Today in Textile History: March 14th

Today marks the date of not one, but two significant events in the history of textiles: 

March 14 is a significant date in textile history, as that was the date Eli Whitney received a patent for his cotton gin back in 1794.  The cotton gin greatly simplified the separation of cotton fibers from the cotton seeds, which otherwise would have to be done by hand, a slow and painstaking process.  The cotton fibers, of course, would be processed into cotton goods, while the cotton seeds would be used to seed more cotton plants.  Although Whitney patented his gin, patent infringement lawsuits caused his cotton gin company to go out of business only three years later in 1797. 

Photograph of a meeting held in Lawrence Commons on March 14, 1912 to celebrate the end of the Bread and Roses Strke. Gelatin silver print; 1912; 1993.131.17

March 14 is also the day the Bread & Roses Strike in Lawrence, Mass., ended in 1912. After over two months of striking, picketing, arrests and jail terms, textile workers (primarily immigrant women) had earned some concessions from the mill owners, such as pay increases, overtime pay, and a promise of non-discrimination against the strikers. A mass meeting was held on Lawrence Common in Lawrence on the 14th, shown here in this photo, to celebrate the end of the strike. Men, women, and children came to the common to hear speakers, including William “Big Bill” Haywood, the leader of the I.W.W. (Industrial Workers of the World). The I.W.W. had already established a presence in Lawrence prior to the strike and quickly took over leadership of the strike.

Whatever gains the strikers achieved from the strike did not stand the test of time and conditions for workers did not permanently improve.

By Jane Ward, Assistant Librarian

“The Jail Is All Full”

By early March 1912, the Bread and Roses Strike in Lawrence, Mass., had been ongoing for nearly two months. Textile workers in Lawrence, Mass., primarily immigrant women, went out on strike on January 12 after mill owners lowered wages due to a shortened workweek.  More than 20,000 workers were out by the end of the first week.  Demonstrations and picketing took place and the governor of Massachusetts eventually called out the state militia to keep the peace, and large numbers of strikers were arrested. 

Postcard Front

Postcard, 1912; 0000.1623.2

The postcard shown here is a common view of the Lawrence Dam; we have about a dozen different views of the dam in the holdings here in the Osborne Library.  However, it is the message on the back of this one that stands out.  Postmarked Feb. 26, 1912, and written by “Tom” in Lawrence to “Rose” in Revere, Mass., it includes the following message: “Rose am having a swell time here this. [sic] a man was shot and 17 women arrested, and 30 men.  the jail is all full.  Yours, Tom” 

Postcard Reverse

Postcard-reverse, 1912; 0000.1623.2

While the strike was extensively reported in newspapers and periodicals of the time throughout 1912, and has been studied in depth since then, it is less common to see a personal comment while the strike was ongoing.  This is the only personal notation concerning the strike we have here in the library. 

The strike was settled on March 14 in favor of the strikers, with pay increases, overtime pay, and a promise of non-discrimination against the strikers.  Due to a number of factors, the gains from the strike dissipated over the next few years and the mill workers ended up no better off than they had been before 1912. 

By Jane Ward, Assistant Librarian

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