Hampden Heritage

Archaeology, History, and Heritage in Central Baltimore

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Hampden Workers and Labor Legislation, Part I

Well, now that I haven’t posted since the beginning of February when I announced that we would start posting on a regular basis again, I’ve finally had the time to actually sit and write something.

Way back in January, I had the opportunity to do a few hours of research in the archives at the University of Maryland—specifically, looking at newspaper clippings from the 1880s. Previous newspaper research from the 1870s had already told us that Hampden-Woodberry’s workers were quite active politically in the 1870s, but we didn’t know much about the 1880s other than that there was apparently a local chapter of the Knights of Labor in Woodberry. (The Knights were a utopian cross-class organization devoted to establishing a system whereby the products and profits of industry would be shared equally among all members of society.) My January research revealed even more fascinating information about organized working-class activity in Hampden-Woodberry during this decade. Perhaps most intriguing, however, was evidence that there was a schism within the local working class community over issues of workplace treatment, workers’ rights, and other such things.

In early 1884, Governor McLane was considering protective labor legislation that would have had far-reaching effects in the factories of Baltimore. In addition to setting a maximum workday of eight hours for women and restricting the use of child labor, the proposed legislation would have legalized trade unions in Maryland and mandated sanitation inspections for factories, among other things. All indications were that the governor would sign the legislation. Not surprisingly, Maryland’s captains of industry were none too pleased with this prospect. A committee of the Merchants & Manufacturers Association of Baltimore, including Theodore Hooper of Hooper Manufacturing (one of the two primary mill companies in Hampden-Woodberry), was appointed to draft resolutions against the legislation to be sent to the governor and state legislators in Annapolis.

They apparently had two primary arguments. First, they claimed that since the annual profit margin in the textile industry was so low, any additional restrictions on their operations would drive textile companies out of the state. (They did not explain how, if the industry’s profit margin was so low, all of the textile magnates managed to amass significant personal fortunes.) Their second argument was that since the proposed legislation would restrict the working hours of women, it would practically restrict the working hours of men as well: the mills could not run without the women (who made up a large percentage of the workforce), so if the women had to go home after eight hours it would be impossible for the men to continue to work for another two hours beyond that. (The lawyer for the Federation of Trades of Baltimore City, then the umbrella labor organization for the city, inconveniently pointed out in response that the textile industry was not doing so badly that mill owners could not afford to hire enough extra women and children to effectively have two staggered shifts, thereby accommodating the men’s 10-hour workday.)

In the interests of keeping my blog posts short, I’ll pause my story for now. Next week I’ll discuss the reaction of Hampden-Woodberry’s workers to the proposed legislation.

(Sources: Baltimore Sun, January 22, 1884, “Labor Bills Discussed. The Eight-Hour Law Opposed. Protests from the Manufacturers,” page 1; Sun, February 6, 1884, “A Federation of Trades. The Excursion to Annapolis. An Interview with the Governor,” pg. 1.)


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