" We Are Not Slaves": Female Shoe and Textile Workers in Marblehead, Massachusetts, 1860
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“ We Are Not Slaves”: Female Shoe and Textile Workers in Marblehead, Massachusetts, 1860

On George Washington’s birthday, 1860, the largest industrial strike to date in the United States started in Lynn, Massachusetts, a coastal town north of Boston. The efforts of the Lynn strikers encouraged shoe and textile workers—including many women—in the nearby town of Marblehead. In Marblehead, as in Lynn, workers invoked the republican values of the American revolution to press their cause. Carrying banners proclaiming “we are not slaves,” they referred both to the rhetorical slavery employed by revolutionary leaders and to the real slave system that would collapse in the imminent Civil War. The New York Times reporter who wrote this article, however, was less interested in the historical resonance of the events he witnessed than he was in the loss of revenue to Lynn merchants, the novelty of women gathering in public, and having a good time with his Boston colleagues.

Lynn, Feb. 28, 1860.

In company with some of the Boston correspondents, I yesterday visited the town of Marblehead, where the strikers have obtained an ascendancy equal almost to that of the Lynn malcontents. The immediate cause of our going was a desire to witness the doings of the mass meeting, composed of the combined forces of Lynn and Marblehead.....

About noon, the procession from Lynn, consisting of about 3,500 men, preceded by a brass band, entered the village green, escorted by 500 Marbleheaders. The sight from the hotel steps was a very interesting one. Four thousand men, without work, poor, depending partially upon the charities of their neighbors and partially upon the generosity of the tradesmen of the town, giving up a certainty for an uncertainty, and involving in trouble with themselves many hundreds of women and children, while to a certain extent the wheels of trade are completely blocked, and no immediate prospect of relief appears. Their banners flaunted bravely. Their inscriptions of “Down with tyranny,” "We are not slaves,“ "No sympathy with the rich,” "Our bosses grind us,“ "We work and they ride,” "No foreign police," and many others of like import, read very well and look very pretty, but they don’t buy dinners or clothing, or keep the men at work or the women at home about their business. By this strike $25,000 weekly is kept from circulation in Lynn alone, and who can say what the effect will be on the storekeepers, dealers in articles of home consumption, if such a state of drainage is kept up for any great length of time?

However this may be, they made a grand show. The day was fine, the air balmy, the music good, the crowd great, and all the resolutions for sticking out were passed unanimously; so they passed a few hours on the green, making speeches of encouragement, and then, with three cheers for the Marblehead girls, and three groans for the “grandizing bosses,” the delegations parted, and the Lynn[ies] returned home, with mud in the road up to their knees, but with enthusiasm waxing stronger at every step.

The most interesting part of the whole movement took place last evening, and will be continued tonight. I refer to the mass meeting of the binders and stitchers held by


In company with the Boston Herald and Journal, the NEW-YORK TIMES mounted the top of a ricketty omnibus, and took fiften cents' worth of ride over ruts and through mud to Liberty Hall. The streets were thronged with girls of various ages and sizes—some twelve years old, and others forty—some four feet high and ten feet around, and others six feet high and five feet around. The corners were crowded with [“jours”] who cheered each chatty group that passed, saluting them with cries of “Go in, gals,” "Remember MOLLY STARK,“ "Give the bosses fits,” &c., &c. Reaching the foot of the stairway, the TIMES happened to be ahead, and with great difficulty pressed his way through the whalebone and rattan to the top of the steps. Here a venerable lady stopped the entrance, and said in a loud voice which attracted the attention of the three hundred occupants, (all women,) "No, Sir! No sich comes in here. You have vilified us and inspersed the purposes of our meetins, and not but one man can come in tonight—but our Chairman, Mr. OLIVER."

The TIMES was staggered, but in a mild and gentle tone urged that it was not fair to visit the sins of the Boston Press upon its Metropolitan head. While talking, we gradually worked and worked, till we found ourselves by the table behind which stood Mr. WILLARD OLIVER with mallet in hand. He looked irresolute, and did not exactly know whether to let the TIMES stay or not. To hesitate among so many women was natural, but it wouldn’t do to give it up so; whereupon we stood upon a chair, betted the indulgence of the house, represented that New-York was some distance from Lynn, and that we had been at considerable expense in getting here, and that it would be the height of cruelty to tantalize a stranger so much as I should be were I to be ignominiously thrust out after once getting in. The vote was taken, and we were allowed to remain, on condition we would tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth, leaving out what nonsense might be uttered on the spur of the moment. Our hands were; figuratively speaking, tied. So we promised whatever was asked. At our intercession the Herald and Journal were admitted, but not until they purged themselves of all intent to do injustice and had promised to be as good as the TIMES was to be. I hardly think knowledge was ever pursued under more difficult circumstances.

The hall was filled to its utmost capacity. The ladies were such as you can imagine free, self-supporting, fearless, happy women to be. We have seen many assemblages of women, but have never beheld a more intelligent, earnest, "peart" set, than were in Liberty Hall last night.

The object of the meeting was the hearing the reports of the Committees who had been deputed to make a list of reasonable prices, and to solicit the girls of Lynn and the surrounding towns to join the strike movement.

There are two classes of workers—those who work in the shops and those [who] work at home—the former use the machines and materials of the bosses, while the latter work on their own machines, or work by hand, furnishing their own materials. It is evident that the latter should receive higher pay than the former, and the report not having considered this fact, was subjected to severe handling. The discussion which followed was rich beyond description—the jealousies, piques and cliques of the various circles being apparent as it proceeded. One opposed the adoption of the report because “the prices set were so high that the bosses wouldn’t pay them.” Cries of “Put her out,” "Shut up,“ "Scabby,” and “Shame!” arose on all sides, but, while the reporters were alarmed, the lady took it all in good part, and made up faces at the crowd. The Chairman stated that, hereafter, pickleeomoonia boots were to be made for three cents a pair less, which announcement was received with expressions of dismay, whereupon he corrected himself, and said they were to be three cents higher; and this announcement drew forth shouts and screams of applause. "There, didn’t I say so?“ said an old lady behind me. ”You shut up,“ was the response of her neighbor, ”you think because you’ve got a couple of machines you’re some, but you aint no more than anybody else.“ At this poing some men peeped in at the window—”Scat, scat, and put ‘em out,“ soon drove them away, and the meeting went into a Committee of the Whole, and had a grand chabbering for five minutes. Two ladies, one representing the machine interest, and the other the shop girls, became very much excited, and were devoting themselves to an expose of each other’s habits, when the Chairman, with the perspiration starting from every pore, said in a loud and authoritative tone of voice: ”Ladies! look at me; stop this wranglin’. Do you care for your noble cause? Are you descendants of MOLLY STARK or not? Did you ever hear of the spirit of ‘76? [yes, yes, we’ve got it.] Well, then, do behave yourselves. There aint nobody nowhere who will aid you if you don’t show ’em that you’re regular bulit [built] MOLL STARKS over agin." [Cheers, clappings, &c.]

“Here comes the Boston police;” "Pitch 'em in the river;“ "Who’s afraid?” "We’ll put 100 girls at the depot, and then see if the police dare arrest anybody.“ What could the Chairman do? He hammered and yelled ”Order," but had to succumb and let the girls talk it out, when they again came to order and resumed business.

A proposition to march in the procession was the next topic which drew forth discussion. Some thought that proper minded women would better stay at home than be gadding about the streets following banners and music. To this there was some assent, but when a younger girl asked the last speaker what she meant by talking that way, when everybody in Lynn knew that she had been tagging around on the sidewalks after the men’s processions the last week, the uproar was tremendous, and the pit of the Bowery never at any performance of “The Three Fast Men” so resounded with screams and whistles and hurrahs as did that well named Liberty Hall.

Some of the statements were quite interesting. A MRS. MILLER said that she hired a machine on which she was able to make $6 per week—out of that she paid—for the machine, $1; for the materials, $1.50; for her board, $2.; for bastings, $1;—making $5.50 in all, which left her a clear profit of only fifty cents a week. One of the bosses says, however, that if a woman is at all smart she can make $10 per week with her machine, which would be clear $3, sure. In fact, from remarks which were dropped around I judge that MRS. MILLERís estimate is rather low. The leading spirit of the meeting, MISS CLARA BROWN, a very bright, pretty girl, said that she called at a shop that day and found a friend of hers hard at work on a lot of linings. She asked what she was getting for them, and was told eight cents for sixty. “Girls of Lynn,” said CLARA, "Girls of Lynn, do you hear that and will you stand it? Never, Never, NEVER. Strike then—strike at once; DEMAND 8 _ cents for your work when the binding isn’t closed, and you’ll get it. don’t let them make niggers of you; [Shame, there are colored persons here] I meant Southern niggers:—keep still; don’t work your machines; let 'em lie still till we get all we ask, and then go at it, as did our Mothers in the Revolution."

This speech was a good one; it seemed to suit all parties, and they proposed to adjourn to Tuesday night, when they would have speeches and be more orderly. Canvassing Committees were appointed to look up female strikers and to report female “scabs.” And with a vote of thanks to the Chairman, the meeting adjourned to meet in Lyceum Hall.

The Herald and Journal went into Boston at the close of the meeting, and as the TIMES was a comparative stranger, a committee of five escorted him home. They insisted upon his partaking of a stew and beer, crackers and red sauerkraut, and then with merry laugh and pleasant chat took us to our elegant and really metropolitan quarters at the Sagamore, where we bade them good-night, and retired to the dream of nonpareil, or machines, and eight cents per sixty pair.

Source: "The Bay State Strike. Movement Among the Women. Acts and Proceedings of Employers and Workers," New York Times, February 29, 1860.