Learning from the past, living in the moment, and leaving footprints for the future. Stories of lov

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Workday Wednesday - Hats

Ellen Sullivan Wilber, known as Nellie, worked in the Bay State Straw Works Company
located in Middleboro, MA, a hat company.
My great great grandmother, Nellie is in the front row, 9th from the left.

(Information quoted from:  Recollecting Nemasket, Writing about the History of Middleboro and Lakeville, MA)  

"At the start of the last quarter of the nineteenth century, the Bay State Straw Works was producing half a million hats and bonnets annually, or over 1,300 a day. To produce these goods, the plant employed nearly two hundred and seventy operatives, divided equally between men and young women, as well as some 1,200 women and girls as outworkers “who are engaged sewing hats and bonnets at their homes,” the company’s braid cart delivering straw to these women and collecting straw braid in return.

"One of the few comments upon nineteenth century female labor history in Middleborough concerns the lot of women in the Bay State Straw Works, the firm which was located on Courtland Street and was once the world’s largest manufacturer of straw hats and bonnets. Of their work there, it was written of the firm’s female operatives: 'The work was easy and pleasant; the girls’ tongues flew as fast as their fingers, and they said of their work. It is just like going to a party.’

"There are reasons to doubt, however, the characterization that work in Middleborough’s straw industry for women always was either “easy” or “pleasant” as some have maintained.  

"The Bay State Straw Works employed 150 females and 8 men.  Like other industries, straw manufacturing preferred the use of female help wherever possible, largely due to the wage differential between men and women, as well as the presumed greater docility of female workers, though this latter view carried little import at this stage in Middleborough as labor remained disorganized and would remain so for some time. Men, however, were engaged by the straw works for the physically more demanding tasks at the manufactory, working as bleachers, dyers, blockers, printers, packers, teamsters, machinists, carpenters and firemen, among other occupations, and as the firm’s business increased, so too did the number of men on the payroll to support these functions.

"The treatment of its female operatives would be a frequent source of potential conflict for the Bay State Straw Works, as it frequently was for other employers. In February, 1876, female employees’ wages were docked twenty-five percent, prompting sympathy from at least one journalist who opined that the reduction was 'a heavy cut when they didn’t get too much before.' In December, 1885, shortly before Christmas, wages of sewing machine girls were similarly docked.

"Nonetheless, women of talent were recognized by the firm and promoted to positions of authority as overseers and forewomen, supervising other women in areas such as the trimming department.

"While characterization of employment during the latter half of the nineteenth century for women in the local straw industry as “a party” is highly suspect, unquestionable was the role of these women, many whose names have long been forgotten, in helping build and sustain one of Middleborough’s historically most important industries."


  1. Hi, Kathryn -
    I've given you the One Lovely Blog Award. For details please visit http://nancysfamilyhistoryblog.blogspot.com/2011/11/one-lovely-blog-award-abt-march-2011.html to learn more about it and get the badge. Congratulations!

  2. I think it's interesting that the female workers were called "operatives." It almost seems like a way to dehumanize or impersonalize them. My impression of a hat factory would be blisters, callouses, splinters, and sore hands in general. But party? Perhaps they were able to talk and visit throughout the day but it's hard to imagine a workday as a party.

    How grand that you have a photo of your g-g-grandmother in front of the factory. Were any memories of her work experiences handed down either in a journal/diary or by word of mouth?

    Great post. Thanks.


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