Ancient Textile Industry along the Blackstone

Woonsocket, RI

August 11th, 2005

The time it took us to pass through our smallest state was far too short to find all the things that were part of this land. We did find an interesting town up on the northern border with Massachusetts.  Here the Blackstone River runs relentlessly to the sea. And it was the Blackstone that brought prosperity and a new way of life for many foreigners seeking to better themselves in the bright new land. The 1600s saw this part of the country still under the control of the local Indians, but that changed in 1660 when Richard Arnold constructed the first sawmill on the Blackstone River.  Success breeds imitation and shortly thereafter Arnold's friends, relatives and other enthusiastic colonists migrated to the area and set up similar operations. With this, came the necessity of other trades and business and soon there were 6 small villages along the banks of the river.  Trade grew steadily with the river always providing ample power for the mills.  With the 1800s ONE OF THE OLD LOOMS WITH MANNEQUINcame an explosion in the area.  Textiles had advanced in technology to allow for large labor-intensive mills which required great power to run the massive drive belts that pumped the hundred of looms throughout the mills. Again, the Blackstone River supplied the never-ending power needed.  The growth saw the 6 small villages come together to form the town of Woonsocket. The beginning of the 1900s saw Woonsocket at its heyday.  During this time a ready made labor force came down from Quebec to work the looms.  These were hard times for those who arrived.  Much of the City's rich history is in the struggles of these immigrants in a new land.  The mills are all gone now, as is much of the culture, but a small part of it is preserved in a museum in the middle of the town.  We dropped by to see what we could learn about the past and we certainly found that.  Inside we found the story of a world in change.  Not only was the industry brand new, LAURA STACKING SPINDLES AGAINST CLOCKthe workers were also new.  Many of them came from the poor farmlands of Quebec and didn't speak English.  There were no rules in the factory to start with. It was take or leave it job opportunity. Initially, the immigrants fell into 4 categories.  There were the unskilled laborers, fresh off the farms.  These people found work on the canals and building roads which were expanding to carry away the goods, the factories were turning out.  The skilled workers or artisans, whose jobs soon disappeared when machines were made to replace them, found themselves forced into the factory labor force.  The outworkers were those, mostly wives and mothers, who worked at cottage industries in their homes. Many of the  items they made were on display in the museum.  This was never a viable source of income as most of the items were labor intensive and were sold individually for whatever the maker could get.  The final group was the children.  In the early 1800s there were no child labor laws and many families found it necessary to send their children to the factories rather then school. With little body strength and no skills, the children got the most mundane repetitive jobs which demanded that they act swiftly and accurately if they had any hope of keeping their jobs. One of the jobs given to such workers was to load the spindlesTAPESTRY FROM OUR LADY OF VICTORIES CHURCH onto the spindle board.  It took very little capital to build a textile mill and soon competition was eating up profits.  The factories developed a  solution called "speed up and stretch out" which meant that factories began requiring more product to be produced per hour and longer hours for the same amount of pay.  This caused an increase in injuries and a general unhappiness of the workers, but the factories were uninterested in these conditions.  Soon job actions began to spring up.  Some skilled workers unionized, others staged walkouts, and the poorest of them all simply packed up and went home, when conditions got too bad.  This had no effect on the factories who were actively recruiting new immigrants to fill their positions. The struggle did not end at the workplace.  These immigrants found themselves transplanted into an English speaking country with different culture and values and religion.  Many of the French workers did assimilate, giving up their French ways for the new life in America.  Many others fought off this assimilation, and fought for their language and culture and religion.  The expression "la survivance" became the common term for holding on to the French in their past.  Even today one can find, among the old folks around town, evidence of the old "la survivance".  A tapestry sent from Paris in 1920 and which hung in the Our Lady of Victories Church is an example of the continued attachment to the homeland and the way it use to be.  
There were other things to do in town, including some old mill tours and historical walks, and of course there is the ever constant Blackstone River with all its beauty running through all of it.

***THE END ***