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“The Treatment of the Help in Those Days Was Cruel”: Hiram Munger Remembers Factory Life

by Hiram Munger

After the War for Independence small-scale industrial activity spread throughout the northeastern states. Saw and grist mills had long been features of colonial life, processing local wood and grain for the rural population. In 1790 Samuel Slater, an English immigrant, set up machines for spinning cotton yarn in Pawtucket Falls, Rhode Island. New England’s abundant water power drove many small textile mills. Family labor was very important in those early mills as small children often tended the machines while their parents wove the yarn into cloth. Hiram Munger worked in a small cotton factory in Massachusetts. Born into a family with scant means, Munger only worked in a textile mill for a short while, but when he recorded his autobiography forty years later he remembered the experience vividly. Hiram Munger worked at a series of manual occupations most of his life, eventually becoming an itinerant Methodist lay preacher.

I was born in Monson, Mass., September 27, 1806, of poor parents. I was the oldest son of Stillman and Susan Munger, who were the parents of five sons and six daughters, who have all, except one, lived up to the present time, this 9th day of August, 1855. I am consequently nearly 49 years of age. There is nothing remarkable in my experience of early life any more than in that of many others. But I can recollect so distinctly circumstances that took place when I was very young, that it may refresh my memory concerning later dates to note a few things as I passed from childhood up to where I now am; and as memory is the most I have to depend upon, it needs refreshing, and this I offer as a reason to my friends for commencing my narration previous to what they or I expected at first. I recollect a number of circumstances that took place when I was less than two and a half years of age, while living in Monson. My father moved to Ludlow in the year 1809, and tended a grist-mill for a Mr. Putman, in the place then called “ Put’s Bridge,” since called Jenksville. While there I tended the toll-gate on the bridge. I recollect demanding the two cents of a colored man, who refused to pay me, and threatened me if I did not open the gate. I went for help, or to inform my father in the mill: when we came out in sight, he was on the gate (which was very high) getting over—my father shook him off, which so enraged him, that he cursed and swore at a great rate, which scared me for the first time in my life that I recollect. The same hour, and a short distance from that place, he committed a crime worthy of death, and was executed in Northampton. His name was Piner.— Many will recollect this circumstance as well as I do, for there was much excitement in that place at the time of his capture and trial.

The next work I remember doing was going into the small cotton factory over the grist-mill, started by Benjamin Jenks & Co., who came from Rhode Island. This was the first factory of that kind in Massachusetts. The help necessary to carry it on was about twelve or fifteen hands. Here was where I was first made acquainted with American slavery in the second degree. The treatment of the help in those days was cruel, especially to poor children, of whom I was one. Although I was young, I recollect of thinking that life must be a burden if I was obliged to work in a factory under such tyrants as the Jenks' were then,and they never improved, unless it was when they failed and cheated the community out of $100,000, or more, and then left the parts.

In a few years, we moved to another mill three miles north, but in the same town, and lived there three years. Here I began my education with tending grist-mill. There being few inhabitants in the place, my mother was sent for when there was any sickness, and I, being the oldest of her four children, had all the care when my father was absent. I remember that my second sister was at play around the fire, and her dress took fire; father and mother being gone, I tried in vain to put it out, 'till she was very badly burned,—her screams terrified the rest of the children, and no neighbors being near, I was in a straight place sure enough. I thought of the brook, and in an instant took the child, and amid the screams, confusion and fire, hastened down the bunk a number of rods through bushes and weeds, and threw her in. The brook being large and high at the time, she went down some distance before I could get her out. This operation put the fire out and stopped her crying, for she had strangled by rolling over so many times while going down to a place where I could get her out. She soon revived, to my joy, for I was afraid that my sudden remedy was fatal. But she got well, sooner probably by having the cold water bath. I must have been at that time about ten years of age. We next removed to Wilbraham, and lived a year or so. I worked that summer for Abner Cady, on a farm, for three dollars per month.— This was the cold summer of 1816. My summer wages bought my father a cow, which we kept until we moved to Chicopee, the town where I now reside. I was now large enough to help in the mills, and was subject to my father for a number of years: with him I struggled with poverty, the family now being large.

My second brother and myself were all the help he had, to carry on a grist-mill, and some of the time two saw-mills; and we were so poor that I had not clothes that were comfortable for winter or decent for summer much of the time. This was the misfortune of being very poor; it was not caused by indolence nor intemperance of my father, for there is hardly a man that lives, or ever did live or ever will, that worked harder and more hours to support a family than he did, and my mother too. I was old enough to know that it was out of their power to do any better by their children. But, like other boys, I was often dissatisfied with staying at home without clothes to go to school or meeting but very little. I was nearly 16 years old before I could write, or read in a paper; and I could not cipher at all. I was ashamed to go to school there then, and at last got rather headstrong and unruly, and determined to run away. I recollect setting a time to start: got my little all done up in a cotton handkerchief, and about 8 o’clock in the evening I started for Monson, to my uncle’s—about fifteen miles. It looked like a great undertaking in those days. But I started, and had got about half a mile, when my attention was arrested by hearing some one praying up the river about one and a half miles from where I then was. I could hear distinctly what was said, and I staid nearly an hour and listened, until I concluded to go back home and put my goods in at the chamber window where I got out. 1 went to bed thinking about that praying up the river: that turned my mind from running away. I staid at home peaceably for a year.

Source: Hiram Munger, The life and religious experience of Hiram Munger (Chicopee Falls, Massachusetts: Published By the Author, 1861), 10–15.