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Labor History: The Dover Textile Women & Their City Slicker Boss

Andy O’Brien
01 Dec, 2022
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Strikes in New England before the Civil War were often somewhat playful and whimsical with brass marching bands and pageantry. Here's a funny little tale about the Maine and New Hampshire textile women who went on strike in the 1830s, from George McNeil's 1887 labor history "The Labor Movement: The Problem of to-Day." It's also an example of classic yankee storytelling where the ordinary rural folk get one over on an arrogant, wealthy city slicker.

The factory girls of this time were school-taught Americans, some working at one season in the mill and teaching school during the short school terms. It had been the custom in manufacturing establishments to appoint the superintendent from the ranks of those of those who had advanced from the lower rounds of the ladder, but, as the manufacturing industries grew, some of the wealthy families found positions for themselves or their sons, as agents of mills.

A gentleman of a distinguished family had accepted the superintendency of a cotton mill in Dover, N.H., and, having some of the aristocratic habits of the city, was made the subject of ridicule by the townspeople. It is related that one day he stopped by the hotel, and after he had partaken of his dinner in his private room, he ordered a toothpick. As this was a luxury but little known in that locality, the porter brought up an armful of wood, requesting the gentleman to whittle out his own toothpicks.

It is also authentically stated that after moving his family to Dover he was annoyed by the croaking of frogs in the mill-pond, and accordingly had the pond drained off, and employed some of the mill hands to destroy the frogs. They were gathered, and, having first been subjected to a bath of boiling water, they were buried.

A proposed reduction in wages caused a strike of the employees. The authority from whom we receive this story, now himself a manufacturer, was then a boy of about nine years, at work in the mill. The girls, by a preconcerted arrangement, gathered in the mill-yard and sent word to the agent, who appeared before them, taking his stand at the pump in the centre of the yard, and addressed the girls.

After he made his speech to the girls, which was received with laughter, the girls proceeded with handfuls of cotton waste to cover his broadcloth garments with a feathery coating of the material. The strike lasted but a few days, but it is believed that the agent never forgave the indignity perpetrated upon him on that occasion.

During the strike the girls placarded the fence of the mill-yard and the door of the office with rhymes composed for the occasion. One of them bore an illuminated heading, consisting of a large frog painted green, the only stanza of the rhyme underneath which our informant could remember being: —

The agent to the frog-pond went

To kill the frog he was intent

He gave them a dose of red-hot water

For he thought to croak they hadn't oughter'

This is but an instance of a peculiar method which some of the early strikers had of revenging themselves by making verses.