Teoli, Camella

views updated

Camella Teoli

Excerpt from U.S. Congressional Hearings, March 2–7, 1912

Reproduced in Joyce Kornbluh's Rebel Voices: An I.W.W. Anthology, published in 1964

When Camella Teoli was in the seventh grade, she did not go to school. She went to work in a factory.

Children had been employed in textile factories ever since textile factories were first built in Britain during the last part of the 1700s. Children made ideal workers: they did not complain about low wages or long hours, they did not argue with overseers, and they were small and nimble—their tiny hands were ideal for operating textile machines.

As with adult workers, children were sometimes injured on the job. Sometimes their injuries resulted in death; other times, they were maimed or crippled for life. In both Britain and the United States, these incidents eventually led to laws barring very young children from working in factories. Most factory owners resisted such laws because it was highly profitable to employ children, who were paid less than adults were.

Child labor laws did not always stop factory owners from employing younger children, as was the case with Camella Teoli. She became known following a famous strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts, in 1913. Lawrence was an important
center of textile mills at the time and there was always a demand for workers to keep the factories humming.

In 1912 textile workers in Lawrence went on strike (refused to work) to protest a reduction in their pay imposed by the city's largest textile mill, the American Woolen Company. A state law had gone into effect on January 1, 1912, requiring a shorter workweek. American Woolen responded by reducing workers' pay in proportion to the reduction in hours worked. In response, the workers refused to work until their pay was restored to its former level. Strikes were not new in 1913, but unlike most strikes, which involved men, more than half the workers at American Woolen were women and children under age eighteen, most of whom were recent immigrants to the United States from Europe.

Police and militiamen (soldiers) were called to maintain order, although some critics thought the show of force was meant to discourage strikers. After some parents of children who worked at the mill tried to send their children out of town—for safety and to be sure they could not go to work—police tried to prevent other such children from leaving the city. As in many strikes, violence did break out (each side blamed the other for starting it), and at least two deaths resulted. These deaths, and the fact that many of the strikers were women and children, drew widespread attention in newspapers. In March 1912 the U.S. Congress called hearings to investigate the circumstances of the strike and the reaction of local authorities.

Things to remember while reading the excerpt from U.S. Congressional Hearings:

  • Camella Teoli was the daughter of an Italian immigrant. Her life was similar to the lives of many immigrants in the period 1890–1920. Poor and unsophisticated, they worked long hours for low wages. In some cases, parents sent young children to work to earn money despite a Massachusetts law requiring workers to be at least fourteen. In her interview at the Congressional hearing, Teoli testifies about a man who was looking for mill workers; he volunteered to get a false document stating that Teoli was fourteen years old and therefore eligible to work in the mill. (Her father thought she might be only thirteen at the time; documents like a birth certificate were not commonly held by immigrants at the time.) The existence of a man going around town looking for young workers demonstrated how factories needed to find workers in much the same way they needed to find supplies of wool or cotton to make cloth. Both were required to keep the mills running and the profits growing.
  • The strike against the American Woolen Company was organized by the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW),

The Lawrence Textile Strike of 1912

On January 1, 1912, a Massachusetts law went into effect reducing the work-week from fifty-six hours to fifty-four hours. In response, textile mills in Lawrence, Massachusetts, reduced the wages paid to their workers, primarily young women and girls. The reduction was the equivalent of two hours of work a week. A bill designed to improve the condition of workers was made to cost them money instead.

On January 12, ten thousand workers went on strike in Lawrence, led by the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), a labor organization that concentrated on organizing so-called unskilled workers—people who lacked traditional skills like weaving or carpentry and who were usually the lowest paid workers. The strike lasted for a little over two months and was characterized by violent encounters between, on one side, Massachusetts state militiamen (similar to the National Guard) and city policemen, (brought in to keep order and protect the factory from vandalism), and, on the other side, the mostly female strikers.

One technique used in the strike raised particular interest. Strikers decided to send their children out of town to stay with relatives or workers sympathetic with the aims of the strike. In this way, the children were made unavailable to work in the factory. After one trainload of so-called strike waifs left without incident, the Lawrence police chief blocked other children from leaving the city. He argued that he needed proof that the children were really being sent away by their parents, rather than by the Industrial Workers of the World.

In mid-March 1912, the U.S. Congress held hearings about the strike, and invited several strikers to appear. Once the strike—and the testimony of strikers before Congress—gained national attention, the cause of the strikers was assured. The mill owners agreed to most of the demands of the striking women, notably restoration of their pay. The strikers were victorious.

The strike was later viewed by historians as a landmark not only for the efforts of unions to gain power, but also in the history of women, who at the time were still seven years away from achieving the right to vote.

  • a labor organization that organized workers in an effort to improve their pay and working conditions. The involvement of the IWW, whose members were known as Wobblies, was one of the aspects of the strike that drew the public's attention, as the organization advocated policies (such as government control over factories) regarded as dangerous by most politicians and especially by employers. On the other hand, the strikers, young women and children, aroused sympathy among the public.
  • While all wages paid to textile workers in 1912 were low, the dollar amounts mentioned in this testimony seem especially low compared to wages in 2003. The wages that appear in brackets after dollar amounts mentioned in the article are updated to reflect the value of a dollar in 2003. For example, Teoli said she earned $6.55 [$119 per week]. This means that $6.55 in 1912 would be roughly the same as being paid $119 in 2003. Put another way, she was paid about $2.20 an hour in 2003 dollars, or roughly one-third of the legal minimum wage in 2003.
  • Toward the end of the questioning, Teoli's answers indicate that she does not know or cannot remember all of the details of the situation. Was this because she was ignorant of these facts, or because she was fearful of answering the questions, perhaps afraid she would get in trouble with the congressmen or with her father. The testimony does not answer this question, but it hints at how pressure could be put on children to do their jobs without complaining.

Excerpt from U.S. Congressional Hearings

THE CHAIRMAN: Camella, how old are you?

MISS TEOLI: Fourteen years and eight months.

THE CHAIRMAN: Fourteen years and eight months?


THE CHAIRMAN: How many children are there in your family?


THE CHAIRMAN: Where do you work?

MISS TEOLI: In the woolen mill.

THE CHAIRMAN: For the American Woolen Co.?


THE CHAIRMAN: What sort of work do you do?

MISS TEOLI:Twisting .

Spinning yarn from wool.

THE CHAIRMAN: You do twisting?


THE CHAIRMAN: How much do you get a week?

MISS TEOLI: $6.55 [$119 in 2003 prices].

THE CHAIRMAN: What is the smallest pay?

MISS TEOLI: $2.64 [$47.96].

THE CHAIRMAN: Do you have to pay anything for water [to drink at work]?



MISS TEOLI: 10 cents [$1.80] every two weeks.

THE CHAIRMAN: Do they hold back any of your pay?


THE CHAIRMAN: Have they ever held back any?

MISS TEOLI: One week's pay.

THE CHAIRMAN: They have held back one week's pay?


THE CHAIRMAN: Does your father work, and where?

MISS TEOLI: My father works in the Washington.

THE CHAIRMAN: The Washington Woolen Mill [in Lawrence]?

MISS TEOLI: Yes, sir.

THE CHAIRMAN: How much pay does he get for a week's work?

MISS TEOLI: $7.70 [$139.90].

THE CHAIRMAN: Does he always work a full week?


THE CHAIRMAN: Well, how often does it happen that he does not work a full week?

MISS TEOLI: He works in the winter a full week, and usually he don't in the summer.

THE CHAIRMAN: In the winter he works a full week, and in the summer how much?

MISS TEOLI: Two or three days a week.

THE CHAIRMAN: What sort of work does he do?

MISS TEOLI: He is acomber .

A worker who combs wool before it is fed into a spinning machine.

THE CHAIRMAN: Now, did you ever get hurt in the mill?


THE CHAIRMAN: Can you tell the committee about that—how it happened and what it was?


THE CHAIRMAN: Tell us about it now, in your own way.

MISS TEOLI: Well, I used to go to school, and then a man came up to my house and asked my father why I didn't go to work, so my father says I don't know whether she is 13 or 14 years old. So, the man say you give me $4 [$72.50] and I will make the papers come from the old country saying you are 14. So, my father gave him the $4 [$72.50], and in one month came the papers that I was 14. I went to work, and about two weeks got hurt in my head.

THE CHAIRMAN: Now, how did you get hurt, and where were you hurt in the head; explain that to the committee?

MISS TEOLI: I got hurt in Washington.

THE CHAIRMAN: In the Washington Mill?

MISS TEOLI: Yes, sir.

THE CHAIRMAN: What part of your head?

MISS TEOLI: My head.

THE CHAIRMAN: Well, how were you hurt?

MISS TEOLI: The machine pulled the scalp off.

THE CHAIRMAN: The machine pulled your scalp off?

MISS TEOLI: Yes, sir.

THE CHAIRMAN: How long ago was that?

MISS TEOLI: A year ago, or about a year ago.

THE CHAIRMAN: Were you in the hospital after that?

MISS TEOLI: I was in the hospital seven months.

THE CHAIRMAN: Seven months?


THE CHAIRMAN: Did the company pay your bills while you were in the hospital?

MISS TEOLI: Yes, sir.

THE CHAIRMAN: The company took care of you?

MISS TEOLI: The company only paid my bills; they didn't give me anything else.

THE CHAIRMAN: They only paid your hospital bills; they did not give you any pay?

MISS TEOLI: No, sir.

THE CHAIRMAN: But paid the doctors' bills and hospital fees?

MISS TEOLI: Yes, sir.

MR. LENROOT (Representative Irvine L. Lenroot from Wisconsin): They did not pay your wages?

MISS TEOLI: No, sir.

THE CHAIRMAN: Did they arrest your father for having sent you to work at 14?

MISS TEOLI: Yes, sir.

THE CHAIRMAN: What did they do with him after they arrested him?

MISS TEOLI: My father told this about the man he gave $4 [$72.50] to, and then they put him on [the job] again.

THE CHAIRMAN: Are you still being treated by the doctors for the scalp wound?

MISS TEOLI: Yes, sir.

THE CHAIRMAN: How much longer do they tell you [that] you will have to be treated?

MISS TEOLI: They don't know.

THE CHAIRMAN: They do not know?


THE CHAIRMAN: Are you working now?

MISS TEOLI: Yes, sir.

THE CHAIRMAN: How much are you getting?

MISS TEOLI: $6.55 [$119].

THE CHAIRMAN: Are you working in the same place where you were before you were hurt?


THE CHAIRMAN: In another mill?


THE CHAIRMAN: What mill?

MISS TEOLI: The Wood Mill.


MISS TEOLI: The Wood Mill.

THE CHAIRMAN: Were you down at the station on Saturday, the 24th of February [the occasion of a violent incident]?

MISS TEOLI: I work in a town in Massachusetts, and I don't know nothing about that.

THE CHAIRMAN: You do not know anything about that?

MISS TEOLI: No, sir.

THE CHAIRMAN: How long did you go to school?

MISS TEOLI: I left when I was in the sixth grade.

THE CHAIRMAN: You left when you were in the sixth grade?

MISS TEOLI: Yes, sir.

THE CHAIRMAN: And you have been working ever since, except while you were in the hospital?

MISS TEOLI: Yes, sir.

MR. CAMPBELL [Representative Philip Campbell of Kansas]: Do you know the man who came to your father and offered to get a certificate that you were 14 years of age?

MISS TEOLI: I know the man, but I have forgot him now.

MR. CAMPBELL: You know him, but you do not remember his name now?


MR. CAMPBELL: Do you know what he did; what his work was?


MR. CAMPBELL: Was he connected with any of the mills?

MISS TEOLI: I don't know.

MR. CAMPBELL: Is he an Italian?

MISS TEOLI: Yes, sir.

MR. CAMBELL: He knew your father well?

MISS TEOLI: Yes, sir.

MR. CAMPBELL: Was he a friend of your father?


MR. CAMPBELL: Did he ever come about your house visiting there?

MISS TEOLI: I don't know.

MR. CAMPBELL: I mean before he asked about your going to work in the mills?

MISS TEOLI: Yes, sir.

MR. CAMPBELL: He used to come to your house and was a friend of the family?


MR. CAMPBELL: You are sure he was not connected or employed by some of the mills?

MISS TEOLI: I don't know, I don't think so.

MR. CAMPBELL: Do they go around in Lawrence there and find little girls and boys in the schools over 14 years of age and urge them to quit school and go to work in the mills?

MISS TEOLI: I don't know.

MR. CAMPBELL: You don't know anything about that?


MR. CAMPBELL: Do you know of any little girls besides yourself, who were asked to go to work as soon as they were 14?

MISS TEOLI: No, I don't know; no.

MR. HARDWICK [Representative Thomas Harwick of Georgia]: Are you one of the strikers?

MISS TEOLI: Yes, sir.

What happened next …

The strike was a public relations disaster for the American Woolen Company. At the end of March 1912, the company agreed to almost all the strikers' demands, including restoration of their previous pay, and the workers returned to their jobs. Perhaps more significantly, many of the workers in the Lawrence strike had no specific skills—many were employed to tend to the textile machines—and their success marked the beginning of demands by unskilled workers to achieve a minimum standard of living enjoyed by skilled workers.

Although the strikers in Lawrence won their strike, it was just one battle in a long struggle by workers in the textile industry. Only a handful of textile mills still operate in Lawrence, a city once filled with mills. Over the years, many owners shut down their mills in Massachusetts and opened new ones in other states, notably in the South, where workers were less likely to be union members and could be hired for lower wages. Still later, mills moved outside the United States to less developed countries of Latin America or East Asia, where workers could be hired for even lower wages.

Did you know …

The Lawrence textile strike became known as the "Bread and Roses Strike." The name comes from the idea that the strikers were fighting not only for money to buy food (bread), but also for a more decent life (roses) that was not limited to an endless round of work, sleep, and more work.

The testimony of Camella Teoli received added attention because first lady Helen Herron Taft—wife of President William Howard Taft (1857–1930)—was in the audience.

For more information


Conlin, Joseph Robert. Bread and Roses Too: Studies of the Wobblies. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1969.

Dubofsky, Melvyn. We Shall Be All: A History of the Industrial Workers of the World. 2nd ed. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988.

Kornbluh, Joyce L., ed. Rebel Voices: An I.W.W. Anthology. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1964.

Werstein, Irving. Pie in the Sky, an American Struggle: The Wobblies andTheir Times. New York: Delacorte Press, 1969.

Web Sites

Dublin, Thomas, and Kerri Harney. "The 1912 Lawrence Strike: How Did Immigrant Workers Struggle to Achieve an American Standard of Living?" Women and Social Movements in the United States, 1775–2000.http://womhist.binghamton.edu/law/intro.htm (accessed on April 11, 2003).