It is Friday afternoon, and it is very cool here in Hopkinton, NH. The day is cloudy, and the temperature is around sixty-four degrees. We have had a good amount of rainfall so Dale’s gardens are doing well, and soon we will have too many vegetables. Hopefully, Dale’s favorite crop – pumpkins – will grow to be huge. Now as you know, I am no gardener, but I do enjoy my shop. This past week I have constructed some heavy stands for our washer and dryer. When we first moved here three years ago, my son-in-law Mark and I hastily made a platform for those appliances. It is my fault that I did not construct them correctly, but now they are sturdy and should hold up well with the tremors and mad ravings of the washing machine. I’m working to improve my working conditions in the laundry – and good working conditions are important to every laborer. A wonderful farmer friend helped me with my project for I cannot move washers and dryers anymore.
Often, I have written about my work in the wool warehouse in Cambridge, MA. The working conditions were so very difficult there when I was in seminary. We had to carry huge arms full of different wools to the hopper on a great carding machine. The wool was damp with a wet white emulsion, and the fibers would stick to your arms and face. In summer weather, the temperature in the warehouse could reach close to one hundred degrees, and it was difficult for one to breathe. It was my Christian faith that got me through each working day. Perhaps I was helping to make a blanket that would keep someone on the street warm on a winter night. Martin Luther said everyone should have a Christian vocation, a job that would help others – thinking of making a warm blanket got me through those hot, difficult days.
Working conditions, a person’s work rights, are far better now than the years before my time and during my young years at Boston University School of Theology. In my father’s and grandfather’s day, working conditions could be intolerable. Just visit the coal mines in Pennsylvania and see how the miners suffered to support their families. Imagine working in the darkness of the mine, cold water dripping around you, and crawling into a shaft just wide enough for your body. Think how in that day a miner’s family lived in a company owned home and purchased all their needs from a company owned store. When you visit a mine, listen to the story of how when a miner lost his life in the mine, his body was brought home and placed on his front porch. Two weeks later, there would be a representative from the company giving notice to evacuate the property unless you had those in the family who could work in the mine. And, by the way, it took two young sons to replace an adult father. I wonder sometimes where the souls of those tyrannical business owners reside now. I think I know. But that was the work lot of men – the lot of working woman was no easier and tinged with more physical and psychological damage than for men.
While I was reading a book entitled Hidden History of New Hampshire, there was an article about the first women’s strike in our nation that took place on December 23,1828. A Dover, New Hampshire paper the Enquire printed this on December 30th :
“A general turnout of the girls employed by the cotton factories in this town to the number of 600 or 800 took place on Friday last, on account of some imaginary grievance. It has, we believe, turned out to their cost, as well as disgrace….The girls on leaving the factory yard formed a procession of nearly half a mile in length, and marched through the town, with martial music; accompanied with roar of artillery. The whole presented one of the most disgusting scenes ever witnessed.”
Speak of poor working conditions – like they would say in olden days – “harken unto this says ancient Ken” – later after the strike – this from The Mechanics Free Press – the reason for the strike – “a set of odious restrictions that not only demanded punctuality but promised to close the gates five minutes after the tolling of the bell and to fine workers each time it had to be opened. What would the good people of this city say to see three or four hundred girls running like hunted deer , on the ringing of a bell? Furthermore, a regulation forbidding talking while at work reduced the women ‘to the level of State prisoners at Sing-Sing.’”
Thankfully, we have improved working conditions since that time. There are laws now protecting women, children and men as well. Certainly, there are business tyrants still – yet there are laws protecting the rights of workers to work in clean conditions and to earn fair wages.
I wished to talk about this on our walk for we have seen an improvement in work hours and conditions since the days of that first women’s strike. It was a battle that took place over many years. Working conditions were still not only poor but dangerous some ninety years later. On March 25, 1911 a fire overwhelmed the factory of the Triangle shirtwaist company in Manhattan. The fire took the lives of 123 women and 23 men. The oldest known person to lose life in that factory was 43, the youngest – two fourteen-year-old girls.
The stairways and the exits were blocked to stop workers from taking breaks during their shift. After the horrific fire, legislation was passed regarding factory safety standards.
Why this subject on our walk? The reason is that our nation has made progress toward treating workers fairly. Certainly, we are not where we should be, but great progress has been made in better wages and work conditions for both male and female in America. I wished to talk to you about this on our walk for it seems today we do not wish to see progress, only failure. A sense of failure, it seems to me does not lead to a brighter day and hope for the future. In this time, I need to see hope and promise as I believe do so many others as our nation faces a pandemic and division caused by politics. America has a bright future – we are a nation so many wish to become a part of – to become an American. You and I need to commit ourselves to a day where we become aware of our failures but at the same time are encouraged by the progress, we as a society together have made.
I could go on to so many areas where we have seen great strides in our lifetimes. As you know I have problems at my age with breathing and with heart trouble – but I am helped so much by the legislation that came into being for the physically disabled. Every time I pull into a handicapped space in a parking lot, I am thankful that Americans saw a need to help the disabled the elderly by passing laws that allow them to participate in many activities rather than be isolated from their fellow human beings.
So, if there are places where we need to improve to bring the American dream to fruition, then let us strive to make America fairer and a more compassionate nation. But let us also be proud of the changes that have been made. America is a place where people yearn to be a part of our impossible, no, our possible dream; one day our dream will come true.
Thanks for walking with me today – hope to walk with you again next week – “And may the Lord watch between me and thee while we are absent one from the other. Amen.”