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A Mill Worker Testifies about Unemployment (1883)

On October 18, 1883, mill worker Thomas O’Donnell testified before the U.S. Senate Committee on Education and Labor about the hardships of unemployment and working-class issues. O'Donnell had immigrated from England in the 1870s. At the time of his testimony, he worked as a mule spinner, a position responsible for tending the large yarn-making machines in a textile factory in Fall River, Massachusetts . Based on new production methods, mule spinners were left unemployed for many months of the year. In his testimony, O’Donnell spoke to the struggles of supporting his family with low pay and irregular work.

Q. What is your business?

A. I am a mule-spinner by trade. I have worked at it since I have been in this country—eleven years.

Q. Are you a married man?

A. Yes, sir; I am a married man; have a wife and two children. I am not very well educated. I went to work when I was young, and have been working ever since in the cotton business; went to work when I was about eight or nine years old. I was going to state how I live. My children get along very well in summer time, on account of not having to buy fuel or shoes or one thing and another. I earn $1.50 a day and can’t afford to pay a very big house rent. I pay $1.50 a week for rent, which comes to about $6 a month.

Q. That is, you pay this where you are at Fall River?

A. Yes.

Q. Do you have work right along?

A. No, sir; since that strike we had down in Fall River about three years ago I have not worked much more than half the time, and that has brought my circumstances down very much.

Q. Why have you not worked more than half the time since then?

A. Well, at Fall River if a man has not got a boy to act as “back-boy” it is very hard for him to get along. In a great many cases they discharge men in that work and put in men who have boys.

Q. Men who have boys of their own?

A. Men who have boys of their own capable enough to work in a mill, to earn 30 or 40 cents a day.


Q. Is the object of that to enable the boy to earn something for himself?

A. Well, no, the object is this: They are doing away with a great deal of mule-spinning there and putting in ring-spinning, and for that reason it takes a good deal of small help to run this ring work, and it throws the men out of work because they are doing away with the mules and putting these ring-frames in to take their places. For that reason they get all the small help they can to run these ring-frames. There are so many men in the city to work, and whoever has a boy can have work, and whoever has no boy stands no chance.... That is what leaves me in poor circumstances. Our children, of course, are very often sickly from one cause or another, on account of not having sufficient clothes, or shoes, or food, or something.... My wife never did work in a mill, and that leaves me to provide for the whole family. I have two children.


And another thing that helped to keep me down: A year ago this month I buried the oldest boy we had, and that brings things very expensive on a poor man. For instance, it will cost there, to bury a body, about $100. Now, we could have that done in England for about 5 pounds; that would not amount to much more than about $20, or something in that neighborhood. That makes a good deal of difference. Doctors' bills are very heavy—about $2 a visit; and if a doctor comes once a day for two or three weeks it is quite a pile for a poor man to pay...

Q. They charge you as much as they charge people of more means?

A. They charge as much as if I was the richest man in the city, except that some of them might be generous once in a while and put it down a little in the end; but the charge generally is $2. That makes it hard....

Q. How much money have you got?

A. I have not got a cent in the house; didn’t have when I came out this morning.

Q. How much money have you had within three months?

A. I have had about $16 inside of three months.

Q. Is that all you have had within the last three months to live on?

A. Yes, $16.


Q. How much have you had within a year?

A. Since Thanksgiving I happened to get work in the Crescent Mill, and worked there exactly thirteen weeks. I got just $1.50 a day, with the exception of a few days that I lost because in following up mulespinning you are obliged to lose a day once in a while; you can’t follow it up regularly.

Q. Thirteen weeks would be seventy-eight days, and, at $1.50 a day, that would make $117, less whatever time you lost?

A. Yes. I worked thirteen weeks there and ten days in another place, and then there was a dollar I got this week, Wednesday....

Q. Have you had any help from outside?

A. No, sir.

Q. Do you mean that yourself and wife and two children have had nothing but that for all this time?

A. That is all. I got a couple dollars' worth of coal last winter, and the wood I picked up myself. I goes around with a shovel and picks up clams and wood.


Q. What do you do with the clams?

A. We eat them. I don’t get them to sell, but just to eat, for the family. That is the way my brother lives, too, mostly. He lives close by us.

Q. How many live in that way down there?

A. I could not count them, they are so numerous. I suppose there are one thousand down there.

Q. A thousand that live on $150 a year?

A. They live on less.

Q. Less than that?

A. Yes; they live on less than I do....


Q. Well, I want to know why you do not go out West on a $2,000 farm, or take up a homestead and break it and work it up, and then have it for yourself and family?

A. I can’t see how I could get out West. I have got nothing to go with.

Q. It would not cost you over $1,500.

A. Well, I never saw over a $20 bill, and that is when I have been getting a month's pay at once. If some one would give me $1,500 I will go....

Q. Has there been any day in the year that you have had to go without anything to eat?

A. Yes, sir, several days.

Q. More than one day at a time?

A. No.

Q. How about the children and your wife—did they go without anything to eat too?


A. My wife went out this morning and went to a neighbor’s and got a loaf of bread and fetched it home, and when she got home the children were crying for something to eat.

Q. Have the children had anything to eat to-day except that, do you think?

A. They had that loaf of bread—I don’t know what they have had since then, if they have had anything.

Q. Did you leave any money at home?

A. No, sir.

Q. If that loaf is gone, is there anything in the house?

A. No, sir; unless my wife goes out and gets something; and I don’t know who would mind the children while she goes out.

Q. Has she any money to get anything with?

A. No, sir....

Q. What have the children got on in the way of clothing?

A. They have got along very nicely all summer, but now they are beginning to feel quite sickly. One has one shoe on, a very poor one, and a slipper, that was picked up somewhere. The other has two odd shoes on, with the heel out. He has got cold and is sickly now.

Q. Have they any stockings?

A. He had got stockings, but his feet comes through them, for there is a hole in the bottom of the shoe.

Q. What have they got on the rest of their person?

A. Well, they have a little calico shirt—what should be a shirt; it is sewed up in some shape—and one little petticoat, and a kind of little dress.....

Q. You say that a good many others are situated just like you are?

A. Yes, sir; I should say as many as a thousand down in Fall River are just in the same shape, if not worse; though they can’t be much worse. I have heard many women say they would sooner be dead than living. I don’t know what is wrong, but something is wrong. There is an overflow of labor in Fall River.... when the mills in other places stop for want of water that brings them into Fall River. I think there are quite a lot of them that have come from Lowell and Lawrence these three or four weeks back—whatever brings them....

Q. Are you in debt?

A. Yes, sir.

Q. How much?

A. I am in debt for those funeral expenses now $15—since a year ago.

Q. Have you paid the rest?

A. Yes, sir.

Q. You live in a hired tenement?

A. Yes; but of course I can’t pay a big rent. My rent is $6 a month. The man I am living under would come and put me right out and give me no notice either if I didn’t pay my rent. He is a sheriff and auctioneer man. I don.t know whether he has any authority to do it or not, but he does it with people.

Q. Do you see any way out of your troubles—what are you going to do for a living—or do you expect to have to stay right there?

A. Yes. I can’t run around with my family.

Q. You have nowhere to go to, and no way of getting there if there was any place to go to?

A. No, sir; I have no means nor anything, so I am obliged to remain there and try to pick up something as I can....

Q. Is there anything else you wanted to say?

A. Nothing further, except that I would like some remedy to be got to help us poor people down there in some way. Excepting the Government decides to do something with us we have a poor show....They are forcing these young boys into the mills that should not be in mills at all; forcing them in because they are throwing the mules out and putting on ring-frames. They are doing everything of that kind that they possibly can to crush down the poor people—the poor operatives there.

Source | U.S. Congress, Senate Committee on Education and Labor, Report on the Relations Between Labor and Capital, Vol. 3 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1885), 451–457.
Item Type | Government Document
Cite This document | “A Mill Worker Testifies about Unemployment (1883) ,” SHEC: Resources for Teachers, accessed September 24, 2023,

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