Mill Village Life

Mill villages were a unique feature of nineteenth century industrial development in the Blackstone River Valley. With its steep drop and numerous falls, the Blackstone River provided ideal conditions for the development of rural textile mills around which mill villages developed.

Slater Mill Historic Site Samuel Slater began the American Industrial Revolution when he constructed the first successful textile mill in Pawtucket in 1793. By its third year of operation, the Slater Mill had 30 employees, almost all of them children. Because large, poor families were an attractive pool of labor, Slater built housing to attract them. This also concentrated his work force within easy walking distance to his mill. Since mill workers had to buy everything that they needed to survive, Slater built the company store to provide for their needs. Paying wages in the form of credit at the company store also allowed him to retain essential cash. To provide for their spiritual needs, Slater built churches and established schools near his mills. These institutions were used to socialize workers in ways that he approved.

Company Store at the Slatersville Mill Village On one hand, the creation of a company village was intended to be seen as the philanthropic act of a benevolent mill owner, a perception that would help to inspire worker loyalty. On the other, the enterprise had to be seen by investors as a justified expense, one that would ensure consistent profits by allowing management to control almost every aspect of the lives of its workers lives. Every feature of these villages - their buildings, street layouts, housing and parks - was the product of careful thought and planning.

On the Shop Floor Exhibit at the Museum of Work and Culture By the time other firms entered the industry, Slater's organizational methods, later known as the Rhode Island System, had become the standard in the Blackstone River Valley. Under this system, the mill owner alone determined hours, earnings and physical conditions of workers. Conditions often improved when the supply of workers was limited. Conditions often declined when workers were in great supply. In the early years of the American Industrial Revolution, many families realized an increase in their standard of living as they moved from farm to factory. In the process, though, they gave up self-sufficiency for a credit-based economy centered on the company store. In later years as the supply of workers grew, it was not unusual for owners to take advantage of their power over now dependant workers.

On the Shop Floor Exhibit at the Museum of Work and Culture Even in the best times, life in the mills was difficult and unhealthy. The workday started before sunrise and ended after sunset. The air in the mills was full of flying lint particles that often caused respiratory disease. The mills were cold and drafty in winter, hot and humid in summer; dirty, noisy, and uncomfortable at all times. Corporal punishment by overseers was a common practice. The danger of working near machines was always present. Workers often lost fingers, arms, or scalps to the devouring machinery.

Ashton Village Perhaps the best surviving example of a company mill village can be seen at the Ashton Village in Cumberland. Ashton's major growth began when the Lonsdale Company built a large mill complex along the river in 1847. From the George Washington Highway Bridge, you can get a bird's eye view of the entire complex including the large mill building and sturdy worker housing. The mill, now abandoned, was powered by water and steam and was located in close proximately to the Providence & Worcester Railroad tracks. Worker housing, now in private hands, was located across the street from the mill. Churches, commercial buildings, schools and supervisor's housing were located up the hill on the high ground along Mendon Road. It is easy to see how workers could spend their entire day, perhaps much of their life, in the quarter mile distance between the mill and the outskirts of this village.

In Woonsocket, six mill villages grew up along the Blackstone River in the area around the Woonsocket Falls. Five of these villages - Social, Jenckesville, Hamlet, Bernon and Globe - clustered around the mills of one company. The sixth and largest, Woonsocket Falls, contained the mills of several companies huddled together.

This page utilizes information from:

  • History You Can See - Scenes of Change In Rhode Island 1790-1910 written by Hadassah Davis and Natalie Robinson and published by the League of Rhode Island Historical Societies, Providence, 1986.
  • A History of Rhode Island Working People, edited by Paul Buhle, Scott Molloy, and Gail Sansbury and published by Regine Printing Co., Providence, 1983.

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