The History of Labor Day Is the History of Me

Since writing on Independence Day about my Maine roots, I’ve become obsessed with the life and times of my ancestor Ruby Maria Freethey Smith. I’ve always been curious about her history, always thought that someday I would write a book about her life, but suddenly “someday” seems much closer, as I burrow down rabbit hole after rabbit hole about Ruby, her eleven siblings, her husband’s family, her brothers-in-law, the Lowell Mill Girls…. I’ve created a 32-page outline of their lives over the last couple weeks, and the beginnings of what could be a book.

One of the things on my mind this past week has been curiosity about why I find this particular piece of my family history so fascinating, and Labor Day seems a fitting time to dig into what I think might be the reason.

I’ve been researching the textile mills of Lowell and Lawrence, Massachusetts, and I realized I have always felt a personal connection to that industry via my namesake Ruby Maria, and the personal debt I felt to the women and girls who fought and sacrificed for the child labor and labor safety laws that kept my great-great-great-grandmother safe in those mills and allowed me to even exist at all.

I loved and hated those pictures of the kids in the mills.

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I loved the stoic strength and defiance on their faces, the way they stared into the camera as if their jaws were grit and every muscle tensed. I especially liked to see the girls and young women, because I knew that it was a man’s world in nineteenth century Massachusetts, but they were taking that world on anyway. They’re often standing inside the looms, several feet in the air, balanced on two crossbeams, holding onto two more above shoulder-height and always, it seemed, an arm’s reach apart. It was dangerous and precarious and I loved their bravery.

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I hated how dangerous it was. I was fascinated and repulsed by stories of kids slipping and falling through the multi-story machines, their hands and feet getting caught and pulled into the looms. I had a friend David in elementary school whose hand had gotten caught in a machine on his father’s farm before we met in kindergarten. David lost the middle and ring finger of his right hand, and his forefinger and pinkie were scarred. It didn’t slow him down – he’s a very successful lawyer now – but I remember paying too much attention in school to how strangely he held a pencil to write. I knew David had been lucky, and those kids in the looms had not always been lucky. They had often lost hands, arms, or their lives.

It took a century, from the 1830s until 1938, of organizing, striking, educating, publicizing, electioneering and lobbying for the men, women and children of the Massachusetts textile mills to get the worker protections like child labor protections and workplace safety regulations that we take for granted today. And as a byproduct of that fight, most of the textile industry moved to the Deep South where lawmakers were less willing to respond to popular demands for decency.

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My ancestor Ruby Maria came to Lawrence, Mass., in the middle of that century, in a post-Civil War, mid-Irish immigration period when big business had the upper hand and the labor movement was languishing between fights, after the Lowell girls and before Lewis Hine. It’s not clear to me that Ruby and her sisters and brothers — at least five of them and three of their spouses worked in the mills, too — benefited directly in any substantial way from the labor movement of their century. Nor do I have any evidence that they participated in organizing, though I often spin fantasies of Ruby’s husband George Smith, as a health inspector for the state, fighting for the safety and well-being of the generation of mill girls after Ruby and her sisters. Nevertheless, this is the sea they swam in.

Labor Day isn’t just a national holiday and a day off for me this year. It feels personal.

It feels personal because labor laws may well have saved the lives of my one or more of my ancestors, or people they knew in those textile mills. And it feels personal because we are in a moment right now when our power as workers is at a back-breaking historic nadir, and the power and wealth of corporate executives and the wealthy is at a dangerous historic zenith. And as we march into a presidential campaign year, this is, without a doubt, my number one issue of concern.

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