Wages and the Cost of Living
Usually newly arrived
immigrants, Irish or Polish, would find employment at the mill where
their relatives or friends worked. They probably lived in the tenement
associated with that mill. Practically all the mills had tenements,
multi-family dwellings, which were rented for one to three dollars a
month to mill operatives. Some have been destroyed, but a fair number
still remain as private, two-family homes.
Most employees only lived
in the tenements until they had saved enough money to buy their own
house and property. To the wage earner of today it seems incredible that
the mill workers of a century ago could save enough money to buy a
house. But, despite low wages, rent and consumer goods were cheap and
there weren't the expensive distractions and necessities which absorb so
much of the present-day workers' salaries.
The Connecticut Valley
Advertiser, a weekly newspaper published in Moodus from 1861 until
1929, printed the following advertisements for three local stores which
gives the reader an idea of the cost of living in Moodus during "the
good old days."
In the April 5, 1873
edition, the New York Cash Store, located opposite the office of the
Advertiser, announced a "Great Clearing
Out Sale." The following items could be bought: "Costa Rica coffee for 12
cents per lb., soda crackers 7
lb, 28 bars of Crusader soap for $1.00, Reliance clothes wringer for
$5.50, kerosene oil 130 test for 25
per gal., overcoats $3 and upwards, business coats $2 and upwards."
Samuel Cook of
Goodspeed's Landing in East Haddam advertised furniture for sale in his
store on May 6, 1882: "parlor suites $50.00, solid black walnut chamber
suites for $45, solid black walnut bedsteads $6, good set of cane chairs
$6, curled hair mattress, 40 lbs. $10, good spring beds $2.50."
Also in W.R. Goodspeed's
Store on January 17, 1885, one could purchase,
"Pillsbury Flour $62 per bbl., 15 lbs. granulated sugar $1. Best P.R.
per gal., woolen bed blankets $1.75-$3.00 per pair." Coal was advertised
for sale at $4.70 per ton to Wilkesbarre nut to $5.90 per ton for Lehigh
In 1911 a Polish family,
where the husband and wife each earned less than 10
cents per hour, had been able to save enough money to purchase a
good size house in the village for $1,900.
All the mills ran six
days a week (Monday through Saturday) 10 hours
a day. 13 A study of the Time and Pay-Roll book for
Brownell's Lower Mill from January 1899-December 1906 reveals the
following information. The foreman of the mill, Frank Boardman, earned
$1.50 per day from January 1899 until March 1906 when he received a
raise of 25 cents per day. Like every other
worker he did not get paid for sick leave, and never took a vacation.
The Lower Mill averaged
about twenty operatives during this eight-year
period. There was quite a heavy turnover at this mill which may or may
not have been representative of all the mills. Of the
21 operatives on the payroll in January, 1899, only four had
continued to be employed by December, 1906.
The vast majority are Polish. A random listing of surnames includes
Wolak, Golec, Tylec, Masek, Kuzval, Tarbor, Biyo, Miesak, Dykus, Rycek"
The only two Irish names are Jim Shea and Charles Killian.
Sometimes, when new
operatives were hired, the clerk who kept the books did not know their
names and would identify them by some physical characteristic or as the
relative of someone familiar. Two operatives who were hired together
were listed in the book as "Tall New Poland Girl" and "Short New Poland
Girl." Another was simply "George's brother." Keeping track of who's who
in such a nebulous manner could tend to result in designations such as
"New Poland Girl's cousin," or "New Small Poland Girl's sister."
The wages in 1899 were
six cents per hour for unskilled and eight, nine, and 10 cents per hour
for more experienced workers. In December, 1906, the wage scale ranged
from seven cents for unskilled to 11 cents per
hour for skilled workers. Money owed to the company would be noted in
the payroll book and deducted from one's earnings.
The following deductions
were made from George Welshack's pay in October, 1903: Rent $1.50, milk
$1.50, cash $3.00, order at Spencer's store $15.00. Total
is $21.00 which, when subtracted from his
gross pay of $24.50, left a net pay of $3.50 for 24
and one-half days (or 245 hours) work. The Connecticut Valley
Advertiser reported in a special supplement on Moodus in 1900 that
yearly cumulative wages (52 weeks) for the
12 mills were $86,400 at a rate of $7,200 a
Although the mills rarely
shut down for a holiday, they were subject to the vagaries of climate,
especially droughts, which would dry up the river, and the constant need
to repair broken machinery. For instance, a notation in the payroll book
on November 20, 1899, reads, "All mills stopped for water." On November
28th everyone went back to work.
According to the book,
"Started most all mills today and some upstream yesterday, some water in
reservoir." However, only six days later the reservoir ran dry; "Water
all gone-all mills stopped again (no rain yet)." This particular layoff
lasted two weeks until December 19th when "All mills started up today."
Prolonged droughts cost
everyone money. On September 14, 1900, "All mills stopped for water
today" and did not operate again until October 29th. However, they were
forced to shut down"... for water again" on November 3rd, and "did not
run or work much" until November 26th when "Big rain, but reservoir
not raised yet." The mills closed for
eighteen days in 1901 when the main water wheel shaft broke. It
broke again in July, 1902, and took twenty-eight days to repair. Most
operatives only worked six days in September, 1901, because the mill had
to shut down in order to build a new bulkhead. From March 4th until
April 19th, 1904, the mill was out for repairs on the millpond dam.
As previously mentioned,
the Catholic church in town was Irish, and one can understand how the
Polish must have longed to hear a sermon delivered in their native
tongue. Once a year, to satisfy this need, a Polish priest would ride to
Moodus to hear confessions and minister to the spiritual needs of the
Polish congregation. This event was noted in Brownell's Time and
Pay-Roll book as "Poland priest-here in A.M. Run only some twisters in
A.M." Most, if not all, of the
Polish operatives would not report to work while the priest was in town.
Mr. Brownell, as well as the other mill owners, all pious church-going
men themselves, granted the workers this freedom to attend to matters
spiritual. Of course, the time off was docked from their pay.