WOONSOCKET, R.I. — The conditions were appalling: It was stifling hot, with hundreds of looms making a deafening clatter; workers couldn’t wear shoes because of the oil covering the floor, so they had to go barefoot for their 12-hour shifts. Windows couldn’t be opened even during the hottest days because a drop in humidity could cause the threads of wool to break. As one man made clear, he hated going to work, but he really had no choice.
We learned this in a film at the Museum of Work and Culture in Woonsocket, dedicated to the working and social lives of the thousands of French-Canadian immigrants who transformed this town on the Blackstone River into a textile manufacturing dynamo in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Our guide, Ray Bacon, co-director of the museum and a descendant of Quebec immigrants, pointed out the special nature of Woonsocket’s immigration history when nearly 70 percent of Woonsocket’s population was French-Canadian.