Hampden Heritage

Archaeology, History, and Heritage in Central Baltimore

Friday, May 11, 2007

Hampden Workers and Labor Legislation, Part II

So how did the workers of Hampden-Woodberry feel about the proposed labor legislation? Apparently, there were two camps among the mill workers: on the one hand, some felt that things were going swimmingly at work, and that no laws protecting workers were needed; on the other, a significant number felt that the legislation was badly needed.

A fascinating article appeared in the Baltimore Sun on January 31, 1884. This article described the visit of a special delegation from the state legislature to the mills in Hampden-Woodberry. The purpose of the visit was to gather information germane to the legislation, namely, working conditions and child labor. This delegation first visited the mills of the Mt. Vernon Company in Hampden. They questioned a number of workers, including young boys who were employed as floor sweepers. According to the article, members of the delegation were particularly concerned that some of these boys could not read or write. When the adults were questioned on their opinion of the eight-hour law, the general response was that it would only be beneficial if it could ensure that workers would continue to earn the same daily or monthly wages as they already earned. (Needless to say, the mill owners felt that a decrease in hours should be accompanied by a decrease in pay, despite the fact that current wages were already barely sufficient to support a family, even with multiple wage earners in a single household.) Despite these apparently negative findings, one state senator proclaimed that he was “highly pleased with the condition of the mills and the happy, healthy look of the operatives.”

The delegation proceeded to Clipper Mill, owned by the Hooper family. Apparently, the conditions there were much the same as at Mt. Vernon Mills. The Hoopers claimed that they never employed boys under the age of 11, and insisted that all prospective young male employees could read and write before being hired. The delegation proceeded to have lunch at the Clipper Hotel (the boarding house for young female employees of the Hooper mills) and to tour Meadow Mill (another Hooper operation) and the Druid Mills (owned by the Gambrill family).

Returning to the Clipper Hotel, the delegation listened to an appeal by the mill owners and managers. Having already proclaimed their disadvantage compared to the emerging textile industry in the South (where the workday was 12 hours long and wages were considerably lower), the mill contingent claimed that the only aspect of the legislation they opposed was the eight-hour bill. They even went so far as to say that they had no objection to the bill that would legalize trades unions! Nevertheless, in their opinion an eight-hour law would simply either drive them out of business or force them to relocate, most likely to Georgia or Alabama. (As it turned out, the Mt. Vernon Mills Company did later purchase a mill operation in Tallassee, Alabama in 1906; in 1925 it began the process of shutting down its Baltimore operations. The mill in Tallassee remained in operation until 2006; the Mt. Vernon Mills Co. is now headquartered in Mauldin, South Carolina.) Furthermore, they claimed that they only employed young boys out of charity, and would in fact rather do without them. They disavowed any responsibility for the boys’ lack of education, and argued that a bill outlawing child labor would not, in any case, ensure that the boys would be in school rather than on the street and become “vagabonds or worse.” As one spokesman for the manufacturers put it, “Here we are a happy family; we live together, work together, and we do not want any legislation. Our cry is, ‘Hands off!’”

This whole exchange between the manufacturers and the legislative delegation was witnessed by a contingent of factory operatives as well. According to the reporter, about fifty young ladies “showed their appreciation whenever anything was said in favor of the present system by vigorously clapping their hands.” A male employee also claimed that the operatives had generally spoken in support of the present system free from coercion on the part of the employers, and did not desire to see any changes made.

From this article, one could easily get the impression that life in the mills was peachy keen, and that Hampden-Woodberry’s mill workers truly were happy with their lot in life. Fortunately for us, however, more evidence exists that such was not necessarily the case for all of the workers in the neighborhood. Next week I’ll discuss the contingent of dissatisfied workers and their actions in support of the protective labor legislation.

(Source: Baltimore Sun, “Inspecting Cotton Mills. Visit of the Special Committee on Labor to Hampden and Woodberry,” January 31, 1884, pg. 4.)


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