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History of Dobson Mill

John Dobson first began manufacturing cotton yarn around 1846 in Philadelphia, PA. The business, manufacturing blankets, prospered, and by 1866 it employed several hundred workers. In 1870, the Philadelphia Fairmount Park Commission bought the property and destroyed the buildings in order to extend the park. The Dobson Mill was relocated to Scott's Lane (the site from which the gates shown here were located) on the palisades of the Schuylkill River, where four existing structures were soon augmented with additional buildings. Between 1872 and 1877, six additional buildings were built. By the 1880s, the mill was diversified, making carpets, blankets, and cloth.

Relations between management and labor at the mill were sometimes strained. According to a local historian:

"The year 1891 brought hard times. Workers, dissatisfied with working conditions, wages, and the like, went out on strike. The Dobsons had been trying to produce quality velvets for years and were determined to do so. Therefore, when the mill hands finally walked off the job, the Dobsons brought in employees from England. These workers did not realize that they were strike breakers and were more than ready to work something out when they were informed that they were putting people out of work." (Theodore Segletes III, Dobson Textile Mill)

In 1911, one of the owners, John Dobson, died. By 1913, the mill employed about 11,000 workers and was comprised of 19 buildings. The second partner, James Dobson, carried on and expanded the mill significantly. In 1926, James Dobson died, and in 1927, the mill closed.

 


Factory Life in 19th-Century America

In the 1800s, many Americans found jobs in factories where they experienced new forms of managerial control over their work. It was a time of change and struggle, as both workers and managers wrestled with the balance of power in the workplace. As society grew more complex, many felt a need to impose order on an increasingly diverse society. In business, this desire to control was often motivated by economic reasons, individual prejudices, and the human desire for power and control.

Factory owners erected gates and fences not just to protect property but also to establish greater control over the factory workforce. Gates and fences caught late arrivals and kept employees on the property during the workday. In their quest for increased productivity and greater control over every aspect of production, factory owners and managers attempted to regulate the lives of workers. They prohibited amusements, reading, games, and consumption of alcohol--diversions that had been part of the flexible work routine of artisans' shops.

Other innovations like factory bells and time clocks helped to structure the work force. Factory managers sought to mold workers into disciplined and coordinated armies of employees. They tried to regulate laborers' schedules, set the pace of work, and enforce what they regarded as good work habits. Many workers who had been farmers or artisans were used to overseeing their own work and schedules and setting the pace of work by the seasons and centuries-old traditions. They found it hard to adapt to the new rules. Some found ways to continue to control their work. Others quit or formed unions to enforce their own work rules.

 

 


"Factory Girl," From Tipple, Loom, & Rail

"Factory Girl" from the recording entitled Tipple, Loom, & Rail, Folkways FH 5273, provided courtesy of Smithsonian Folkways Recordings. © 1966. Used by permission.

Some industrial songs descend from pre-industrial revolution pieces in Europe and America, and although others are as recent as the power generated by Tennessee Valley Authority plants, this South Carolina "Factory Girl" can be traced directly to an undated Massachusetts broadside which commented on textile mill life in the 1830s. It may well have been sung at such an early era; our first actual reference to it as a song (rather than in print) is 1861. By the turn of the century it was carried at least as far as Maine, South Carolina, and Texas.

Two traditional singers, Nancy Dixon and Dorsey Dixon, each recorded slightly different forms of "Factory Girl" in 1962. Mike Seeger combines their versions and sets his to banjo. New England textile literature probably includes different printings of "A Factory Girl" under various titles.

Partial Lyrics:
"…No more I'll hear that whistle low,
The sound of it I hate
No more I'll hear that boss man say,
"Young girl you are too late."

Pity me all day, pity me I pray,
Pity me, my darling, and take me far away..."

 


"Let Them Wear Their Watches Fine," From American Industrial Ballads

"Let Them Wear Their Watches Fine" from the recording entitled American Industrial Ballads, Folkways SF 40058, provided courtesy of Smithsonian Folkways Recordings. © 1992 Used by permission.

Here’s another textile worker’s song-hard, bitter, and unadorned, like the life described. Will Geer heard a woman in the West Virginia Mountain singing this song and he wrote it down. She said she had made it up herself to the much-parodied "Warren Harding’s Widow."

Partial Lyrics:
"…Standing here between my looms
You know I lose no time
To keep my shuttles in a whiz
And write this little rhyme

We rise up early in the morn
And work all day real hard
To buy our little meat and bread
And sugar, tea, and lard... "

 



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