Hampden Heritage

Archaeology, History, and Heritage in Central Baltimore

Friday, September 19, 2008

Bob's dissertation--Chapter 1, Part 1

Hi folks,

In an effort to get things started back up again on the blog, over the next few months I'll be posting excerpts from my actual dissertation (as opposed to just the proposal, which I posted back in the spring). As always, any and all comments (even, or perhaps especially, if you want to tell me that I'm dead wrong about Hampden's history) are welcome. Without further ado, here's part of my introduction.


It was only 7 o'clock in the morning, but Jane had been up since 4 preparing for her family's day. After a small breakfast, the mill bells rang, and Jane, her husband and three children, ranging in age from ten to five, rushed out of the house so that they would not be late for work at the newly opened Meadow Mill in the Baltimore County hamlet known as Woodberry. While the walk from their small house, which they rented from Meadow Mill's owners, was only a quarter of a mile, Jane dreaded the trip as she knew that she would be wheezing by the time she arrived at work. At the ripe old age of 30, Jane had been working in one or the other of the local mills for 15 years, and she was already experiencing the respiratory problems that would come in time to be known as brown lung.

Thanks to a recently passed bill in the Maryland legislature, the children would only have to stay at work for ten hours. Jane was proud of the fact that she, her husband Sean and many of their neighbors had participated in marches and demonstrations that had helped to convince the lawmakers in Annapolis to pass the bill. Their oldest child, a son named Ian, was a spinner like his mother. Mary, 7, was just beginning the process of learning how to be a spinner too; Michael, the youngest at age 5, worked as a doffer, replacing the bobbins of thread that had been filled by the spinners with empty ones. This was only an intermittent activity, however, so when he wasn't replacing bobbins Michael swept up the cotton lint that multiplied endlessly on the factory floor. Like most of the women who worked in the mills, Jane could look forward to at least twelve hours of work. Sean, on the other hand, was a carpenter for the mill. While this work thankfully took him outside of the hot, dusty confines of the mill buildings, he frequently had to put in 14- or 16-hour workdays.

After such long days on top of six-day work weeks, most mill workers did not have much time for leisure activities, but then again, there were not that many leisure-time options in Hampden-Woodberry anyway. The mill owners had decreed that no taverns would be allowed within one mile of the mills. (Naturally, an enterprising soul had since opened a tavern exactly one mile north of the mills on the Falls Turnpike Road, just above Cold Spring Lane. Sean and many of the neighborhood men were known to patronize the establishment on occasion.) Mill workers played various sports, particularly the new game of base-ball. Ian played the game whenever he could, and he dreamed of growing up to play for a traveling team like the ones that occasionally visited his village. More widely enjoyed were the periodic tent revivals put on by traveling preachers in wooded spots and fields surrounding Hampden-Woodberry. It was not uncommon for a revival to draw several thousand residents from the area and to last upwards of two or even three weeks. Jane and the other neighborhood women particularly enjoyed these events, as it was one of their only opportunities to escape from the weariness of mill work and housekeeping, if only for a short time.


It was the first heavy snow of the year. The children of Bay Street in Stone Hill rushed out of their homes, sleds in tow, and began the dangerous repeat trips down the nearby hill that they enjoyed so much. Their parents watched them with a mixture of joy and sadness. Joy, from the pleasure of watching the pure unsullied happiness of children at play; sadness, because they worried for their children's future. When they had been children, the parents had known that they would work in the mills when they grew up, and that lifetime employment would be virtually guaranteed. Their children's prospects were much less clear.

During the previous decade, things had seemed to be looking up: While the Great War had taken many of Hampden-Woodberry's sons to the fields of France (some never to return), it had also brought much increased business to the local textile mills and the Poole foundry, which managed to secure contracts with the federal government. At the same time, after more than 20 years of no labor activism in the neighborhood, the ascendant American Federation Labor had come to Hampden-Woodberry through the International Association of Machinists and the United Textile Workers of America. Local workers had joined these unions in large numbers and fought for their rights, demanding fewer hours, higher wages and cleaner, safer working conditions. After the war, however, the Red Scare had largely driven the unions away. The Textile Workers reorganized in 1923, but a disastrous strike at the Mt. Vernon Mills ruined the union and resulted in many blackballed strikers leaving the community, unable to find work in Hampden-Woodberry's mills. Mt. Vernon employees were already well aware that the company, owned by a large New York conglomerate, owned other textile plants in the Deep South; their fears had finally been realized this year when the company announced that it was shutting down some of its Baltimore operations and moving them to the southern mills. As the parents of Bay Street watched their children sledding, they fervently hoped that the other local mills would not follow suit.

[1] The vignettes presented here are fictional, and are intended solely as illustrative devices. Any similarity between the characters in these vignettes and actual persons is purely coincidental.