BIDDEFORD, Maine — Six days a week, 11 hours a day, $3 per week of take-home pay. Today, it would seem like inhumane conditions. But in the middle of the 19th century, when thousands of girls and young women were recruited from neighboring farm towns to run Biddeford’s burgeoning textile mills, those were seen as light work schedules.
With an abundance of free time and money — comparative to others in the city’s labor force at the time — the transplanted women drove what Biddeford Mills Museum President Dana Peck described as a local cultural explosion, the effects of which are still felt.
“At the time, people lived differently,” Peck said. “People were still trading goods and services with their neighbors. Most people in the area had to work 85 or 90 hours every week just to survive. But the mill workers had Sundays off and cash money in their pocket, which was more than anybody else around.”
As a result, the so-called “Mill Girls” became the catalysts for new churches, theaters and music halls, Peck said.
“The community culture really started to sprout up because people had all this time to socialize,” he said.
The mills, and the women who were predominantly responsible for running them, continued to drive the culture and economy of the Biddeford-Saco area through the 20th century. In an effort to capture that spirit, museum organizers are engaged in an ambitious project to gather oral histories of the old mills, which finally closed in 2009 after years of dwindling and outsourced work.
While the first mill workers on the scene — entrepreneur Samuel Batchelder had the first brick mill built in the city in 1845 — are no longer alive, some in the following generations still have tales to tell.
Museum officials — who currently store their inventory of old photos, catalogues, mill signs, advertisements and antique equipment in a temporary space in one of the 11 former Pepperell Manufacturing Co. mills — are interviewing those they can find on video and plan to develop a documentary on life in and around the mills.
“I’ve got pictures of all the girls I worked with. They’re all gone now,” said Claire Junkins, 86, who worked in the Pepperell Manufacturing Co. mills from 1943 to 1959. “I’m the only one left. … I folded 5,000 blankets a day for 15 years. You had to fold at least 2,500 — that was the standard.”
Women remained popular hires through the 1900s, as many of the local men went off to fight in wars. Because their female counterparts were typically smaller, mill owners managed to squeeze more active looms into the production spaces.
As a result, many of Biddeford’s high rollers in the 1940s and 1950s, for instance, were women. As was the case with the inaugural “Mill Girls” a century earlier, the economic power of Biddeford-Saco women at the time was a bit of a cultural role reversal that made some uncomfortable.
Junkins said that, because of her productivity, she made almost $100 per week in the mills — the equivalent of between $800 and $900 per week in today’s money. She bought herself a bedroom set, mink collars, resort vacations and fine clothing.
“I was known as the best-dressed in Biddeford,” she recalled. “I don’t want to brag [but] I had a new car.
“I was making more than [my husband] did,” Junkins continued, “and he had a trade [of welding]. That hurt his ego.”
As it had before the Civil War, the cultural landscape in mid-1900s Biddeford-Saco reflected the interests of between 2,000 and 3,000 well-paid, mostly women mill workers.
They still worked long hours under what would today be considered poor conditions — Peck said temperatures in the textile mills’ weaving rooms could reach 115 degrees Fahrenheit with 95 percent humidity as steam kept the cotton fibers moist and pliable — and the next generation of Mill Girls had a transformative effect on life outside the brick fortress-like walls.
Junkins called the weaving room, where she worked only briefly, “like Hell.” But downtown Biddeford, where as a young woman she spent her nights and weekends?
“The main street was like New York — Fifth Avenue,” she recalled, evoking the Big Apple’s prestigious shopping thoroughfare. “Everything was booming.”
During the ensuing decades, corporate downsizings and outsourcings whittled away at the mills’ viabilities and labor forces. Peck said one of the final blows came when production of Biddeford’s signature Vellux nylon-based clothing, developed and patented locally, was moved in the past 10 years by new company leaders to China.
But Peck said the mill buildings’ current owner, Doug Sanford, is breathing new life into the campus by renovating the historic structures for housing, offices and retail space.
“This is a really good time to take our tour [of the mills],” Peck said, “because you can still see what the mills looked like inside. In another two years, it’ll be full [of new tenants].”
With the group’s documentary, however, the mill environment soon to be covered up by new enterprises and apartments will be captured forever.
“God bless the Pepperell,” Junkins said. “Without it, we would have starved. … It’s a great world if you don’t weaken. You’ve got to look at the sunny side of things.”