing railroad equipment and other machinery on Fore Street — held a public meeting to discuss how to prevent their employer from skirting the new law by using the “freedom of contract” provision. The men then went on strike to demand a stricter 10-hour-day law, but were immediately fired.
The workers continued the struggle and distributed handbills announcing a meeting at City Hall. Those assembled passed a resolution accusing the Legislature of “granting exclusive privileges to our capitalists and business men for their especial benefit.” It further declared that a workday from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m., with an hour for lunch, was an “honorable and legal day’s work.” Local anarchist journalist Jeremiah Hacker observed at the time that “no such harmony between capital and labor was to be found” among the company and the workers.
The mechanics had suffered a setback, but two years later, John Sparrow, the Portland Company’s factory manager, launched a “strong and urgent petition” to the officers of the corporation recommending a reduction in daily work hours. In response, the Portland Company finally relented and agreed to a 10-hour day.
Soon other workplaces in Portland adopted the 10-hour system and it became a citywide standard. However, as the Portland City Guide — a booklet published by the Works Progress Administration’s Writers’ Project in 1940 — points out, not all employers adopted the system. As late as 1863, glass workers in Portland toiled under the “watch and watch” system, with six hours on and six hours off, for a total of 12 work hours a day.
Shipyard workers in the southern Maine towns of Saco and Biddeford had formed the Mutual Benefit Association in the 1840s to fight for a shorter work day and longer meal breaks. But it was Kennebunk, where shipyard workers labored from 5 a.m. to 7 p.m. (with a half-hour break for breakfast at 6:30 a.m. and 45 minutes for dinner at noon), that became the next site of labor resistance, in 1851.
The workers at James Titcomb’s Kennebunk shipyard first devised a plan to win a longer dinner break. According to historian Annie Peabody Brooks, one day they decided to simply ignore the bell when it rang at 12:45 announcing the break’s end, and instead waited another 15 minutes. At one o’clock, one of the strikers stood up and rang the bell. The men broke into applause and promptly returned to work.
The next day, workers at the nearby Perkins shipyard, in Biddeford, did the same thing. As they returned to work at 1 p.m., they were greeted by “a chorus of cheers from the Titcomb workers.” And with that, the solidarity of the Kennebunk and Biddeford workers won an hour break for dinner.
Then came the 10-hour-day struggle. Previously, shipbuilders at various yards in nearby Kennebunkport had won an 11-hour day and marched through the yards at Kennebunk Landing to support workers there. Brooks writes that a young Kennebunk ship fastener, whom she does not identify, spearheaded the 10-hour-day movement at the Landing.
“Hearing the discussions going on around him by the carpenters and thinking that action was better than words, he formed a plan which he thought would be successful,” wrote Brooks. “He was fearful, as many others were, of a discharge or something worse, for one of these contractors had been interviewed and had in a most decided manner … intimated that the ten-hour system met his views exactly, but it should be ten hours in the forenoon and ten hours in the afternoon.”
The young fastener put up notices around town advertising a meeting at the old brick school house for workers to discuss the 10-hour question. All but a few “who would rather work fifteen hours than incur their employer’s displeasure” signed a resolution pledging to work “under no other system but that called the ten-hour system.” A committee of workers then presented the resolution to shipyard owner James Titcomb, who promptly agreed to their demand.
The organizing was contagious. In 1854, Biddeford workers finally won a 10-hour day when the Perkins brothers set the standard for the city by agreeing to their shipyard workers’ demands.
Gradually, over the next century, workers would struggle, strike and even die for a less oppressive work day. It took deep organizing and class solidarity to win these fights against companies that were too often backed by the armed might of the state. When masses of workers did win these battles, it was usually because a small group of them — like those in Bath, Portland, Biddeford and Kennebunk — did the hard work of organizing, raising expectations and building worker power.
It wasn’t until the Fair Labor Standards Act finally required most employers to pay overtime in 1937 that the eight-hour day was officially established nationwide. However, the law excluded domestic and farm workers in order to appease racist Southern Democrats, as most of those workers in the South were Black.
In June of this year, 20 Maine Democratic legislators joined Republicans to kill a bill that would have finally granted farm workers this right to overtime pay. Meanwhile, employers often exploit loopholes in these labor laws, or simply ignore them, because enforcement has been severely weakened over the past several decades. The struggle continues.
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.