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Potomska Mills 1888 Strike

My name is Noah, I’m a rising junior at Smith College (majoring in anthropology with a concentration in museum studies), and I’ve been volunteering at the Museum this summer. As part of my volunteer work, I’ve been researching different interesting stories in the Museum’s collections. A little while ago, I was looking through some old newspapers and I found an article about a story that I wanted to take a deeper look into.


On February 15, 1888, the New Bedford Mercury published a story about a strike at the Potomska mills in New Bedford. A close reading of this article reveals the ways in which news coverage can shape the way the public interprets current events, particularly through an author’s use of rhetorical strategies.


The article reads as follows:


A BOYS' STRIKE. Potomska Mill Doffers, Cleaners and Roving Boys Come Out.

A strike was begun yesterday by 23 boys at the Potomska mill. These boys, doffers, cleaners and roving boys, in the spinning room of Potomska mill No. 1, quit work yesterday afternoon, demanding an advance.


Some of the boys, who were seen in the afternoon by a MERCURY reporter stated that on Monday, when the five per cent advance went into effect with the spinners, they were not given any. They objected and were finally told that they would be given five per cent, in common with the other cotton working help. The bird in the hand made the boys avaricious and they demanded a seven per cent advance. This was refused them. They worked until noontime yesterday when out they went.


One of the boys said that some time ago an advance had been promised them at the Potomska mill. When the time came to draw their pay, including the advance, the advance was missing. When the notification of five per cent advance was made to them Monday it was by word of mouth. Fearing a repetition of what they claim to have suffered before, they agreed that if a notice of an advance wasn't posted up they would strike. Twenty-three boys came out while one whom the boys said was into the strike as much as the rest, [stayed] at his work.


Mr. M. U. Adams, treasurer of the mills, when seen by a MERCURY representative yesterday afternoon did not apprehend any difficulty with the boys. They were notified of an advance of five per cent in common with the rest, but of course they hadn't received any yet because it is not due them. He characterized the trouble as merely a boys' trick and was confident that everything would come out all right. It is not an uncommon thing for the boys, when they want a loaf to resort to some such measure, and yesterday, being an exceptionally fine day was probably no exception to the general rule. The boys will probably all go to work this morning.

The advance of five per cent has been made general in all the cotton working departments.



What rhetorical strategies are worth noting here?


One of the workers who spoke to the paper said that “[w]hen the time came to draw their pay, including the advance, the advance was missing.” Then, “[f]earing a repetition of what they claim to have suffered before, they agreed that if a notice of an advance wasn’t posted up they would strike.” The phrase “fearing a repetition of what they claim to have suffered before'' suggests that at this point the mill had withheld advances from the workers before. When the additional quote that strikes were “not an uncommon thing” is taken into account, it appears that the Potomska mill workers had before felt the need to strike for their rights as workers. However, this statement is used not to suggest that strikes are common because of unfair labor practices at the mills, but rather because the workers are obstinate.


The full quote reads, “It is not an uncommon thing for the boys, when they want a loaf to resort to some such measure, and yesterday, being an exceptionally fine day was probably no exception to the general rule.” In this quote, the author, intentionally or not, uses several techniques to delegitimize the struggle of the workers. First, the use of the casual phrase “want a loaf” as an explanation for the strike makes their struggle seem more frivolous. I interpret the phrase “want a loaf” as using “loaf” in the sense of being idle. Taken in this sense, the phrase implies that the workers are striking because they are lazy and want to lounge around.


Second, the reference to the “fine weather,” again, interprets the workers as being easily influenced by something as changeable as nature rather than driven by concrete needs. Third, the use of the word “boys” (which is consistent throughout the article) suggests that the author views the workers as immature. Because the workers are depicted as “boys” rather than men, their intentions can be more easily read as youthful rebellion: a “boy’s trick.” Instead of suggesting that the workers strike so often because their demands are continually not being met, the quote suggests that the frequency of strikes is a result of the workers being lazy or easily influenced by the weather.


Through a close reading of a single article, we can observe how subtle word choices can create specific impressions of who is at fault, who can be taken seriously, whose grievances are legitimate and whose are not. This document does not tell an objective account of the strike, but a highly subjective one which is shaped by the authors’ biases and the newspapers’ position within the cultural landscape. In studying history, we must closely examine different accounts to look for the ways in which authors tell their stories and the ways in which these accounts may be deliberately constructed in order to give the audience a specific impression of an event.

black and white photo of two men standing among rows of spinning machinery in a textile mill in New Bedford.
Mule spinning room, Potomska Mills


Sources:

0600.5.24 (source of article and the images of the newspaper)

The black and white image:

Mule-spinning room at Potomska Mills, c. 1880. Photo from Thomas M. Young, //The American Cotton Industry// (New York: C. Scribner's Sons, 1903), as cited in Heath, Kingston Wm. "Whalers to Weavers: New Bedford's Urban Transformation and Contested Identities." IA. The Journal of the Society for Industrial Archeology 40, no. 1/2 (2014): 7-32. Accessed August 5, 2021. http://www.jstor.org/stable/24891932.



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