Work Rules—Then (1859) and Now

Over 150 years ago, on March 18, 1859, Martha Constantine was registered to work in the No. 2 Weaving Room of the Salmon Falls Manufacturing Company in Salmon Falls, N.H.  (Salmon Falls Village was part of present-day Rollinsford, N.H., just across the river from South Berwick, Maine.)  The Salmon Falls Manufacturing Company was incorporated in 1822 to make woolen cloth; after a fire in 1834, the mill was rebuilt and the company turned to the manufacture of cotton cloth.  The company continued under the Salmon Falls name for over 100 years until 1929, when its name changed to the Tire Fabric Corp., as tire fabric had become the company’s chief product.  The company finally stopped production in 1936.

General Regulations of Salmon Falls Manufacturing Company, Salem Falls, N.H.; 1859; 0033.85.77

When Martha was registered to work, she was probably given a copy of the notice published here: the General Regulations of the company.  The Osborne Library holds a number of the work regulations of various companies, and the language is startling similar in many of them, indicating that these were system wide rules.  These were the rules laid out for employees, starting with the regulations to be followed by the overseers (the supervisors) who were “to be punctually in their rooms at the starting of the mills, and not to be absent unnecessarily during working hours” and who “may grant leave of absence to those employed under them, when there are spare hands in the room to supply their places; otherwise they are not to grant leave of absence, except in cases of absolute necessity.” 


All company employees had to obey work regulations, which in some ways are similar to those today.  “All persons in the employ of the…Company are requested to be punctual and constant in their attendance during the hours of labor, and not to be absent from work without consent, except in cases of sickness, and then immediate information is to be sent to the Overseer.”  In other words, show up on time, show up every day unless you’re sick, and if you’re sick, call in sick and immediately notify your supervisor. 

You agreed to work the hours the company was in operation, even though in 1859 this meant roughly a 12-hour  day, with maybe 45 minutes for dinner (the noon meal): “All persons in the employ of the Company will be considered as agreeing to work as many hours each day, and for each and every day’s work, as the mills were usually run prior to the fifteenth day of September, 1847.”  You worked six days a week, although Saturday would be a “short” day, since you probably worked only 10 and a half to 11 hours on a Saturday. 

Have you ever wondered where the idea of a “two-week” notice came from when you’re leaving a job?  I don’t know when it started, but back in 1859 it was already in effect apparently: “Any person intending to leave the Company’s employ, must give notice to his or her Overseer, two weeks, at least, previous to leaving, and continue to work until the expiration of the notice.”  If you left before your two weeks were up (unless you were sick), you forfeited any wages due to you. 

Stealing from your company was frowned on, both then and now: “Any person who may take from the mills, shops, or yards, any of the company’s property, without leave, will be considered as guilty of stealing, and punished accordingly.” 

So what was different about work rules back then?  Nowadays, your company does not require you to attend church on Sunday, but back in 1859 “All persons employed by the Company are required to regard the Sabbath, and attend some place of public worship.”  Swearing was a no-no, whether or not you were on company property, as was immoral conduct or too much drinking: “the use of profane or indecent language, in or out of the mills—immoral conduct—the use of ardent spirits as a drink, and the willful violation of any of these regulations, will be a sufficient reason for dismissing the person from employment.”  If you lived in a company boardinghouse as many workers did, you had to adhere to the regulations of the boardinghouse, and “Ten o’clock in the evening is the hour for closing the houses for the night.”  In other words, don’t come home after the curfew—you’d be locked out of the house!

There was no paid sick time in those days, no paid vacation days, no 8-hour workdays.  Companies controlled the habits of its employees in ways that would be laughed at today, but you could be blacklisted in the industry if you were fired for breaking any of these regulations.  We don’t know anything about Martha Constantine, other than this notice.  I hope she enjoyed working there.  I don’t think I would have survived very well, working in 1859! 

By Jane Ward, Assistant Librarian

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