Historical Markers
Allegheny Cotton Mill Strikes Historical Marker
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Allegheny Cotton Mill Strikes

Pittsburgh Region


Marker Location:
Allegheny Landing, north side, near river at 6th St. Bridge, Pittsburgh

Dedication Date:
October 1, 2007

Behind the Marker

Pittsburgh from the Salt Works at Saw Mill.
Pittsburgh from the Salt Works at Saw Mill, by William T. Russell, 1843.
In the 1840s, a young woman noted how "the ear filled with the noise of ten thousands of spindles" operated by children and female workers in the Allegheny Cotton Mills at Pittsburgh and Allegheny City. "Working in a dust-filled atmosphere in overheated rooms and standing and stooping for hours," the workers "developed serious disorders and diseases. The ankles of children and young adults swelled from the hours of standing, and children complained of headaches." Many caught a lung disease called "spinners phthisis."

These women and children were members of the state and nation's new industrial workforce, low-skilled and poorly paid laborers, who worked long hours, often under horrific conditions for low wages. By the 1840s, cotton mills dotted fast streams around Pittsburgh and Allegheny City.

Three-story buildings housed scores of mechanized spinning jennies and weaving looms, tended by some 5,000 workers who were required to put in twelve-hour days, often six days a week. Nimble children's fingers and tireless young women's endurance standing at spindles and looms became a common sight in the cotton mills.

The seven factories of Allegheny City, which employed about 1,500 young women, paid them just $2.50 to $6 a week for sunup to sundown labor. Boys and girls in the mills made no more than $3 for grueling six-day weeks. Then, in 1843, factory owners cut wages below a living wage and sparked violent confrontations that would flare up for the next six years.

Exterior of the mill along the water
Old Eagle Cotton Mill, Allegheny City, PA, circa 1840.
In early 1845, women and children from the Pittsburgh and Allegheny City mills left their jobs, demanding a ten-hour workday and a living wage. Many held out for nearly a month, but then, desperate to earn enough for survival, some reluctantly returned to work. To keep their cause alive, some of the more committed women picked up axes and stormed the doors of the local cotton factories to drive away the returned workers and the guards who stood nearby to protect company property.

Within a few weeks, however, public opinion turned decidedly against the striking women, and company thugs were regularly beating those who tried to break machines or burn the gates surrounding each of the company sites. Worn down, more women returned to work, but when company managers cut wages for spinners and weavers, they left their machines once again.

In September, hundreds of factory girls and male supporters from Allegheny City and Pittsburgh marched on the Blackstock mill, one of the largest in the areas. There, the women broke down the factory's pine gates and forcibly expelled the "scab girls" as the male auxiliary stood by to keep the police at bay. The "Battle of Blackstock's Factory," raised the striking workers' spirits, but helped turn the middle-class citizens of Pittsburgh, who were shocked by such unladylike behavior, against them.

The strike lasted nearly six months before it finally ended in failure. The women's actions in western Pennsylvania, however, drew national attention. Soon, workers' associations across Pennsylvania and their allies in New York and New England cities joined together in a campaign for the passage of state laws to meet the demands that their strike had not achieved.

Their efforts paid off in 1848 when the Pennsylvania legislature passed a bill that prohibited employers from requiring more than ten hours of work a day. The law, however, was soon undermined when the lobbying businessmen convinced the legislature to amend the act to permit workers to sign separate agreements with any employer to work more than ten hours a day. In effect, workers would be left to convince each other to adhere to the ten-hour day law, a situation that opened the door for disagreements among workers at numerous textile manufacturing sites across the state.
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