Pawtucket Textile Strike

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Pawtucket Textile Strike

United States 1824


The textile strike in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, was the first strike of women workers in the United States. Female loom workers joined with male weavers to protest the attempt by mill owners in Pawtucket to reduce wages by 25 percent and increase the length of the workday. Largely because of community support in the village, mill owners were forced to rescind the proposed wage cut, as well as the attempt to increase the work-day, until they were able to consolidate their political position within the village and in the state of Rhode Island. This strike was the result of deeper concerns than a wage reduction and increase in the workday, however; it also reflected the growing concern of workers over the increasing influence of factory owners and the workers' own change in status as they were forced to work harder for their wages.


  • 1800: The United States moves its federal government to Washington, D.C.
  • 1805: Napoleon defeats a combined Austrian and Russian force at the Battle of Austerlitz.
  • 1811: Prince Aleksandr Borosovich Kurakin, Russian ambassador to Paris, introduces the practice of serving meals à la Russe—in courses.
  • 1814: Napoleon's armies are defeated by an allied force consisting of Austria, Britain, Portugal, Prussia, Russia, and Sweden. Napoleon goes into exile on the isle of Elba, off the Italian coast, and Bourbon king Louis XVIII takes the throne in France.
  • 1819: First production of chocolate for eating (as opposed to cooking), in Switzerland.
  • 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.
  • 1824: Ludwig van Beethoven composes his Ninth Symphony.
  • 1824: French engineer Sadi Carnot describes a perfect engine: one in which all energy input is converted to energy output. The ideas in his Reflections on the Motive Power of Fire will influence the formulation of the Second Law of Thermodynamics—which shows that such a perfect engine is an impossibility.
  • 1824: Cherokee scholar Sequoyah perfects his 85-letter Cherokee alphabet.
  • 1826: French inventor Joseph-Nicéphore Niepce makes the first photographic image in history.
  • 1835: American inventor and painter Samuel F. B. Morse constructs an experimental version of his telegraph.
  • 1842: Scientific and technological advances include the development of ether and artificial fertilizer; the identification of the Doppler effect (by Austrian physicist Christian Johann Doppler); the foundation of biochemistry as a discipline; and the coining of the word dinosaur.

Event and Its Context

In the years before 1824, Pawtucket was the location of a variety of manufacturing concerns. Located on the falls of the Blackstone River at the northern edge of the tidewaters of theNarragansett Bay, the village was strategically placed to develop a variety of manufacturing enterprises. Artisans in Pawtucket ran a gristmill, a tannery and bark mill, a linseed oil mill, three fulling mills, three snuff mills, and a clothier's works. Pawtucket had been an iron working center since the mid-seventeenth century, and by the time of the introduction of textile manufacturing anchors, it also produced cannons, hollow ware, nails, and screws for linseed and fish oil presses. The village was also home to a sizable shipbuilding industry, which provided jobs not only for approximately 20 ship's carpenters, but also provided a market for many of the iron works in the town. Because of the other businesses and industries that had been established in Pawtucket, the town had no need for paternalistic institutions such as company housing and company stores that closely followed the establishment of textile mills in other locations, most notably in Lowell, Massachusetts. The artisans in Pawtucket also maintained close relationships with farmers in the area, who provided the artisans both with raw materials with which to manufacture their products, as well as much of the market for the finished products the artisans produced. This kind of relationship was eventually changed by the introduction of textile mills and the factory discipline that these factory owners and managers demanded of their workers.

The location of the town of Pawtucket made it attractive to early capitalists for locating factories as the location provided both an inexpensive power supply and ready access to markets. This made Pawtucket an attractive site for textile factories, which was the earliest industry to begin to mechanize (that is, to use machines in the production of manufactured goods). Textile factory owners attempted to enforce a new kind of work discipline on the workers that they hired for their factories. Before the rise of the factory system, artisans and laborers often worked irregular hours. Workers only produced "bespoken" products—that is, products that a customer had ordered before it was produced. If no customer orders were outstanding, there was no need for workmen to put in a full day's work. Even with pressing business, an artisan did not feel compelled to put in an 8-, 10-, or 12-hour day at work, because his family may have needed him to supplement their diet by his hunting or fishing skills—or the artisan may have just felt that he deserved a day off from work. Oftentimes, the artisans consumed copious quantities of alcohol during the workday, as well. This usually occurred during a mid-morning break from work, lunch, and a mid-afternoon break. The usual work schedule for preindustrial artisans was a five-and-a-half day week, with Saturday afternoon usually given over to heavy drinking with coworkers. This drinking often carried over to heavy drinking on Sunday as well, which itself often left workers less than eager to return to a full work schedule on Monday. This in turn meant that workers often honored "St. Monday" or "blue Monday," with the day given over to sharpening tools and preparing materials and supplies for the rest of the week. This was largely a male-dominated work world, with workers having to prove their "manliness" not only through the consumption of large amounts of alcohol, but also by "treating" fellow workers (to drinks of alcohol), and by resisting efforts by management (personified in the person of the master craftsman in this time period) to enforce a more rigorous work discipline.

The introduction of machines spurred many factory owners to attempt to change these old work patterns. To use machinery most efficiently, owners felt the need to have machine tenders at work every scheduled workday—generally six days a week. The manufacture of machinery in the textile industry occurred first in England, and the government there jealously tried to prevent the export of machinery to other countries, and also to prevent the emigration of persons who had the knowledge to build that machinery. Despite these efforts, however, mechanically inclined Americans did manage to visit textile mills in England and then reproduce those machines and factories back in the United States. England was just as unsuccessful in preventing those persons with specialized knowledge from emigrating from the country. In the early 1790s, English immigrant Samuel Slater, who had been a machinist in textile mills in England, settled in Rhode Island and introduced the Arkwright system of carding and spinning to the United States. Smith Brown, with business partner William Almy (both relatives of Quaker Moses Brown, a Providence merchant who made his fortune in the slave trade), joined with Slater to establish the earliest textile mill in Pawtucket, the Slater Mill, which began operating in 1793. In the next 20 years, seven other mills opened in Pawtucket. Among the largest and most important were the White Mill (established in 1800 and expanded in 1813), the Yellow Mill (established in 1805 and expanded in 1813), and the Wilkinson Mill (opened in 1811). By the early 1830s, Pawtucket was home to approximately 14,000 spindles and 350 looms and employed nearly 500 workers. This made Pawtucket perhaps the most important industrial village of that period.

The earliest workers in the mills in Pawtucket were children; in fact, by 1820 children comprised approximately 70 percent of the workforce. Many farm families provided workers for the textile factories. The factory managers prized large families, because they felt that the fathers were able to discipline their broods more effectively. In fact, many of these fathers were reluctant to allow factory management to discipline their children, and after 1820 young females replaced children as unskilled operatives. Mill owners thought it easier to enforce factory discipline on female workers, because the women had no inclination to demonstrate "manly" behavior, and it was thought that the women would adjust better to the demands for punctuality. Women were placed in positions of machine tenders, largely with the spinning mules, which were used to turn raw cotton into thread. The demand for skilled work was less, and many of the women had learned the little skill needed (tying knots to join pieces of broken thread) at home. The textile manufacturing process was not entirely mechanized; both hand picking (opening the cotton bolls and removing excess dirt and seeds) and hand looming were still performed at area farm homes; this was all changed by 1824, however, with the introduction of mechanical pickers and power looms. This further removed textile work from the home, decreased the need for skilled workers, and increased the demand for female workers and for the pace of work to be determined by machines.

Unlike the later mill towns (such as Lowell, for example), the female workers in Pawtucket were drawn from the town itself and from the immediate surrounding area. This meant that the women were not forced to live in company-provided housing but stayed with their families in the area or at independent boarding houses. The ties to the Pawtucket area became even more important when industrial conflict erupted in late May 1824.

On 24 May an organized group of factory owners announced that on 1 June they planned to lengthen the workday by one hour and cut the wages of female handloom weavers by almost 25 percent. These owners pointed out that the handloom weavers in Pawtucket earned more than their counterparts in other sections of the country and that the depressed price for cotton cloth had cut their profit margins. Upon learning of this proposed action, the handloom weavers walked off their jobs; other mill workers, who decided that all mill workers should refrain from working until mill owners rescinded their proposal, quickly joined them. Other workers in Pawtucket, including skilled artisans, joined the mill hands in their protest. This large group of workers gathered in the streets to vent their frustrations, and it was decided that the workers would visit the homes of each of the mill owners to make their feelings known. In response to this protest, the mill owners shut down all of the mills in the town. Five days into this lockout, the Yellow Mill in Pawtucket was the site of an apparent arson attempt; although damage was relatively minor, the incident did spur mill owners to reach an agreement with the strikers. Details of the settlement are sketchy; however, it seems likely that the mill owners agreed to rescind or modify the wage cut and length of workday proposals.

As a result of this conflict, mill owners began to move into local politics to protect their economic interests, although they were not able to consolidate their position in local politics until the 1850s. Workers in Pawtucket continued to resist mill owner hegemony, pooling their money to buy a town clock with a bell to keep time in the town. Owner control of the political process, however, eventually meant that mill owners were able to use the force of law to assert their "property rights" over the interests of workers.

Key Players

Slater, Samuel (1768-1835): Slater immigrated to the UnitedStates in 1789, bringing with him the experience and knowledge of the textile industry as it was being developed in England. After first settling in New York, Slater became acquainted with the early factories being run in Pawtucket by Moses Brown and William Almy. After visiting the Brown and Almy factory, Slater realized the improvements he could institute and offered his services. From this partnership grew the "Rhode Island system" of factory organization.

See also: Lowell Industrial Experiment.



Kulik, Gary, Roger Parks, and Theodore Z. Penn, eds. The New England Mill Village, 1790-1860. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1982.

Tucker, Barbara M. Samuel Slater and the Origins of the American Textile Industry, 1790-1860. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1984.

Wertheimer, Barbara M. We Were There: The Story of Working Women in America. New York: Pantheon Books, 1977.


Kulik, Gary. "Pawtucket Village and the Strike of 1824: The Origins of Class Conflict in Rhode Island." Radical History Review 17 (spring 1978): 5-37.

—Gregory M. Miller