Aspirations and Anxieties: New England Workers and the Mechanized Factory System, 1815-1850

By David A. Zonderman | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 1
Terror and Wonder: Workers and Machines

The mechanized factory system was a new way of earning a living for workers in antebellum New England. But what made these factories different from other workplaces such as the farm or the artisan's shop? The presence of power-driven machinery was certainly one of the most distinctive features of the new work sites. Consequently, these machines were the subject of much discussion among the first factory workers. As with so many other facets of the factory system, the workers' perceptions of the machines were dynamic and multifaceted.

Workers who tended the same kind of machinery side-by-side in a factory, on any given day, might express divergent opinions about those machines. Mrs. Ephrain Holt remembered many different attitudes in her recollections of Peterborough, New Hampshire, textile factory workers in the 1820s.

Some work in perfect harmony with their machinery which seems to quietly respond to their requirements and accomplish all their mechanism has fitted them to perform, while other machines seem controlled by the spirit of mischief, and bother their tenders in every imaginable manner.if something wants tightening and she turns a screw often a vexatious snap follows and something is thrown out of gear. a shuttle bounds away from a loom, or a section of spindles refuses to operate, or indulge in provoking antics, and the harder the tender workes and the more weary she is the more exasperating the entire machinery becomes. had our ancestral grandmother's witnessed the antagonism sometimes manifested by machinery they would have pronounced it bewitched and punched it with red hot irons. 1

Why some workers appeared to be in harmony with their machines while other operatives wrestled with what seemed to be a demonically inspired contraption is a social and technological puzzle with many pieces. These pieces begin to fall into place with workers' first contacts with the machines. The picture becomes even clearer when elements of experience and skill and the dynamics of gender and power are all taken into account. For workers' responses to these new machines were more than a matter of technological knowledge, they were part of the struggle for control of the labor process and the workplace.

-21-

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