The opening of the village of Slatersville was the beginning of the mill village system in the United States. In this model, known as the Rhode Island System of Manufacture, the company built everything that their workers needed to survive. A company constructed or paid in part for worker housing, stores, farms, churches, schools, and community halls. These structures provided all the necessities of life to the mill’s workers while also maintaining a system of control and manipulation.
An entire family unit was the basis of labor system. Mill owners built multiple family homes. The parents and children lived and worked together. Often the fathers found work on the company owned farm or as mechanics fixing machinery while mothers and children worked in the mills. They all lived with a strict routine run by a factory bell. The average workday was ten to fourteen hours depending on the season. Families worked in poorly insulated mills which were too hot in the summer and too cold in the winter. This work was not always hard on their bodies, but it could be repetitive, with people doing the same things over and over. The repetitive nature of the work often ended in injury. These poor working conditions made for a difficult life for these mill families.
Many also found it nearly impossible to get ahead, or to even get out of debt. For their labors, mill workers were often paid in company money, a practice that is no longer legal today. This money, which could only be used in a company-owned store, ensured that workers had to buy products from the company which they worked for. Credit was also available, and as expenses added up at the company store, money was deducted from the worker’s paycheck. Rent for living in mill housing was also often deducted from a worker’s paycheck. Most mill families worked long hours and were still often in a constant state of debt to the company.
Churches in these mill communities were often subsidized or directly funded by mill owners. These institutions served a dual purpose. Mill owners used religion to encourage what they thought were good behaviors. Ministers preached sermons on obedience, diligence, and timeliness. All behaviors mill owners wanted from their employees. But churches also served as a community center. They might be the one place, besides the mill, where workers could gather and socialize. Churches also put on community events like concerts, lecture series, and field days to bring people together.
Another source of community came from sports. Baseball was a major part of mill life. Most mill villages had their own baseball teams and played other mill villages. Eventually, the Blackstone Valley League was a semi-pro circuit which produced some Major League Baseball players. Most in the community turned out for these games which served as a social outlet and community builder for these mill villages.
The mill village system gave companies a steady stream of workers and income. Mill workers who came to these villages gave up much of their own freedom to live a more stable life. They were guaranteed a steady home and work, and they were not responsible for their housing or producing their own food or other products. On the other hand, they lost almost all their autonomy and freedom of movement. Often, these workers were in debt to the mill company, and they were manipulated to serve the economic ends of their employers. This way of life still effects the economics of the United States today.
People, Places and Stories
Last updated: July 17, 2021