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Thompsonville Carpet Weavers Strike of 1834

Overview

Market Revolution (1800-1840) and the beginnings of workers’ unionization

Lesson plan contents

Compelling question: How much power do workers have?

Introduction

The Market Revolution (1800-1840), sometimes referred to as the First Industrial Revolution, changed the way consumers got goods and the way workers and employees related. Consumers had more disposable income in this time period and wanted to dress up their homes with linens, curtains, tablecloths, wallpaper and carpets. Industrialists began to mass produce these goods.

Purpose

While often taught from the point of view of employers and industrial capitalists, this lesson asks students to see the Market Revolution from the point of view of workers.

Supporting questions/Connecticut State Standards:

Page numbers refer to the Connecticut Social Studies Frameworks.

  • Evaluate the history of individual cities and towns in the 19th century and analyze reasons for economic and/or social change in individual towns during this period, p. 91
  • Explore how Connecticut contributed to various key events in United States history, such as pre-Revolutionary America, independence and development as a nation, slavery, abolitionist movement, the Civil War, and industrialization, p. 91
  • Analyze the impact that immigrants had on the economic and cultural life of Connecticut communities during this era, p. 92

The Orrin Thompson House, built 1832

Historical Context

The Thompsonville Carpet Weavers Case, Connecticut State Library, 2014

  1. In the 1820s, the carpet industry suddenly took off in the United States.  One of the major manufacturers, the Thompsonville Carpet Manufacturing Company, was located in Enfield.  The carpet weavers there, aside from helping to develop this industry, also significantly contributed to the early labor movement.
  2. Carpet weaving at this time was done using a hand loom, and thus required a significant amount of skill. There were not enough American workers to fill the skilled jobs, so the Thompsonville Company recruited weavers, dyers, and machinists from Scotland.
  3. Coming from the same few areas in Scotland and moving into Enfield in numbers that equaled the non-Scottish residents, the Scottish carpet weavers maintained an identity as a distinct group. This, along with the skilled nature of the work they were performing, gave the weavers both individual and collective bargaining power. Throughout the 1820s and into the 1830s, where there were disputes or minor strikes, they were settled quickly.
  4. In 1833, a major dispute over wages emerged.  Around that time, the company had introduced some new, fancier fabrics that were more difficult to weave. At a meeting with the factory's agent, workers asserted that the increase in the difficulty of the work should result in being paid a higher price per piece. 
  5. At the agent's suggestion, the weavers petitioned the company's board of directors, asking for higher wages. The board of directors declined to raise wages, stating that the carpets made from the new fabrics commanded no higher prices and that the duty on foreign carpets was steadily decreasing, resulting in competition from foreign manufacturers.
  6. The weavers responded with a set of resolutions demanding certain rates of pay and resolving not to return to work unless their demands were met. In response, the company closed the factory.
  7. The agent made a number of attempts to procure other workers for the factory, but could not, as the Thompsonville Weavers had written to other carpet factories asking them not to come to Enfield to work for Thompsonville. Faced with few workers and unwilling to pay the higher wages, the company charged three of the weavers with conspiracy.
  8. A five-day trial with seventy witnesses was held in Hartford Superior Court in January 1836. Testimony focused on the weavers' actions in preventing workers from coming to Thompsonville, the history of wages paid at the factory, and the reasons and procedures for dismissing a worker.
  9. The case turned on the purpose of the agreement made by the weavers.  If they agreed to combine to interrupt and destroy the plaintiff's business, they had engaged in a conspiracy, and the company was entitled to a verdict in its favor. If they merely agreed that they would not labor below certain wages, they had committed neither a criminal nor civil offense.
  10. The morning after the conclusion of the case, the jury returned a verdict in favor of the weavers, meaning that striking for higher wages was a legal, legitimate way for workers to assert their demands.
  11. Some of the weavers returned to the mill, and the Thompsonville Carpet Manufacturing Company continued on, eventually becoming part of the Bigelow-Sanford Carpet Company, which operated a carpet mill in Enfield until the 1970s. The era of bargaining power for skilled carpet weavers ended in the late 1840s, however, with the introduction of the power loom, which could be operated by unskilled workers. 
  12. The State Library has a copy of the report from the Thompsonville Carpet Weavers case, which includes the names of the jurors, copy of the summons, testimony, and the arguments advance by each party's counsel. It also includes a number of exhibits, including the petition given to the board of directors by the weavers and an example of a contract signed by a weaver recruited from Scotland.

Sources:

Connecticut State Library,“The Thompsonville Carpet Weavers Case,” 2014.

Eric Foner, “The Market Revolution, Part 2,” Give Me Liberty, 2011.

John R. Commons, ed., “A Documentary History of American Industrial Society, Volume X,” 1911. 

Photograph of Orrin Thompson’s Home

John S. Ewing and Nancy P. Norton, Broadlooms and Businessmen: A History of the Bigelow-Sanford Carpet Company, Harvard University Press, 1955. 

Nancy P. Norton, Labor in the Early New England Carpet Industry, Bulletin of the Business Historical Society, vol. 26, no. 1, pp. 19-26 (Mar. 1952).  Available on JStor. Report of the Case of the Thompsonville Carpet Manufacturing Company versus William Taylor, Edward Gorman, & Thomas Norton, 1836.