Sunday, August 30, 2009

"Womens' Work" in the Straw Industry

One of the few comments upon nineteenth century female labor history in Middleborough concerns the lot of women in the Bay State Straw Works, the firm which was located on Courtland Street and was once the world’s largest manufacturer of straw hats and bonnets. Of their work there, it was written of the firm’s female operatives: “The work was easy and pleasant; the girls’ tongues flew as fast as their fingers, and they said of their work, ‘It is just like going to a party.’”

There are reasons to doubt, however, the characterization that work in Middleborough’s straw industry for women always was either “easy” or “pleasant” as some have maintained.

Like other industries elsewhere, straw manufacturing (which was conducted in Middleborough between 1835 and 1896) relied heavily upon the labor of unskilled and semi-skilled female workers, and due to the extent of its business, the Bay State Straw Works was obliged to seek this labor both within and outside the community. In 1854-55, Pickens Brothers which operated as the predecessor firm to the Bay State Straw Works employed 150 females and but 8 men.

The demand for female employees to plait straw (a process never fully mechanized) would always be very great for the local straw works. In February, 1859, the firm advertised for an additional 100 girls to fill this need.

Though usually successful in engaging female employees both as rural outworkers engaged in their homes plaiting straw for hat and bonnet manufacturing and as sewers and trimmers within the factory, the company’s treatment of its female employees was frequently found wanting and the incentives held out to prospective employees unrealistic. In the summer of 1860, when the straw works (which had then been acquired by Albert Alden and William A. King) was recruiting female workers in Plymouth, the following missive was received by the Plymouth Rock. It was signed, “One of the Girls.”

We notice in the Old Colony Memorial a reference to these works. We hope that if Mr. Alden is a man possessing of so many good qualities, he will instruct his agent here, not to encourage girls to work for them by holding out inducements which cannot be realized by the most active, also to pay the Plymouth girls the same wages as the Maine girls for the same work unless engaged as overseers.

Clearly, there was feeling among at least a portion of the straw works’ workforce that they were being taken advantage of, if not directly by its owners, then certainly by their representatives.

As Middleborough’s straw manufacturing business expanded rapidly, particularly during the post-bellum period, the numbers of female operatives employed skyrocketed. At the start of the last quarter of the nineteenth century, the Bay State Straw Works was producing half a million hats and bonnets annually, or over 1,300 a day. To produce these goods, the plant employed nearly two hundred and seventy operatives, divided equally between men and young women, as well as some 1,200 women and girls as outworkers “who are engaged sewing hats and bonnets at their homes,” the company’s braid cart delivering straw to these women and collecting straw braid in return.

Straw manufacturing was always one of Middleborough’s most productive industries, the community in 1855 producing some $415,000 in hats and bonnets, $15,000 more than the local boot and shoe industry, a business which eventually would surpass straw manufacturing only following the Civil War. The role of the Bay State Straw Works’ female employees was, therefore, not inconsequential, as they provided the labor which promoted the industry’s success.

Like other industries, straw manufacturing preferred the use of female help wherever possible, largely due to the wage differential between men and women, as well as the presumed greater docility of female workers, though this latter view carried little import at this stage in Middleborough as labor remained disorganized and would remain so for some time. Men, however, were engaged by the straw works for the physically more demanding tasks at the manufactory, working as bleachers, dyers, blockers, printers, packers, teamsters, machinists, carpenters and firemen, among other occupations, and as the firm’s business increased, so too did the number of men on the payroll to support these functions.

The treatment of its female operatives would be a frequent source of potential conflict for the Bay State Straw Works, as it frequently was for other employers. In February, 1876, female employees’ wages were docked twenty-five percent, prompting sympathy from at least one journalist who opined that the reduction was “a heavy cut when they didn’t get too much before.” In December, 1885, shortly before Christmas, wages of sewing machine girls were similarly docked.

Nonetheless, women of talent were recognized by the firm and promoted to positions of authority as overseers and forewomen, supervising other women in areas such as the trimming department.

There were few alternatives for industrial employment for local women at the time, outside of the straw works with the exception of the Nemasket Cotton Mill and the Star Mill which manufactured woolen cloth. (Only later as the shoe industry became increasingly mechanized, would it attract large numbers of women workers, and the heavy nature of Middleborough’s other large industry at the time, shovel manufacturing, precluded the hiring of women). Arguably, employment in the Bay State Straw Works for women was assuredly safer than either of the two cloth mills as the straw hat making process was still carried on largely by hand. Yet this is not to say that it was immensely more enjoyable, and women in all three manufacturing establishments shared common concerns and had similar complaints.

While characterization of employment during the latter half of the nineteenth century for women in the local straw industry as “a party” is highly suspect, unquestionable was the role of these women, many whose names have long been forgotten, in helping build and sustain one of Middleborough’s historically most important industries.

Female Operatives, Bay State Straw Works, Courtland Street, Middleborough, photograph, late 19th century.
Local women were largely responsible for the success of this firm, once the largest straw hat and bonnet maker in the world. And while their lot at the factory was undoubtedly better than their sisters who were engaged in the cotton and woolen mills in town, it can not be considered to have been either “pleasant” or “easy” as some have maintained.
Bay State Straw Works, Courtland Street, Middleborough, photograph, c. 1900
The former Bay State Straw Works on Courtland Street is viewed from Oak Street. Under the ownership of Albert Alden, the firm became the largest straw manufacturer in the world following the Civil War, producing straw hats for an expanding national market. Much of the work was done by women who plaited straw by hand.
Bay State Straw Works Operatives, photograph, late 19th century.
A number of female operatives of the Bay State Straw Works are joined by their male counterparts at the front of the factory complex on Courtland Street. The fact that nearly all those in the photograph wear some form of straw headwear explains the success of the firm during the post-bellum period. When the demand for straw hats declined precipitously in the 1890s, so too did the fortunes of the firm and its female workers.
Published previously in the Middleboro Gazette, "Recollecting Nemasket", January 13, 2005.


Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

Just a quick note on this. Telling my mother (who still lives in Middleboro) aboutthis article, she proceeds to tell me when my grandfather (her father) Joe Briggs was working for the Middleboro Gas Co. they were putting in new gas mains in the area of the factory and they dug up the plaster molds used to make the hats.

Kathryn Smith Lockhard said...

Ellen Sullivan Wilber, known as Nellie was my 2nd gr grandmother worked at this factory. She is in the picture

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