“A Devil in Petticoats” and Just Cause: Patterns of Punishment in Two New England Textile Factories

Punishment has been ingrained in the social structure of the factory from the very beginning because the coordination of a complex division of labor entails exercise of authority, and where orders are given there is a potential for disobedience.

While studies on motivation of factory labor have focused predominantly on the use of rewards to elicit effort, the rewards of wage labor have never sufficed, without a backup system of punishment.

Hamilton Manufacturing Company 5 in Lowell for the period 1826-1838


The machine process requires rigid discipline, which makes itself felt in “schedules of time, place and circumstance” requiring “conformity to the canon of accurate quantitative measurement.”

The separation of home and work-place has served, especially since the abatement of child labor, to conceal factory routine from young people until they pass through the employment office to their first job.

“Punctuality, calculability, exactness are forced upon life by the complexity and extension of metropolitan existence,” as Georg Simmel argued. Parental concern for jobs, paychecks, and the vagaries of the labor market are communicated to children, but in many ways the world within the factory gates remains a mystery.

After changes with contradictory consequences are taken into account, what remains is the continuing problem of synchronizing humans and machines in hierarchic work organizations.

The Hamilton Manufacturing Company, one of the famous Lowell boarding house mills, was incorporated in 1825, and production at the first of three mills in the corporation began in May of the following year. The earliest payroll book documents a strong pre- occupation with the validation of newly-claimed authority through punitive controls. By the end of March 1827, 190 employees were at work in the new factory, yet already during the first ten months of operations there had been 119 separations from the labor force:

“regular notice” (two weeks’ notice) 42 (35.3%)

“short notice,” no notice, sickness  43 (36.1%)

“husband came for her,” etc. discharges 34 (28.6%)

One discharge entry bore the notation “overseer didn’t like.” expressing dissatisfaction over wages, hysteria and levity (!) were also cited as reasons for dismissal. (Surely if laughter is a defense against adversity, being fired from the mill for “levity” is an outrage)

While in later records the primary concern is for productivity and workmanship, during the first faltering steps of factory production, management seemed most interested in asserting dominance

Moral Police:

No distinction was made between what workers did on company time and what they did on their own. Being “reported” was grounds for dismissal even if the report had no bearing on work performance.

Lowell boarding house mills, the ten p.m. curfew and similar restrictions on personal behavior were an intrinsic part of the company rules with as much force as rules for heeding the starting bell or keeping looms clean.

No evidence that the 1837 dismissal of Mary Moses and Lucy Richardson for dancing in the spinning room of Mill A was connected with any loss of production. It is safe to infer that this incident flew in the face of the puritanical moral code advocated by the management and, as such, was defined as detrimental to the order and discipline of the mill.

Weavers and Watchmen:

275 discharges in the record having a plausible link to poor work performance, 176 (64 per cent) were against weavers.

The explanation of why weavers are more prone to dismissal on work-related charges has to do with the relative difficulty and complexity of weaving com- pared to other mill jobs. When more things can go wrong with a job, it is probable that there will be more disciplinary action in- volving faulty work than in classifications that are simpler and more fool-proof. It may be a corollary of Murphy’s Law that if something can go wrong it will be punished, or more precisely, the greater the probability of mistakes in a work classification, the greater the expected incidence of “bad work” penalties.Screen Shot 2016-05-03 at 9.00.21 AM

Lest anyone think this a frivolous reason to quit, both these weavers averaged earnings of fifty-nine cents per day during the pay period ending April 18, 1835, and the deduction represented about three hours’ work for one, and two for the other. Overall, the workers against whom the 108 recorded fines were assessed averaged daily earnings of sixty cents, while the mean fine was eleven cents. For an estimated twelve-hour workday, that meant a loss of 2.2 hours in wages. This was no trivial loss, all the more so since the deduction was not accompanied by a -corresponding reduction of time and effort inputs by the penalized workers.

Absenteeism and Debt

In 1836, Betsy Pierce was discharged on the accusation that she had “pretended sickness to go to meeting.” Two years later, Charity West met a similar fate for “staying out on pretence of sickness.” The claim of sickness to validate absence from work and managerial rejection of that claim (a familiar confrontation in modem industry) is thus documented early on in American industrial practice.

Combinations, Turn outs and Blacklists

Early entrepreneurs treated unionism as a conspiracy to be rooted out. In March 1830, Dorothy Wyman was discharged from the winding room at Hamilton on the allegation that she had “combined to raise wages.”

Work stoppages and other expressions of discontent often preceded formal unionization, and there is evidence of suppression through discharge.

There is evidence of strikers from other Lowell mills being reported through the blacklist and quickly losing their jobs at Hamilton. The efficiency of this employer’s communications network was at its peak when Alice Steaves was hired as a weaver in Mill C on March 4, 1837, and was discharged on the same day for having participated in a strike at the Merrimack Manufacturing Company. For ten workers hired at Hamilton in this period and subsequently reported through the blacklist as turn outs from other companies, the median survival time between being hired and fired was 7.5 days.Deviant Behavior

Hysteria as grounds for discharge was cited from the first pay- roll records. Other labels bestowed by the mill diagnosticians on unwanted employees included: “non composmentis,” “mad,” and “crazy.” Another was deemed unsuitable because of “religious frenzy.” These designations seem to be attempts at imputing causes for unacceptable behavior, while the more straightforward charge of “not conforming to the rules” is simply descriptive.

The Defarge Knitting Mill, 1971-1972  Woonsocket RI


After they have passed through a probationary period, employees of the Defarge Knitting Mill are subject to discharge or other penal- ties only for “good and sufficient cause.” Appeals against such punishment can be processed through a grievance procedure culminating in arbitration.

During the period of January 1, 1971 through December 31, 1972, there were 125 disciplinary penalties for cause

Screen Shot 2016-05-03 at 9.10.51 AM

Charges linked directly to poor work performance and absenteeism accounted for 49 penalties each. Nearly four out of five cases thus involved one of these areas of noncompliance

Screen Shot 2016-05-03 at 9.11.33 AM

Absenteeism has been described as a kind of individual strike,27 and as such it may be perceived as aggression against authority.

At the Defarge Mill, forty-nine of the recorded penalties (thirty- six reprimands, twelve suspensions, and one discharge) were connected with poor work performance. Four of the reprimands referred to shortfalls below production standards, while the remainder dealt in large measure with defects in the quality of the product.These penalties were not randomly distributed among the workers, but fell predominantly upon workers in the knitting department.

Screen Shot 2016-05-03 at 9.13.31 AM

While discharges for cause were few at Defarge, and the constraints of a collective bargaining agreement protect the worker under the jurisdiction of the union from arbitrary or capricious treatment, there is one set of data, not previously alluded to, which puts supposedly dramatic advances in industrial justice into a some- what different light. While public law and contract at Defarge introduce an element of due process that the Hamilton workers could not imagine in their wildest dreams, there is a catch.  That can best be illuminated by examining what happens during the probationary period.

“No worker shall be discharged or disciplined without good and sufficient cause, except during his trial period, during which period the employer may discharge or discipline at will . . . without regard to cause”

legal requirement that employers bargain with unions chosen by their employees is accepted with such equanimity in the United States today.  Written in 1976, we are in a much different place today.



The Triangle Fire: Tragedy, Trial, and Triumph

The 1911 Triangle Shirt Waist Factory Fire 


International Ladies Garment Workers Union  ILGWU



The textile mill villages of the South were examples of company towns.

Courtenay Textile Mill of Newry, South Carolina.  Located in the rolling Appalachian foothills in the northwestern corner of the state, Newry is representative of a typical rural mill village of the southern Piedmont.  Southern mills overtook the traditional industry of New England by the start of the 1930s.


Whether the mill was urban or rural, the village served the same purpose: to attract a labor force to the mill from the predominately agricultural economy. Before 1900, the mills absorbed surplus local labor caused by declining prices for the staple cotton crop. But after the turn of the century, the supply of such farmers was depleted, and mill owners were pressed to find alternative sources. Brief thoughts of using foreign immigrants or black labor were abandoned when the Appalachian mountain folk were brought to the mills by hired labor recruiters.

The rapid industrialization of the Piedmont led to many social problems and growing calls for regulation. The reform movements of the Progressive Era generated the first external restraints on the labor force available to the mills, although the enactment of laws on child labor, minimal schooling, and sixty-hour work weeks often meant little through lack of enforcement.

Great Depression spawned the now familiar forty-hour work week, overtime pay, minimum wages, and social security.The only major upheaval of the labor market that southern mill owners successfully avoided was the growth of unionism.

The labor pool of the mill no longer consisted of poor farmers and uneducated mountain folk attracted from outside the village, but rather members of a rapidly growing mill class who had been raised in the mills. The mill village was no longer crucial for obtaining labor because the labor force was already there. The first wave of village housing sales began during the 1930s, and they resumed in even greater numbers once temporary wartime labor shortages passed.

paternalistic view that the mill town, complete with store, church, school, nurse, activity director, and emphasis on family life, was a voluntary cost borne by mill owners for the benefit and welfare of their employee.

company town is a blatant attempt to create employee dependence

human capital approach to the mill village system:

The workers were unprepared for the improvements possible in their new urban life. It was the mission of the owners,as they saw it, to show their employees how to raise their standard of living.


Once monopsony power has been developed, the company town can be used to lower wages. Similarly, the welfare activities of a mill town were in fact social exploitation designed to manipulate the views of the operatives to management’s advantag

Mill owners invested in the mill village, its family labor system, and its welfare activities in the anticipation that eventually a core of stable, dependable workers would be created who would acquire additional skill with their accumulated work experience.







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