A Mule Spinner Tells the U.S. Senate about Late 19th century Unemployment
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A Mule Spinner Tells the U.S. Senate about Late 19th century Unemployment

Fall River, Massachusetts, mill worker Thomas O’Donnell (who had immigrated to the U.S. from England eleven years earlier) appeared before the U.S. Senate Committee on Education and Labor on October 18, 1883, to answer the panel’s questions about working-class economic conditions. An unemployed mule spinner for more than half of the year, he described the introduction of new production methods at the Fall River, Massachusetts, textile factory where he worked as a mule spinner (a worker who tended the large yarn-making machines). These changes allowed the mill’s owners to employ children, and they also left the mule spinner unemployed for much of the year. O’Donnell described the sharp decline in his family’s living standards that followed and the ways they struggled to make ends meet.

BOSTON, MASS. October 18, 1883.



Question. Where do you live?

Answer. At Fall River.

Q. How long have you lived in this country?

A. Eleven years.

Q. Where were you born?

A. In Ramsbotham, England.

Q. Have you been naturalized here?

A. No, sir.


Q. What is your business?

A. I am a mule-spinner by trade. I have worked at it since I have been in this country—eleven years.

Q. Are you a married man?

A. Yes, sir; I am a married man; have a wife and two children. I am not very well educated. I went to work when I was young, and have been working ever since in the cotton business; went to work when I was about eight or nine years old. I was going to state how I live. My children get along very well in summer time, on account of not having to buy fuel or shoes or one thing and another. I earn $1.50 a day and can’t afford to pay a very big house rent. I pay $1.50 a week for rent, which comes to about $6 a month.

Q. That is, you pay this where you are at Fall River?

A. Yes.

Q. Do you have work right along?

A. No, sir; since that strike we had down in Fall River about three years ago I have not worked much more than half the time, and that has brought my circumstances down very much.

Q. Why have you not worked more than half the time since then?

A. Well, at Fall River if a man has not got a boy to act as “back-boy” it is very hard for him to get along. In a great many cases they discharge men in that work and put in men who have boys.

Q. Men who have boys of their own?

A. Men who have boys of their own capable enough to work in a mill, to earn 30 or 40 cents a day.


Q. Is the object of that to enable the boy to earn something for himself?

A. Well, no, the object is this: They are doing away with a great deal of mule-spinning there and putting in ring-spinning, and for that reason it takes a good deal of small help to run this ring work, and it throws the men out of work because they are doing away with the mules and putting these ring-frames in to take their places. For that reason they get all the small help they can to run these ring-frames. There are so many men in the city to work, and whoever has a boy can have work, and whoever has no boy stands no chance. Probably he may have a few months of work in the summer time, but will be discharged in the fall. That is what leaves me in poor circumstances. Our children, of course, are very often sickly from one cause or another, on account of not having sufficient clothes, or shoes, or food, or something. And also my woman, she never did work in a mill; she was a housekeeper, and for that reason she can’t help me to anything at present, as many women do help their husbands down there, by working, like themselves. My wife never did work in a mill, and that leaves me to provide for the whole family. I have two children.


And another thing that helped to keep me down: A year ago this month I buried the oldest boy we had, and that brings things very expensive on a poor man. For instance, it will cost there, to bury a body, about $100. Now, we could have that done in England for about 5 pounds; that would not amount to much more than about $20, or something in that neighborhood. That makes a good deal of difference. Doctors' bills are very heavy—about $2 a visit; and if a doctor comes once a day for two or three weeks it is quite a pile for a poor man to pay.

Q. Will not the doctor come for a dollar a day?

A. You might get a man sometimes, and you sometimes won’t, but they generally charge $2 a day.

Q. To operatives?

A. Oh, all around. You might get one for $1.50 sometimes.

Q. They charge you as much as they charge people of more means?

A. They charge as much as if I was the richest man in the city, except that some of them might be generous once in a while and put it down a little in the end; but the charge generally is $2. That makes it hard.



I have a brother who has four children, besides his wife and himself. All he earns is $1.50 a day. He works in the iron works at Fall River. He only works about nine months out of twelve. There is generally about three months of stoppage, taking the year right through, and his wife and his family all have to be supported for a year out of the wages of nine months—$1.50 a day for nine months out of the twelve, to support six of them. It does not stand to reason that those children and he himself can have natural food or be naturally dressed. His children are often sick, and he has to call in doctors. That is always hanging over him, and is a great expense to him. And then if he does not pay the bill the trustee law comes on him. That is a thing that is not properly looked after. A man told me the other day that he was trusteed for $1.75, and I understood that there was a law in this State that a man could not be trusteed for less than $10. It seems to me there is something wrong in the Government somewhere; where it is, I can’t tell.

Q. How much money have you got?

A. I have not got a cent in the house; didn’t have when I came out this morning.

Q. How much money have you had within three months?

A. I have had about $16 inside of three months.

Q. Is that all you have had within the last three months to live on?

A. Yes, $16.


Q. How much have you had within a year?

A. Since Thanksgiving I happened to get work in the Crescent Mill, and worked there exactly thirteen weeks. I got just $1.50 a day, with the exception of a few days that I lost because in following up mulespinning you are obliged to lose a day once in a while; you can’t follow it up regularly.

Q. Thirteen weeks would be seventy-eight days, and, at $1.50 a day, that would make $117, less whatever time you lost?

A. Yes. I worked thirteen weeks there and ten days in another place, and then there was a dollar I got this week, Wednesday.

Q. Taking a full year back can you tell how much you have had?

A. That would be about fifteen weeks' work. Last winter, as I told you, I got in, and I worked up to about somewhere around Fast Day, or may be New Year’s day; anyway, Mr. Howard has it down on his record, if you wish to have an exact answer to that question; he can answer it better than I can, because we have a sort of union there to keep ourselves together.

Q. Do you think you have had $150 within a year?

A. No, sir.

Q. Have you had $125?

A. Well, I could figure it up if I had time. The thirteen weeks is all I have had.

Q. The thirteen weeks and the $16 you have mentioned?

A. Yes, sir.

Q. That would be somewhere about $133, if you had not lost any time?

A. Yes, sir.

Q. That is all you have had? A. Yes, sir.

Q. To support yourself and wife and two children?

A. Yes, sir.

Q. Have you had any help from outside?

A. No, sir.

Q. Do you mean that yourself and wife and two children have had nothing but that for all this time?

A. That is all. I got a couple dollars' worth of coal last winter, and the wood I picked up myself. I goes around with a shovel and picks up clams and wood.


Q. What do you do with the clams?

A. We eat them. I don’t get them to sell, but just to eat, for the family. That is the way my brother lives, too, mostly. He lives close by us.

Q. How many live in that way down there?

A. I could not count them, they are so numerous. I suppose there are one thousand down there.

Q. A thousand that live on $150 a year?

A. They live on less.

Q. Less than that?

A. Yes; they live on less than I do.

Q. How long has that been so?

A. Mostly so since I have been married.

Q. How long is that?

A. Six years this month.

Q. Why do you not go West on a farm?

A. How could I go, walk it?


Q. Well, I want to know why you do not go out West on a $2,000 farm, or take up a homestead and break it and work it up, and then have it for yourself and family?

A. I can’t see how I could get out West. I have got nothing to go with.

Q. It would not cost you over $1,500.

A. Well, I never saw over a $20 bill, and that is when I have been getting a month.s pay at once. If some one would give me $1,500 I will go.

Q. Is there any prospect that anybody will do that?

A. I don’t know of anybody that would.

Q. You say you think there are a thousand men or so with their families that live in that way in Fall River?

A. Yes, sir; and I know many of them. They are around there by the shore. You can see them every day; and I am sure of it because men tell me.

Q. Are you a good workman?

A. Yes, sir.

Q. Were you ever turned off because of misconduct or incapacity or unfitness for work?

A. No, sir.

Q. Or because you did bad work?

A. No, sir.

Q. Or because you made trouble among the help?

A. No, sir.

Q. Did you ever have any personal trouble with an employer?

A. No, sir.

Q. You have not anything now you say?

A. No, sir.

Q. How old are you?

A. About thirty.

Q. Is your health good?

A. Yes, sir.

Q. What would you work for if you could get work right along; if you could be sure to have it for five years, staying right where you are?

A. Well, if I was where my family could be with me, and I could have work every day I would take $1.50, and be glad to.

Q. One dollar and fifty cents a day, with three hundred days to the year, would make more than you make now in three or four years, would it not?


A. Well, I would have no opportunity then to pick up clams. I have had no coal except one dollar’s worth since last Christmas.

Q. When do the clams give out?

A. They give out in winter.

Q. You spoke of fuel—what do you have for fuel?

A. Wood and coal.

Q. Where does the wood come from?

A. I pick it up around the shore—any old pieces I see around that are not good for anything. There are many more that do the same thing.

Q. Do you get meat to live on much?

A. Very seldom.

Q. What kinds of meat do you get for your family?

A. Well, once in a while we gets a piece of pork and some clams and make a clam-chowder. That makes a very good meal. We sometimes get a piece of corn beef or something like that.

Q. Have you had any fresh beef within a month?

A. Yes; we had a piece of pork steak for four of us yesterday.

Q. Have you had any beef within a month?

A. No, sir. I was invited to a man’s house on Sunday—he wanted me to go up to his house and we had a dinner of roast pork.

Q. That was an invitation out, but I mean have you had any beefsteak in your own family, of your own purchase, within a month?

A. Yes; there was a half a pound, or a pound one Sunday—I think it was.

Q. Have you had only a pound or a half a pound on Sunday?

A. That is all.

Q. A half pound of pork?

A. Yes. About two pounds of pork I guess we have had in the month, to make clam-chowder with, and sometimes to fry a bit.

Q. And there are four of you in the family?

A. Yes, sir.

Q. How many pounds of beefsteak have you had in your family, that you bought for your own home consumption within this year that we have been speaking of?

A. I don’t think there has been five pounds of beefsteak.

Q. You have had a little pork steak?

A. We had a half a pound of pork steak yesterday; I don.t know when we had any before.

Q. What other kinds of meat have you had within a year?

A. Well, we have had corn beef twice I think that I can remember this year on Sunday, for dinner.

Q. Twice is all that you can remember within a year?

A. Yes—and some cabbage.

Q. What have you eaten?

A. Well, bread mostly, when we could get it; we sometimes couldn’t make out to get that, and have had to go without a meal.

Q. Has there been any day in the year that you have had to go without anything to eat?

A. Yes, sir, several days.

Q. More than one day at a time?

A. No.

Q. How about the children and your wife—did they go without anything to eat too?


A. My wife went out this morning and went to a neighbor’s and got a loaf of bread and fetched it home, and when she got home the children were crying for something to eat.

Q. Have the children had anything to eat to-day except that, do you think? A. They had that loaf of bread—I don’t know what they have had since then, if they have had anything.

Q. Did you leave any money at home?

A. No, sir.

Q. If that loaf is gone, is there anything in the house?

A. No, sir; unless my wife goes out and gets something; and I don’t know who would mind the children while she goes out.

Q. Has she any money to get anything with?

A. No, sir.

Q. Have the children gone without a meal at any time during the year?

A. They have gone without bread some days, but we have sometimes got meal and made porridge of it.

Q. What kind of meal?

A. Sometimes Indian meal, and sometimes oatmeal.

Q. Meal stirred up in hot water?

A. Yes, sir.

Q. Is it cold weather down there now?

A. It is very cold now.


Q. What have the children got on in the way of clothing?

A. They have got along very nicely all summer, but now they are beginning to feel quite sickly. One has one shoe on, a very poor one, and a slipper, that was picked up somewhere. The other has two odd shoes on, with the heel out. He has got cold and is sickly now.

Q. Have they any stockings?

A. He had got stockings, but his feet comes through them, for there is a hole in the bottom of the shoe.

Q. What have they got on the rest of their person?

A. Well, they have a little calico shirt—what should be a shirt; it is sewed up in some shape—and one little petticoat, and a kind of little dress.

Q. How many dresses has your wife got?

A. She has got one since she was married, and she hasn’t worn that more than half a dozen times; she has worn it just going to church and coming back. She is very good in going to church, but when she comes back she takes it off, and it is pretty near as good now as when she bought it.

Q. She keeps that dress to go to church in?

A. Yes, sir.

Q. How many dresses aside from that has she?

A. Well, she got one here three months ago.

Q. What did it cost?

A. It cost $1 to make it and I guess about a dollar for the stuff, as near as I can tell.

Q. The dress cost $2?

A. Yes.

Q. What else has she?

A. Well, she has an undershirt that she got given to her, and she has an old wrapper, which is about a mile too big for her; somebody gave it to her.

Q. She did not buy it?

A. No. That is all that I know that she has.

Q. You have had $1 or $2 worth of coal last winter?

A. I think it was a quarter of a ton, and I believe it was $2.25 worth.

Q. Is that all you have had?

A. That is all I had last winter. All the rest I picked up—wood.

Q. Did you try to get work?

A. I was working last winter.

Q. You say that a good many others are situated just like you are?

A. Yes, sir; I should say as many as a thousand down in Fall River are just in the same shape, if not worse; though they can’t be much worse. I have heard many women say they would sooner be dead than living. I don’t know what is wrong, but something is wrong. There is an overflow of labor in Fall River.

Q. Why do not these people go out West upon farms and go to farming?

A. They have not got the means. Fall River being a manufacturing place, it brings them in there; and when the mills in other places stop for want of water that brings them into Fall River. I think there are quite a lot of them that have come from Lowell and Lawrence these three or four weeks back—whatever brings them.

Q. Is there anything else that you want to say to the committee?

A. Well, as regards debts; it costs us so much for funeral expenses and doctors. expenses; I wanted to mention that.

The CHAIRMAN. You have stated that. It is clear that nobody can afford either to get sick or to die there.

The WITNESS. Well, there are plenty of them down there that are in very poor health, but I am in good health and my children generally are in fair health, but the children can’t pick up anything and only get what I bring to them.

Q. Are you in debt?

A. Yes, sir.

Q. How much?

A. I am in debt for those funeral expenses now $15—since a year ago.

Q. Have you paid the rest?

A. Yes, sir.

Q. You live in a hired tenement?

A. Yes; but of course I can’t pay a big rent. My rent is $6 a month. The man I am living under would come and put me right out and give me no notice either if I didn’t pay my rent. He is a sheriff and auctioneer man. I don.t know whether he has any authority to do it or not, but he does it with people .

Q. Do you see any way out of your troubles—what are you going to do for a living—or do you expect to have to stay right there?

A. Yes. I can’t run around with my family.

Q. You have nowhere to go to, and no way of getting there if there was any place to go to?

A. No, sir; I have no means nor anything, so I am obliged to remain there and try to pick up something as I can.

Q. Do the children go to school?

A. No, sir; they are not old enough; the oldest child is only three and a half; the youngest one is one and a half years old.

Q. Is there anything else you wanted to say?

A. Nothing further, except that I would like some remedy to be got to help us poor people down there in some way. Excepting the Government decides to do something with us we have a poor show. We are all, or mostly all, in good health; that is, as far as the men who are at work go.

Q. You do not know anything but mule-spinning, I suppose?

A. That is what I have been doing, but I sometimes do something with pick and shovel. I have worked for a man at that, because I am so put on. I am looking for work in a mill. The way they do there is this: There are about twelve or thirteen men that go into a mill every morning, and they have to stand their chance, looking for work. The man who has a boy with him he stands the best chance, and then, if it is my turn or a neighbor’s turn who has no boy, if another man comes in who has a boy he is taken right in, and we are left out. I said to the boss once it was my turn to go in, and now you have taken on that man; what am I to do; I have got two little boys at home, one of them three years and a half and the other one year and a half old, and how am I to find something for them to eat; I can’t get my turn when I come here.

He said he could not do anything for me. I says, “Have I got to starve; ain’t I to have any work?” They are forcing these young boys into the mills that should not be in mills at all; forcing them in because they are throwing the mules out and putting on ring-frames. They are doing everything of that kind that they possibly can to crush down the poor people—the poor operatives there.

Source: U.S. Congress, Senate Committee on Education and Labor, Report on the Relations Between Labor and Capital, Vol. 3 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1885), 451–457.