A study of the evolving history of Biddeford and Saco reveals a glorious past that mirrors the history of the “great American experiment.” Our era of the Industrial Revolution embodied many of the same circumstances and practices of the other early American industrial communities. One such practice was that of child labor in the mills.
The Industrial Revolution and the new textile industry of the 1840 gave rise to the need for more labor than was available from the adult population. Previously children worked in the farms where they were key members of the family work force. When work became available off the farm it usually was satisfied by the older teenage siblings. However, as the economy changed from agricultural to industrial children from ages 8 to 15 became more important in the workforce.
Particularly in Biddeford when immigrant families moved here to work in the mills, they raised large families who had limited opportunities for employment. With the immigration of the Irish in the 1840s and Canadians in the 1870s the larger families needed children to work to support the growing families. In the 1880s in Ward 2 the US Census shows 10% of the population was children from the ages of 7 to 15 working in the “cotton mill.’ In the US in 1900 fully 18% of all American workers were under the age of 16.
The child labor worked at jobs that were not filled by adults. They were paid about 10% of the adult wage and usually pushed carts, cleaned, or handled light work. These jobs were essential and could be handled by someone other than an adult who could work at a more important part of the process.
During these years there was a continuing effort to establish child labor laws at the state and federal levels. However, the child labor portion was so important to our economy it was not until 1938 that meaningful laws were passed to define the rights of children in the workplace. The Great Depression in 1938 essentially removed children from the workplace.
Locally, however, much was happening. Schooling became more culturally important and the language barrier of the immigrant children enrolled in schools was being eliminated. Though many children spoke their native language at home with their family, they learned a second language, English, at school. Some children who came from a mixed marriage spoke as many as three or four languages.
Parochial schools were opened early. St Mary’s School and St. Joseph’s School both opened in1894. St Andre’s officially opened in 1930.
Child labor was thought to be a necessity of an emerging economy. Concurrently, education was becoming a priority with public and private schools offering children skills to create a brighter future for themselves and the community. Our foundation was being laid.