A century ago, the looms that thundered inside this city’s massive brick textile mills suddenly fell silent. The streets, however, roared for nine weeks with the cries of nearly 30,000 striking workers who paraded through Lawrence and clashed violently with police and the state militia. The 1912 Bread and Roses Strike became a landmark event in US labor history, and its echoes still reverberate as this old mill town commemorates the event’s centennial.
“The strike began like a spark of electricity,” recounted one mill overseer, when the women weavers inside the Everett Cotton Mills opened their pay envelopes on Jan. 11, 1912, and discovered their weekly wages had been reduced by 32 cents, equivalent to a few loaves of bread. A new state law had reduced the workweek of women and children from 56 to 54 hours, but mill owners, unlike in the past, cut workers’ wages proportionally. Already working for low pay under dangerous conditions, the Everett Mill laborers walked off their jobs, and the strike cascaded through neighboring mills as quickly as the rushing Merrimack River that powered these factories.
Through the dead of winter, striking women, voicing demands for both living wages and dignity, carried banners that read: “We want bread, and roses, too.” Police tossed strikers in jail, mill owners planted dynamite to discredit the workers, and authorities even forcibly prevented parents from sending their children away on trains to relatives who could provide food and shelter. Through it all, the mill workers, many of them immigrants from a patchwork of countries, remained united.
Once children testified before Congress about the harsh working conditions inside Lawrence’s mills, public opinion turned squarely in the strikers’ favor, and mill owners agreed to most of the workers’ demands. The labor victory achieved by the two-month work stoppage soon led to improved working conditions across the country.
A century later, Lawrence’s long-abandoned woolen mills are once again quiet, but the Bread and Roses Strike and the city’s industrial past still resound inside the visitors center of Lawrence Heritage State Park. The building itself, a restored boarding house with original beams and brickwork, is a relic from one of Lawrence’s first mill complexes. Two floors of interactive exhibits trace the history of the city from its creation in the 1840s as a strategically planned manufacturing city imposed on a pastoral stretch of the Merrimack to the present day.
Visitors can peek inside the windows of models of textile mills and civic buildings to view artifacts and photographs. Another model, a pseudo proletariat dollhouse, offers a glimpse inside a typical boarding house, and a full-scale replica of a tenement kitchen illustrates daily life for the mill workers cramped inside. Black and white photographs recall the mills’ heyday when Essex Street stores remained open until 10 p.m. on Saturday nights and the city produced 275,000 miles of cloth per year.
Enlightening exhibits detail the engineering of the Great Stone Dam and the city’s canals, which harnessed the energy of the Merrimack. The museum details the steps involved in converting wool into cloth, and its collection includes machines used in the Lawrence mills. A section of the museum is dedicated to the Bread and Roses Strike and its lasting impact. For an in-depth exploration of the labor battle, the museum’s theater screens several documentaries about the strike.
A few blocks east of the visitors center, the epicenter of the Bread and Roses Strike — the sprawling Everett Mill — still stands. Fronting Union Street are the huge red doors through which the militia entered in 1912 to keep order. The wooden floors inside still bear the scars of the mammoth machines that once quaked all day, and a faint smell of oil tinges the air. On the top floor, the tangled threads of ethnicity, poverty, and income inequality at the roots of the strike — forces persisting in this immigrant city today — are woven together in a special exhibit hosted by the Lawrence History Center through Sept. 30. The exhibit includes a timeline of key events in the strike as well as artifacts such as billy clubs used by police and mill supervisors.
Throughout the year, Lawrence is hosting events to commemorate the strike. The highlight is the 28th annual Bread and Roses Heritage Festival, which features walking tours as well as singing, dancing, and theatrical performances. Although the strike took place in winter, the festival fittingly takes place on Labor Day.
Christopher Klein can be reached at christopherklein