On July 3, 1835, children employed in Paterson, New Jersey’s textile mills went on strike, demanding an 11 hour day and 6 day week.
The textile factory system that had begun in the late 18th century in New England might have originally attracted a “better class of labor,” with factory owners in Lowell, Massachusetts bringing in young women to work but also to be educated and supervised closely. But growing competition and immigration combined with greed to undermine those more humane conditions. The Lowell Mill Girl phenomenon was relatively short and by the 1830s, a lot of the textile labor force was immigrants, children, and immigrant children. This was particularly true for the Irish. Although the big wave of Irish immigration had only just begun, the Irish already had taken over much of the labor force in the textile industry, where they were easily exploited. This was as true in Paterson, New Jersey as anywhere else in the northeast.
Paterson, along with Lowell and Worcester in Massachusetts and Pawtucket, Rhode Island, was one of the centers of the pre-Civil War textile industry. It was well-placed, being near New York City and blessed with a magnificent waterfall that provided the power industry needed. But working conditions were abysmal. The work day was 13 1/2 hours. For this, they made $2 a week. Employers fined workers for mistakes or not working hard enough. The mills also opened a company store and forced workers to shop there. Some of the tradesmen in Paterson, including the fathers of some of the mill workers, organized earlier that year and successfully won a 10 hour day. The Paterson mill workers decided to make this their prime demand with the fines, wage withholding, company store, and pay as less central issues.
More than 2000 workers from 20 mills, largely young girls, walked off the job on July 3, 1835. Support from workers around the region allowed the strike to continue for nearly 2 months. Donations came in from workers in Newark and New York City and the Paterson Association for the Protection of the Working Class formed to organize relief. Newark workers created an investigating committee to look into the working conditions in the cotton mills, described as “more congenial to the climate of the autocrat of all the Russias than to this ‘land of the free and home of the brave.’”
Employers refused to negotiate and did bust the strike, but only after giving in to several of the workers’ demands, including reducing the workday to 12 hours Monday-Friday and 9 hours on Saturday, a 69 hour week. That might still seem pretty bad and it was, but it also meant about 12 hours returned to workers each week, a significant improvement in their lives. By August 24, most workers had returned to the mills on the new schedule. Unfortunately, strike leaders were blacklisted and forced to move from Paterson to work.
I hope the brand-new Paterson Great Falls National Historic Site will include this story in its exhibits. The National Park Service does a pretty good job with labor history when they have the chance so I have confidence this story will become more well-known in future years.