On December 30, 1828, 400 of Dover, New Hampshire’s approximately 800 “mill girls,” women working in the new textile plants, walked off the job in one of the nation’s first strikes and probably the first all-female strike in American history. Given how women are often erased from our labor history, it’s important to note how important militant women fighting for their rights were in establishing the American labor movement.
In the years after the establishment of the Industrial Revolution in the United States, the northern factory workforce became defined primarily as the realm of young women. In some ways, this isn’t real surprising. People worked hard in these days. Farm life was difficult for both men and women. Children worked hard too. So having women and children move into the factories wasn’t some crazy idea. Samuel Slater himself had worked as a child laborer in a British factory before coming to the United States. So this was the norm in his Rhode Island factory and that spread through the burgeoning mill belt from New Hampshire south to New Jersey.
But that hardly meant these workers would accept this over the long term. Factory work was rough. At the mills in Dover, New Hampshire, girls were paid 47 cents a day, but at least half of that was deducted for room and board. But some of that was deducted for an insurance plan of sorts that likely did nothing for the workers. Talking was not allowed on the factory floor. They worked 12 hour days Monday-Friday and a slightly shorter day on Saturday. Late workers lost about 1/4 of their daily pay in fines. They were forced to shop at company stores that charged high prices. Workplace safety was poor. Women could get their clothing or hair caught in the machinery and scalp themselves. If you wanted to quit and didn’t give two weeks notice, the company would keep your last two weeks of pay.
In 1828, the Dover Cotton Company was sold to a new owner after some major investments drained the owners of needed capital. The Cohecho Manufacturing Company decided to lower the girls’ wages by 5 cents a day. This did not apply to male workers. Obviously, the women were disgusted. So they walked out on December 30 (some sources say December 26, but others the 30th and I am going with the latter for the purpose of this post). This seems to be the first all-female strike in American history.
The strike didn’t last that long. But the women did march around the factory with banners and ignited a couple barrels of gunpowder to make their point. That day or the next, 600 of the workers created a list of resolutions:
1st, Resolved, That we will never consent to work for the Cocheco Manufacturing Company at their reduced “Tariff of Wages”.
2nd, Resolved, That we believe the “unusual pressure of the time”, which is so much complained of, to have been caused by artful and designing men to subserve party purposes, or more wickedly still, to promote their own private ends.
3rd, Resolved, That we view with feelings of indignation the attempt made to throw upon us, who are least able to bear it, the effect of this “pressure” by reducing our wages, while those of our overseers and Agent are continued to them at their former high rate. That we think of our wage already low enough, when the peculiar circumstances of our situation are considered; that we are many of us far from our homes, parents, and friends, and it is only by strict economy and untiring industry that any of us have been able to lay up anything…
We view this attempt to reduce our wages as part of a general plan of the proprietors of the different manufacturing establishments to reduce the females in their employ to that state of dependence on them in which they openly, as they do now secretly, abuse and insult them by calling them their “slaves”.
The reality was that the women really had very little leverage. The mill immediately began placing ads to hire new workers. This killed the strike dead and most of the workers returned to the job two days later. They didn’t win anything except the right to talk on the job, although the noise of the machines was so loud that talking was difficult anyway. But we do know that the next year, the workers struck again after the factory owners starting nailing windows shut to increase the heat and humidity in the mill, which made it easier to work with the cotton. The problem was that these factories would get incredibly hot. When one woman fainted on the job, the workers walked out and won their demands to get some air in the workplace.
In 1834, they struck again after another pay cut, this time making speeches and getting newspaper coverage that told their stories. This was the moment when the Lowell Mill Girls movement was starting up and other mill workers were cognizant of what was happening there, as the mill world was tightly connected anyway. When Lowell employers cut wages, so they did in Dover, leading to a similar response. While the mill girls kept organizing and fighting for a decent life as long as they were in the mills, manufacturers were already looking to replace them with cheap, pliable labor, which they first found with Irish immigrants who began to take over the jobs by the 1840s.
This is the 292nd post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.