Friday, October 26, 2007

Foreign Labor, 1887 Style

The Boston Thread Works was between the railroad tracks and Washington Street at Keyes Street (that's McBride Street now). In the picture taken from a bird's-eye-view map of Jamaica Plain published by O.H. Bailey in 1891, it is on the left, marked 17 (open the full size picture to see the number). Ross & Turner was the sales agent for Boston Thread and Twine, so the names are confusing. They were across the street from what later became the Boston Gas company building, which became Jamaica Plain High School, and then English High School. The present buildings at the site do not appear to be from the Thread Works era.

Boston Globe August 29, 1887

Imported Female Labor.

Alleged Violations of United States Law.

Irish Flax Spinners Contracted to Boston Twine Manufacturers.

Five Girls Detained on the Catalonia by the Emigration Commissioner.

Information was recently received at The Globe office that a firm of twine manufacturers in this city was conducting a wholesale importation of foreign female help, and that for several weeks past Scotch and Irish factory girls ranging all the way from 17 to 30 years of age, in parties of from five to 10 each, have been arriving by Cunard steamers. It was reported that 60 operatives arrived by the same line of steamers two weeks ago, having a contract to work for a twine firm in Ludlow. It was also reported that five more girls were expected to arrive Saturday on the Catalonia.

As a similar case charged against a Providence firm a short time ago excited much interest, such importation being illegal, a Globe reporter was sent to investigate the matter.
The firm in question is that of Ross, Turner & Co., manufacturers of thread and twine, with a factory at Jamaica Plain. About 125 hands are employed, and at least 25 of this number are foreign female operatives, who have been in this country but a few months. They are rapidly learning the methods of manufacture and are superseding the "Yankees" as they call them. They are from the north of Ireland and Scotland, and are considered skilled laborers. They were induced to come to this country by the promise of good wages, to perform the same labor they have been accustomed to in the factories at home. It has been represented to them that their steamship passage was paid by friends in this country, who sent them tickets: but it is said the firm has paid it through their agent, Samuel G. Rea, and $1 per week has been deducted from their slender earnings by the firm until the full amount of the passage money, $21.25, has in each case been paid. Ninety cents per day and certain kinds of work were promised them, but it is estimated that less than half of them are receiving that amount, the balance being obliged, till places are mode for them, to put up with 85 cents, and in a few instances the youngest among them receive only the paltry sum of 80 cents per day.

The kind of labor has been objected to, and two weeks ago when a certain piece of work was assigned to them to do, which the Yankees had refused, they struck in a body. The difficulty was quickly adjusted and they only remained out one day, receiving a promise of different work. It has been given out that skilled laborers were required and that none could be obtained in this country; but the fact that they are required to do the same work as others already employed would seem to disprove the statement. The business is practically a monopoly, as in addition to the two above-named places there are but a few factories located in New York city, Patterson N.J., and in Ohio.

A call was made last evening on several of the operatives at Jamaica Plain. The first seen were two sisters, one 19 years of age, the other 21. The conversation was addressed to the youngest, who was barefooted with the merest apology for a dress. She said she was from the north of Ireland, and had done flax spinning since she was 10 years old. "I have been in this country for only a few weeks, and was induced to come here with my sister and a few other friends by an agent of the company, who promised us 90 cents per day and steady work. Tickets were furnished for our passage over here and 91 cents each week was to be deducted from our earnings by the company, but you see it will take five months for me to pay them, and it leaves me nothing to send to my folks at home, who are dependant on me for help. I am more fortunate than some and get $5.10 per week. My board costs me $2.50 and taking out the dollar for my passage, it leaves me $1.60 per week. Some girls I know have only $1.30 left a week.
"The work is not what I expected, and I shall only stay here till I pay the firm and then hire out for housework or go back home, where I made better wages than I can here. Besides, the hours are longer. I do not think the girls are treated fairly, and wish something could be done to prevent others from coming here.

Inquiries about a number of others elicited about the same replies, all being emphatic in denunciation of the firm and anxious to obtain other work.

[The article goes on to describe a search of passengers on an arriving steamship.]


I found it interesting that these young women were not helpless victims. They were willing to walk off the job, and ready to go back home if necessary. Of course, the desire on the part of companies for foreign labor hasn't changed, has it?

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