Dover Textile Strike
Dover Textile Strike
United States 1828
In December 1828 the first all-female strike in America took place in Dover, New Hampshire. The strike was the workers' response to the imposition of additional rules for factory employees, which included docking employees 12.5 cents of pay for being late by even one minute, blacklisting to prevent fired women from finding employment in any New England factory, and forbidding any talking between employees while at work.
- 1803: German pharmacist Friedrich Wilhelm Adam Saturner isolates an opium derivative, to which he gives the name morphine.
- 1808: First performances of Beethoven's Fifth and Sixth symphonies are given.
- 1813: Jane Austen publishes Pride and Prejudice.
- 1818: British surgeon James Blundel performs the first successful blood transfusion.
- 1823: U.S. president James Monroe establishes the Monroe Doctrine, whereby the United States warns European nations not to interfere in the political affairs of the Western Hemisphere.
- 1826: Friction or "Lucifer" matches in England are invented.
- 1828: Election of Andrew Jackson as president begins a new era in American history.
- 1829: Greece wins its independence after a seven-year war with Turkey.
- 1831: Unsuccessful Polish revolt against Russian rule takes place.
- 1834: American inventor Cyrus H. McCormick patents his reaper, a horse-drawn machine for harvesting wheat.
- 1837: Victoria is crowned in England.
- 1839: England launches the First Opium War against China. The war, which lasts three years, results in the British gaining a free hand to conduct a lucrative opium trade, despite opposition by the Chinese government.
Event and Its Context
Textile Mill History
The early nineteenth century was a time of rapid growth of American textile mills, particularly in New England. In Dover, New Hampshire, entrepreneur John Williams and nine other investors opened the Dover Cotton Factory on the Cocheco River in 1812.
The demographics of the women who worked in the Cocheco factory were similar to those of women who worked throughout New England in similar factories: they were white, single, American-born women between the ages of 12 and 25. Men worked as overseers. Each woman worked two looms, each 4 feet by 3 feet, simultaneously.
The young women, for the most part from farming families, left their homes and moved into boarding houses near the factory that were often owned by the company. The companies generally engaged the services of an older widow to oversee the boarding homes and ensure that the house rules were followed. The company expected the residents to maintain a strict code of morality and behavior. In the advertisement for female workers in the Stafford Register on 12 August 1822, the company asked for intelligent women "to whom constant employment and good encouragement will be given."
Factory work of this kind was considered respectable work for young women in an era in which very few occupations were open to women. This type of work allowed young women to become financially and physically independent from their families. Some of the workers supplemented their families' incomes by sending home part of their weekly salary. Employing women rather than men saved the company money, as women did not have to be paid as much as men.
Rules in the boarding houses were strict and governed many aspects of the women's lives. The rules forbade activities such as card playing, profanity, drinking, and gambling. The residents were required to join a church and attend services. The 10:00 P.M. curfew limited social activities. The factory owners felt it was crucial to maintain control of the women's behavior and a moral and respectable reputation. In that era, women who worked outside of the home were susceptible to charges of immorality. The companies wanted their employees to be above reproach so that they would be able to continue to recruit young women. The women bonded with each other in the boarding houses and experienced a more autonomous life than they had known in their family homes.
Workdays in the factories left little time for anything except work. The hours were very long, ranging from 11 to 14 hours a day, six days a week. From March to October the women worked from 6:30 A.M. to 6:30 P. during the Monday through Friday workweek. On Saturdays the workday ended slightly earlier. From November through February the factory bell rang at 4:30 A.M. to wake the girls. At 5:00. breakfast was served, and at 5:30 work began. Lunch breaks were half an hour. The women generally worked until 6:30 P.M. and dinner was served at the boarding houses at 7:00 P.M. The women earned about $2.00 a week; from this amount the companies took $1.25 for room and board. The companies held back an additional two cents a week and put it into a general "sick fund" to provide money to women who were in need of medical assistance.
The rules in the factory were very strict. The factory owners required the women to sign a work contract titled Conditions on which help is hired by the Cocheco Manufacturing Company, Dover, New Hampshire, in which the women agreed to the rules of the company. These rules included the agreement to work for whatever wages the company saw fit to pay and proper deportment at all times. There was to be no cursing, drinking, gambling, smoking, or talking behind the overseers' backs. The factories levied fines on anyone who showed up late for work. If the worker quit with less than two weeks' notice, the company would keep the worker's final two weeks of pay. Workers were not to talk unnecessarily or call out to friends through open windows. There was no reading while at work, and workers were not to throw anything into the river. Talking back to the overseers was forbidden, and if a woman made an enemy of the overseer, she was quickly fired.
Working conditions were dangerous in the textile factory. Women's hands sometimes got stuck in the looms and hair became stuck in the machines, sometimes pulling off their scalps. The long hours and short breaks contributed to these accidents. The ventilation system was poor in the building as was the lighting, which produced additional health hazards.
New Management Demands Lead to Strike
In 1828 the Dover Cotton Factory went bankrupt, and the Cocheco Manufacturing Company became the new owners of the factory. With the switch in ownership there was a change in the rules for the employees. The Cocheco Manufacturing Company would no longer tolerate any talking or fraternization among the female employees during the workday. Any woman who joined a union would be fired. Management imposed fines on women who were so much as one minute late for work. The new owners reduced salaries by five cents a day for the female employees, but salaries for the men remained the same. At the same time, Cocheco raised the production quotas and increased the loom speeds. The women were not willing to tolerate the reduction in their wages, which they believed was meant to make them dependent on their employer in the same way that slaves were dependent upon their masters.
On 30 December 1828 nearly half of the 800 female employees walked out of the Cocheco factory. This was the first time in American history that women had gone on strike. The strikers made banners and signs that they carried with them as they marched around the mill. The women found a band that agreed to lead them as they paraded throughout the town. They exploded two kegs of gunpowder in celebration of the women's spirit of freedom and sense of controlling their own destiny, however short-lived. The women gave spontaneous speeches in which they protested the unfairness of the working conditions, salary reductions, and work increases that the corporation was forcing on them. The Dover Enquirer of 30 December 1828 described the strike with rhetoric that revealed its editors' alliance with the factory owners. The paper called the strike "one of the most disgusting scenes ever witnessed." The National Gazette of Philadelphia, however, supported the striking women.
Within a matter of days, 600 of the female workers had submitted their grievances to the Cocheco management. These grievances stated the women's belief that the expected increase in productivity was simply being done to line the pockets of the men in charge of the mill. They stated their refusal to work for reduced wages. They outlined their belief that the new expectations of reduced wages and increased output would reduce the women to mere slaves within the factory system. Included in this statement was an explanation of the unfairness of expecting those on the bottom rung of the financial ladder to bear the brunt of an economic downturn while those on the top rungs of the ladder lost nothing.
The company responded by advertising for new, "better behaved" workers to fill the positions that had been vacated by the striking women. Some of the workers returned to the factories, and others were replaced. The only ground that the strikers gained in the strike was the removal of the rule that prohibited talking while working.
According to historian Philip S. Foner in his book History of the Labor Movement, in 1829 the management at the factory decided to nail the windows shut in an effort to keep the humidity out of the textiles in the building. This resulted in sweltering temperatures that caused at least one worker to faint. The women went out on strike again, this time winning their demand that the company open the windows.
In February 1834 nearly 800 women went on strike, once again protesting the company's attempt to reduce their wages. The Cocheco Manufacturing Company emulated the textile mills in Lowell, Massachusetts, by cutting workers' wages in response to a tighter economy and fewer profits. In Women at Work: The Transformation of Work and Community in Lowell, Massachusetts, 1826-1860, historian Thomas Dublin noted that the management of all of the New England factories formed a close-knit group, paying similar wages and employing similar rules in their factories. The actions in Lowell thus had an impact on the employees of Cocheco Manufacturing in Dover.
The employees at Cocheco, upon hearing about the reduction in their wages, left the factory. They gathered at the local courthouse to give speeches about the inequality of a system that would ask the lowest workers to take a price cut while middle management and the owners took no pay cut at all. They called themselves "factory slaves" and vowed to fight the owners of the mill. To avoid a pay cut, the women went to the newspapers. They hoped to get their stories out to the public so as to engage their support and to women working in other mills, whom they hoped would strike in support of their sisters. The Dover Gazette printed the story, going so far as to call the workers "daughters of the republic." The paper reported that the workers were behaving with dignity. These strikers held no parades and no marches with banners.
The Cocheco factory owners placed advertisements in the paper for 500 replacement workers. Those on strike took up collections among themselves for the "contingency fund" to be used by women who wanted to return to their families but did not have the money to do so. In the end the strikers did not gain any concessions, and many took advantage of the contingency fund to return to their homes rather than to go back to work at the factory.
Before long, immigrant women replaced the native-born female workers. The struggle for fair wages, decent work hours, and safe working conditions continued for decades thereafter.
Kessler Harris, Alice. Out to Work: A History of Wage-Earning Women in the United States. New York: Oxford University Press, 1982.
Morris, Richard B., ed. A History of the American Worker.Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1983.
Sumner, Helen L. History of Women in Industry in the United States: Report on Condition of Woman and Child Wage-Earners in the United States, Vol. 9. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1910.
American Textile History Museum. Cocheco: Print Works Collection. 2002 [cited 12 September 2002]. <http://www.pbtex.com/html/cocheco_information.html>.
Beaudoin, Cathleen. A Yarn to Follow: The Dover Cotton Factory 1812-1821. Dover Public Library [cited 2 August 2002]. <http://www.dover.lib.nh.us/DoverHistory/mill_history%20new.htm>.
Candee, Richard. The Great Factory at Dover, New Hampshire: The Dover Manufacturing Co. Print Works, 1825. Old Sturbridge Village Web site [cited 20 September 2002]. <http://www.spnea.org/resources/articles/pdf225.pdf>.
An Industrializing Nation, Interpreting Primary Sources.University of Houston, College of Liberal Arts and Studies, The Gilda Lehrmen Institute of American History [cited 21 September 2002]. <http://www.hfac.uh.edu/gl/us14.htm>.