Workers' Lives

View item information

"Shoe shop, Haverhill, Massachusetts, 1920." The more different processes and operation of heavy machinery went to male employees.  Women frequently worked lighter jobs, such as stitching, finishing, dressing, and packing. Courtesy of the Lawrence History Center via Digital Commonwealth.

By 1869, nearly sixty percent of boots and shoes made in the United States came from Massachusetts. In the state’s humming shoemaking industry, jobs were plentiful and desirable, paying workers a living wage. The factories also employed both men and women, though men accounted for about seventy percent of industry laborers. While the mechanization of shoemaking made the burgeoning industry possible, it was cited as creating a “depressing and wearing” state for the machine operators, with the machine creating “little mental or physical activity aside from it.”

Shoe labor unions were established early on in Massachusetts, fighting for labor laws that had yet to take root in other states. In 1913, a law passed that prohibited children under the age of fourteen from working in shoe and boot factories, an early step in child-labor policy. Nevertheless, the labor laws of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries paled in comparison to the safety and protection laws of present day. Factory work remained dangerous, with devastating machinery fires proving a constant hazard and burning many Massachusetts shoemaking factories to the ground. While factory owners installed sprinkler systems and fire hydrants as protective measures, the efforts were more on behalf of their businesses than for the safety of their employees.