Saturday, June 1, 2013

What does a mule spinner do?

Many people are familiar with how the New England mill towns got their start due to the Industrial Revolution. The early mills were built where there was water power from rivers and diverted channels  - later mills were powered by steam. The first mill in New England was built in 1793 in Pawtucket, Rhode Island by Samuel Slater, who had learned the mechanized spinning process in England. Mills were quickly added along rivers in much of New England - particularly in Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Connecticut, southern New Hampshire and Maine - and mechanization of yarn manufacture was quickly followed by the production of whole cloth in the mills. Early on in Rhode Island, mill owners built whole villages around the mill and housed entire families who worked together in the mills. In contrast, the mills first formed in Waltham, MA and later in Lowell, MA and along the Merrimack River relied on young women recruited from New England farms as their labor source.
Slater Mill Complex, Pawtucket, Rhode Island
By the 1920s, the heyday of the New England mills was over and textile production went into a decline as textile manufacturing moved out of the region. However, the mechanized production of yarn and cloth had radically changed New England - prior to the textile mills, yarn was spun on individual spinning wheels and cloth was made on small looms, usually within family units. The invention of  mechanized spinning and weaving created an entire new industry which radically transformed a rural mostly farm-based economy into centers of manufacturing and trade.

In my family tree, there are many of my ancestors who moved from farms in both Bristol County RI and Bristol County MA to the early mill towns surrounding the Blackstone River in Rhode Island in the early 1800s. Succeeding generations worked in the mills and related industries until the mill closures in the early 20th century. Their job titles are often machinist or operative, and sometimes 'mule spinner'. A few were even listed as 'overseer' which generally meant they had managerial or supervisory roles in the mills.

The subject of my last blog post, was Ira W Grant. His father, Sylvester Grant, Jr was employed in the mills in Fall River by 1844 when Ira was born and in Smithfield RI where he was enumerated in  the 1850 Federal census. In both documents, Sylvester's occupation was listed as 'mule-spinner'. So what was a mule-spinner?
Mule spinner creating cotton thread. Museum of Work and Culture. Woonsocket, Rhode Island.
 Photograph by George P. Landow, October 2004.
Specifically, mule spinners operate the spinning machinery that create yarn of any kind - in early Rhode Island mills, it was cotton thread. Mule spinners worked a dangerous job and injuries were common, particularly among the young boys who worked in tandem with the adult men. The machinery was heavy and the mules (spinning machinery) moved quickly back and forth on tracks. Repairs to broken threads, and spool changes, were done on moving machinery. Another hazard was a particular type of cancer caused by the lubricating oil used by mule spinners in cotton yarn production.

For an interesting interview of the life of a mule spinner in an 1883 Fall River, MA textile factory see the account at History Matters. It references the testimony of mill-worker Thomas O'Donnell and was originally published in:
 U.S. Congress, Senate Committee on Education and Labor, Report on the Relations Between Labor and Capital, Vol. 3 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1885), 451–457.


  1. Hi Wendy!

    An interesting post that I am going to give a mention in my weekly Saturday Serendipity post tomorrow.

    I recall the mills along the Blackstone and Merrimack rivers from when I was growing up in New England. My Carpenter/Miller ancestors' Cumberland home was not far from Slater's Mill in Pawtucket.

    BTW, welcome to the Rhode Island blog list on GeneaBloggers! I'm glad to see your blog there now.

  2. Thank you, John for the mention. I feel honored!

    I wonder if we have Carpenter ancestors in common - My Carpenter ancestors lived right on the RI/MA border in Valley Falls (village in Cumberland), near the Blackstone River - is it the same place you are talking about?

    My 3rd great-grandfather was John L Carpenter who was possibly born in Kingston, RI but was living in Valley Falls by 1845 when he married Sarah Gardiner Lawton. His parents were Daniel G and Mary Grady? Carpenter. Are we related through this line?

  3. I'm surrounded by textile mills- large ones in Nashua, Manchester, and Lowell, and small ones along the smaller rivers in the smaller towns. My daughter even lives in a loft in a converted wool mill in Lawrence. I often see see my ancestors listed in the census records as "laborer", or "weaver" but I've never seen "mule spinner". If I do, now I'll know what it means!

  4. Thanks for the comment, Heather.

    Although I have not really categorized it, it seems to me that the occupations in the MA mills are listed differently than in the RI mills. In general, it seems like the RI mill occupations are more specific. I wonder if this is due to census instructions, or due to the different ways mills were built and organized in Rhode Island vs the Waltham/Lowell model.


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