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History Sings to Student Historians

Undergrads Research Bread & Roses Strike of 1912

UMass Lowell Image
Speed up on the line! From left, students Makenna Campbell, Jacqueline DiPersio, Dena Cashin and Janelle Bourgeois experience some of the conditions that led to the Bread & Roses strike, in a simulation run by the Tsongas Industrial History Center.

By Sandra Seitz

Serious historical research involves dusty documents, endless rolls of microfiche and long hours in spent in libraries.  So why are these students smiling?

Six undergraduate students contributed significantly to understanding aspects of the Bread & Roses strike of 1912, a landmark event in the history of the United States, when 20,000 people went on strike for a living wage. 

Their research was part of a course titled Work, Labor and Society, taught by Sociology Assoc. Prof. Mignon Duffy and Susan Winning, coordinator of the Labor Extension Program. It’s the foundational course for UMass Lowell’s new minor in Work, Labor and Society

The Bread & Roses strike, while primarily associated with Lawrence, also spread to Lowell. The students showed posters they had created about the Lowell strike action of 1912 at a reception in the Boott Cotton Mills Museum, where their work will become part of the permanent exhibit.

The Not-So-Dusty Work of Research

Juniors Jacqueline DiPersio, sociology major, and Janelle Bourgeois, history major, worked in a group to research the grievances that led to the strikers’ demands.

“We studied the newspaper articles that were published around the time of the strike, reading them on microfilm,” says DiPersio. “Others in the group worked on finding photographs and we met on Saturdays at the museum to compare notes.”

“The working conditions leading up to the strike were especially brutal,” says Bourgeois. “We had original source material in a collection of interviews conducted at the time and some of them were heartbreaking to read. It was also fascinating to see how much money the mill owners made – there was a huge wage gap.”

Freshman students Makenna Campbell and Nikki Gaspari, both psychology majors, worked together to research the various ethnicities of the strikers, a majority of whom were recent immigrants and spoke 20 languages among them. Campbell, whose grandparents worked in the Lowell mills, says, “The research made it real – it brought the people to life.”

“Someone had kept a scrap book of 1912 newspaper articles,” says Gaspari. “Reading those made the research work even more involved and interesting.” 

The students also learned about methods of historical research from History Prof. Robert Forrant, chair of the Bread & Roses Centennial Committee, and graduate student Ethan Snow, research assistant to the Committee.

“We started by presenting the students with an unattributed strike photo of a march to scrutinize for clues,” says Snow. “They could read a sign for ‘Chagaruly’s Apothecary’ and that led to the city directories, where we could find who lived and worked in those blocks. Then, working from contemporaneous newspaper articles and a 1906 city atlas, we discovered that the strikers had paraded in a loop around the city and determined that our photo must be at the end of the parade, right by the strike headquarters.

“That blew the students away,” he adds. “Especially for those students with a connection to Lowell, it was amazing to them how the city had changed.”

One Family, Both Sides of the Labor Struggle

Snow has his own family connections to the mills and to labor history.

“Both my dad and I are active in labor unions and my paternal grandfather worked for a shoe factory in Brockton,” he says. “But his family had owned that same shoe factory a few generations before, until a nephew lost it all.” 

Ironically, his mother’s father graduated from the Lowell Textile Institute and worked briefly as an efficiency clerk in mills in Connecticut – “doing the work that the unionists would have most opposed,” says Snow.

The Bread & Roses in Lowell event was sponsored by the Tsongas Industrial History Center; Lowell National Historical Park; the Bread & Roses Centennial Committee; the UMass Lowell Work, Labor and Society program; the Center for Lowell History; the American Textile History Museum and the Revolving Museum.