"The Life of a Mule-Spinner,"
Interview with Thomas O'Donnell,
Senate Committee on Labor and Capital

Thomas O'Donnell was an under-employed textile worker living in Fall River, Massachusetts, who had emigrated to the United States from England in about 1872. He had worked in the textile industry since he was a child in England, but he found himself struggling to support his family. Mule spinning (a method of producing yarn with a machine called a spinning mule) was being replaced, and the new machines encouraged the use of child labor. This interview of O'Donnell by a U.S. Senate Committee suggests some of the hardships of industrial unemployment. One wonders what Andrew Carnegie, author of "The Road to Business Success," would say to a man in O'Donnell's position.--D. Voelker

BOSTON. MASS., October 18, 1883.



Q. What is your business?--A. I am a mule-spinner by trade. I have worked at it since I have been in this country --eleven years.
Q. Are you a married man?--A. Yes, sir; I am a married man; have a wife and two children. I am not very well educated. I went to work when I was young, and have been working ever since in the cotton business; went to work when I was about eight or nine years old. I was going to state how I live. My children get along very well in summer time, on account of not having to buy fuel or shoes or one thing and another. I earn $1.50 a day and can't afford to pay a very big house rent. I pay $1.50 a week for rent, which comes to about $6 a month. . . .

Q. Do you have work right along?--A. No, sir; since that strike we had down in Fall River about three years ago I have not worked much more than half time, and that has brought my circumstances down very much.

Q. Why have you not worked more than half the time since then?--A. Well, at Fall River if a man has not got a boy to act as "back-boy" it is very hard for him to get along. In a great many cases they discharge men in that work and put in men who have boys.

Q. Men who have boys of their own?--A. Men who have boys of their own capable enough to work in a mill, to earn 30 or 40 cents a day.


Q. Is the object of that to enable the boy to earn something for himself?--A. Well, no; the object is this: They are doing away with a great deal of mule-spinning there and putting in ring-spinning, and for that reason it takes a good deal of small help to run this ring work, and it throws the men out of work because they are doing away with the mules and putting these ring-frames in to take their places. For that reason they get all the small help they can to run these ring frames. There are so many men in the city to work, and whoever has a boy can have work, and whoever has no boy stands no chance. Probably he may have a few months of work in the summer time, but will be discharged in the fall. That is what leaves me in poor circumstances. Our children, of course, are very often sickly from one cause or another, on account of not having sufficient clothes, or shoes, or food, or something. And also my woman; she never did work in a mill; she was a housekeeper, and for that reason she can't help me to anything at present, as many women do help their husbands down there, by working, like themselves. My wife never did work in a mill, and that leaves me to provide for the whole family. I have two children. [452]


And another thing that helped to keep me down: A year ago this month I buried the oldest boy we had, and that brings things very expensive on a poor man. For instance, it will cost there, to bury a body, about $100. . . . Doctors' bills are very heavy--about $2 a visit; and if a doctor comes once a day for two or three weeks it is quite a pile for a poor man to pay.
Q. Will not the doctor come for a dollar a day?--A. You might get a man sometimes, and you sometimes won't, but they generally charge $2 a day. . . .

Q. They charge you as much as they charge people of more means?--A. They charge as much as if I was the richest man in the city, except that some of them might be generous once in a while and put it down a little in the end; but the charge generally is $2. That makes it hard.




Q. Do you think you have had $150 within a year?--A. No, sir.
Q. Have you had $125?--A.  Well, I could figure it up if I had time. The thirteen weeks is all I have had.

Q. The thirteen weeks and the $16 you have mentioned?--A. Yes, sir.

Q. That would be somewhere about $133, if you had not lost any time?--A. Yes, sir.

Q. That is all you have had?--A. Yes, sir.

Q. To support yourself and wife and two children?--A. Yes, sir.

Q. Have you had any help from outside?--A. No, sir.

Q. Do you mean that yourself and wife and two children have had nothing but that for all this time?--A. That is all. I got a couple dollars' worth of coal last winter, and the wood I picked up myself. I goes around with a shovel and picks up clams and wood.


Q. What do you do with the clams?
A. We eat them. I don't get them to sell, but just to eat, for the family.  That is the way my brother lives, too, mostly. He lives close by us.

Q. How many live in that way down there?--A. I could not count them, they are so numerous. I suppose there are one thousand down there.

Q. A thousand that live on $150 a year?--A. They live on less.

Q. Less than that?--A. Yes; they live on less than I do.

Q. How long has that been so?--A. Mostly so since I have been married.

Q. How long is that?--A. Six years this month.

Q. Why do you not go West on a farm?--A. How could I go, walk it?


Q. Well, I want to know why you do not go out West on a $2,000 farm, or take up a homestead and break it and work it up, and then have it for yourself and family?--A. I can't see how I could get out West.  I have got nothing to go with.
Q. It would not cost you over $1,500.--A. Well, I never saw over a $20 bill, and that is when I have been getting a month's pay at once. If some one would give me $1,500 I will go.

Q. Is there any prospect that anybody will do that?--A. I don't know of anybody that would.

Q. You say you think there are a thousand men or so with their families that live in that way in Fall River?--A. Yes, sir; and I know many of them. They are around there by the shore. You can see them every day; and I am sure of it because men tell me.

Q. Are you a good workman?--A. Yes, sir.

Q. Were you ever turned off because of misconduct or incapacity or unfitness for work?--A. No, sir.

Q. Or because you did bad work?--A. No, sir. [454]

Q. Or because you made trouble among the help?--A. No, sir.

Q. Did you ever have any personal trouble with an employer?--A. No, sir.

Q. You have not anything now you say?--A. No, sir.

Q. How old are you?--A. About thirty.

Q. Is your health good?--A. Yes, sir.

Q. What would you work for if you could get work right along; if you could be sure to have it for five years, staying right where you are?--A. Well, if I was where my family could be with me, and I could have work every day I would take $1.50, and be glad to.

Q. One dollar and fifty cents a day, with three hundred days to the year, would make more than you make now in three or four years, would it not?



Q. Has there been any day in the year that you have had to go without anything to eat?--
A. Yes, sir, several days.

Q. More than one day at a time?--A. No.

Q. How about the children and your wife--did they go without anything to eat too?


A. My wife went out this morning and went to a neighbor's and got a loaf of bread and fetched it home, and when she got home the children were crying for something to eat.
Q. Have the children had anything to eat to-day except that, do you think?--A. They had that loaf of bread--I don't know what they have had since then, if they have had anything.

Q. Did you leave any money at home?--A. No, sir.

Q. If that loaf is gone, is there anything in the house?--A. No, sir; unless my wife goes out and gets something; and I don't know who would mind the children while she goes out.

Q. Has she any money to get anything with?--A. No, sir.

Q. Have the children gone without a meal at any time during the year?--A. They have gone without bread some days, but we have sometimes got meal and made porridge of it.

Q. What kind of meal?--A. Sometimes Indian meal, and sometimes oatmeal.

Q. Meal stirred up in hot water?--A. Yes, sir.

Q. Is it cold weather down there now?--A. It is very cold now.


Q. What have the children got on in the way of clothing?--A. They have got along very nicely all summer, but now they are beginning to feel quite sickly.  One has one shoe on, a very poor one, and a slipper, that was picked up somewhere. The other has two odd shoes on, with the heel out. He has got cold and is sickly now.
Q. Have they any stockings?--A. He had got stockings, but his feet comes through them, for there is a hole in the bottom of the shoe.

Q. What have they got on the rest of their person?--A. Well, they have a little calico shirt--what should be a shirt; it is sewed up in some shape--and one little petticoat, and a kind of little dress.

Q. How many dresses has your wife got?--A. She has got one since she was married, and she hasn't worn that more than half a dozen times; she has worn it just going to church and coming back. She is very good in going to church, but when she comes back she takes it off, and it is pretty near as good now as when she bought it.

Q. She keeps that dress to go to church in?--A. Yes, sir.

Q. How many dresses aside from that has she?--A. Well, she got one here three months ago.

Q. What did it cost?--A. It cost $1 to make it and I guess about a dollar for the stuff, as near as I can tell.

Q. The dress cost $2? --A. Yes.

Q. What else has she?--A. Well, she has an undershirt that she got given to her, and she has an old wrapper, which is about a mile too big for her; somebody gave it to her.

Q. She did not buy it?--A. No. That is all that I know that she has. [456]

Q. You have had $1 or $2 worth of coal last winter?--A. I think it was a quarter of a ton, and I believe it was $2.25 worth.

Q. Is that all you have had?--A. That is all I had last winter. All the rest I picked up--wood.

Q. Did you try to get work?--A. I was working last winter.

Q. You say that a good many others are situated just like you are?--A. Yes, sir; I should say as many as a thousand down in Fall River are just in the same shape, if not worse; though they can't be much worse. I have heard many women say they would sooner be dead than living. I don't know what is wrong, but something is wrong. There is an overflow of labor in Fall River.
Q. Why do not these people go out West upon farms and go to farming?--A. They have not got the means. Fall River being a manufacturing place, it brings them in there; and when the mills in other places stop for want of water that brings them into Fall River. I think there are quite a lot of them that have come from Lowell and Lawrence these three or four weeks back--whatever brings them.

Q. Is there anything else that you want to say to the committee?--A. Well, as regards debts; it costs us so much for funeral expenses and doctors' expenses; I wanted to mention that.

The CHAIRMAN. You have stated that. It is clear that nobody can afford either to get sick or to die there.

The WITNESS. Well, there are plenty of them down there that are in very poor health, but I am in good health and my children generally are in fair health, but the children can't pick up anything and only get what I bring to them.

Q. Are you in debt?--A. Yes. sir.

Q. How much?--A. I am in debt for those funeral expenses now $15--since a year ago.

Q. Have you paid the rest?--A. Yes, sir.

Q. You live in a hired tenement?--A. Yes; but of course I can't pay a big rent. My rent is $6 a month. The man I am living under would come and put me right out and give me no notice either if I didn't pay my rent. He is a sheriff and auctioneer man. I don't know whether he has any authority to do it or not, but he does it with people.

Q. Do you see any way out of your troubles--what are you going to do for a living--or do you expect to have to stay right there?--A. Yes. I can't run around with my family.

Q. You have nowhere to go to, and no way of getting there if there was any place to go to? --A. No, sir. I have no means nor anything, so I am obliged to remain there and try to pick up something as I can.

Q. Do the children go to school?--A. No, sir; they are not old enough; the oldest child is only three and a half; the youngest one is one and a half years old.

Q. Is there anything else you wanted to say?--A. Nothing further, except that I would like some remedy to be got to help us poor people down there in some way.  Excepting the Government decides to do something with us we have a poor show. We are all, or mostly all, in good health; that is, as far as the men who are at work go.

Q. You do not know anything but mule-spinning, I suppose?--A. That is what I have been doing, but I sometimes do something with pick and shovel. I have worked for a man at that, because I am so put on. I am looking for work in a mill. The way they do there is this: There are about twelve or thirteen men that go into a mill every morning, and they have to stand their chance, looking for work. The man who has a boy with him he stands the best chance, and then, if it is my turn [457] or a neighbor's turn who has no boy, if another man comes in who has a boy he is taken right in, and we are left out. I said to the boss once it was my turn to go in, and now you have taken on that man; what am I to do; I have got two little boys at home, one of them three years and a half and the other one year and a half old, and how am I to find something for them to eat; I can't get my turn when I come here.

He said he could not do anything for me. I says,--"Have I got to starve; ain't I to have any work?" They are forcing these young boys into the mills that should not be in mills at all; forcing them in because they are throwing the mules out and putting on ring-frames. They are doing everything of that kind that they possibly can to crush down the poor people--the poor operatives there.

Discussion Questions:

1. What was O’Donnell’s problem? Why was he having such a hard time?
2. What was keeping O’Donnell from raising his status?
3. What kind of advice did Carnegie give to young men? How did Carnegie understand success?
4. Would Carnegie’s advice be helpful to O’Donnell?

Source: Report of the Committee of the Senate upon the Relations between Labor and Capital, and Testimony Taken by the Committee, Volume III (Washington D.C., Government Printing Office, 1885), 451-457. Original pagination appears in brackets.

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