When Dover mill girls went on strike against the Cocheco Manufacturing Co., they said their bosses secretly ‘abused and insulted’ them by calling them ‘slaves.’
It was 1828, and women had never organized and walked off the job before in New Hampshire. It was the first all-women strike in the United States. Four years earlier, women had led a widespread textile workers’ strike in Pawtucket, R.I.
The Dover mill girls viewed their cause in the spirit of the American Revolution. They marched to martial music outside the mill and fired artillery.
But they faced a tougher opponent than the British military: Boston bosses with a financial investment to protect.
Cocheco Manufacturing Co.
Manufacturing textiles by machine was relatively new when the Dover mill girls stopped work. Sam Slater’s water-powered cotton spinning mill, the country’s first, had only started running 35 years earlier in Pawtucket, R.I. The Waltham, Mass., mills began weaving and printing cotton cloth in 1813. And the giant Lowell mill complex was a mere six years old, having been opened by a group of Boston money men called the Boston Associates.
In New Hampshire, the Cocheco Manufacturing Company started out in 1812 as the Dover Cotton Company. It used waterpower from the Cochecho River to make cloth. The company thrived and expanded, shipping cotton cloth down the river to international ports. It attracted so many workers Dover’s population nearly doubled over a decade to more than 5,000 in 1830.
The company’s owners bought more land, built more mills and replaced the wooden blocks to print cloth with rolling cylinders.
But they needed financial help to expand. They got it from the Boston Associates.
The new printworks turned out to drain the Boston Associates finances. So they spun it off to the Boston investors as the Cocheco Manufacturing Company in 1827.
The new owners decided its employees made too much money.
Dover Mill Girls
In 1822, the textile mill had run a Help Wanted ad for smart, capable girls ‘between 12 and 25 years old,’ promising ‘constant employment and good encouragement.’
The Dover mill girls, mostly from farms in New Hampshire and southern Maine, earned 47 cents a day plus room and board. Two cents were taken from their paychecks for medical insurance. They needed it. The girls worked with only one break from 6:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. They breathed noxious fumes and worked with noisy, dangerous machinery that mangled fingers and limbs.
Managers forbade the girls from talking to each other during the 11-hour day. They were paid in scrip and required to shop in the company store, which raised prices higher than other shops. Most lived in boardinghouses supervised by a widow, who enforced strict rules of behavior.
At the end of 1828, the Boston owners of the Cocheco Manufacturing Company lowered the wages of the 800 Dover mill girls by five cents a day and speeded up their work. Male millworkers and managers received no such pay cut.
Indignant, 600 of the Dover mill girls met that weekend to formulate a three-part resolution:
They would never agree to work for the lower wage. They believed the new owners had artfully manipulated the situation at the mill to promote their own wicked ends. Finally, they were far from home and they weren’t paid enough.
In a rhetorical flourish, the Dover mill girls concluded the owners’ aim was to turn them into slaves.
The Dover Mill Girl Strike
On the day after Christmas in 1828, about 600 of the Dover mill girls marched out of the factory yard, declaring war on the mill owners. They formed a half-mile procession and marched around the mill waving signs and banners, playing martial music and setting off artillery. They then marched through town.
The local newspaper, as is so often the case, sided with management. The Dover mill girls had walked out ‘over some imaginary grievance,’ the Dover Enquirer reported, and presented “one of the most disgusting scenes ever witnessed.”
The Dover mill girls underestimated management. The next day, the company ran a Help Wanted ad for several hundred scabs to break the strike.
By Tuesday, most of the Dover mill girls went back to work, except for the strike leaders who the company had blacklisted.
Though the strike failed, women like Harriet Hanson Robinson and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn would lead many more: in Lowell and Lawrence, in Bridgeport, New Haven and throughout New England.
Many would fail. But some would succeed in raising pay and improving working conditions.
Cocheco Mill: By User:Magicpiano – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=33639649. This story was updated in 2022.