Mill workers

This photograph has nothing written or printed on it to suggest where it might have been taken.  It came to me from Maine, so it may have originated there or in another northeastern state.  The setting appears to be a textile mill.  My guess for a time period would be 1895-1905.

The surface of the print has a grainy, inky discoloration which I haven’t encountered before.  It may have been caused by the chemicals used in developing and printing.  Does anyone know if the spottiness could be removed digitally using photo editing software?

The man standing at far left was probably a foreman or manager.  The young man next to him and the two men at far right may have been machinists (mechanics) who kept the machines running.  All the other members of the group are women, twenty-five in all.  Some are wearing aprons.  I wish they could tell us about their work and their lives.

Mill workers, location unknown 2

Mill workers, location unknown 3

Mill workers, location unknown 4

(You can see a large scan of the entire image in a separate tab here.)


March is Women’s History Month in the United States.

Mill workers, location unknown 5


48 thoughts on “Mill workers

Add yours

  1. It’s an intruiging photo isn’t it? There is such a range of facial expressions – a story behind everyone. I imagine the work was tiring and noisy but there seems to be a feeling of cameraderie amongst the women. I wonder about the three women who are sitting on the front row, one with her hand gently linked to the other’s, it feels like they are trying to keep her still!

    Liked by 4 people

    1. I see what you mean! 🙂 I love to see displays of affection in older photos. Besides being charming, they provide a sense of what kinds of behavior were socially acceptable. This group is posing in a relatively formal way, yet we see a few smiles, so the atmosphere must have been at least a little bit convivial.

      Liked by 4 people

      1. It was available on Prime. That’s where I watched it. I thought it was quite good but it didn’t get renewed (too depressing, I guess). It does not paint a rosy picture of life working in a mill!

        Liked by 3 people

  2. Good choice for Women’s History Month. Yes, I would like to know some of their stories. Were they independent women or working to support their families? At the time did mainly women work in textile mills? I like the way you framed the last photo.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Great questions, Jo Nell. As I was putting this post together, I wondered why women did most of the mill work. Was it because they had few other options to earn money? Or was it because the work was considered unsuitable for men for some reason? I assume it was more the former than the latter. In the 19th century, most professions were considered unsuitable for women.

      About the last photo, that’s actually the stiff paper mat (mount) that the photo is glued to. I always try to include an image of the mount in my posts, unless it’s too large to fit on the scanner or too damaged to show up well. Thank you!


  3. It would be interesting to know if the photo was taken before or after the Lawrence (Massachusetts) textile workers’ strike of 1912. There are several good video presentations about those events, including this one. A song closely associated with the strike, called “Bread and Roses,” is one of my favorites. I’ve written about it, but in 2014, so I think it’s time to pull it out again for Women’s History Month.

    It would be possible to clean up the photo, but it would take most of a natural lifetime to do it using methods I know about. If nothing else, doing some work just on the faces might be worth while. It’s an odd sort of damage, that’s for sure. I’m not sure I’ve seen anything like it. The women do look young, and more happy than unhappy; at least they’re not children, who often were pressed into mill work.

    Liked by 3 people

  4. The history of women’s work in factories is fascinating. It was almost unimaginably difficult and low paying, but offered steady pay, a way out of the home and to delay marriage and childbirth, and female companionship. The work environments were dangerous and unhealthy in many ways. I can hardly imagine the amount of sexual harassment they endured in that time. Then you have to wonder about the purpose behind a posed photograph of this nature. Recruitment?

    Liked by 3 people

    1. You’ve summed up the pluses and minuses of factory work at that time very well, Eilene. I also wondered how this photograph came about and why. Posed photos of factory workers are relatively rare, and you can’t help but wonder if it was done for publicity. Another possibility is that the photographer approached the manager or owner of the factory and offered to take the photo for free. The owner would then have the option to buy prints. Even so, the owner would have to want them. The workers probably wouldn’t, and might not even be given an opportunity to buy one.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Definitely an interesting photo! There are either nefarious or benevolent reasons to record workers for posterity. Sometimes it’s nice to imagine some employers were nice and generous. It must have happened now and then, right? 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I wonder if it’s a fabric mill of some kind, the rollers behind them seem to have some sort of canvas on them. (Or maybe for paper?) I don’t know about the lengths of what looks like twisted fabric that are going into vats or buckets in the foreground – maybe dye? Or water to keep things dampened down? Maybe look for other mill photos and see if you can get a match on the type of machinery.

    As for the spotting, it’s mould spores, so you need to keep this print separate from any of your others (and clean your scanner plate well before you scan any other photos, so that it doesn’t spread to any others. If your scanner has a glass plate then you can use some sort of diluted disinfectant (or isopropyl alcohol), if it’s acrylic or a similar plastic you’ll have to use water and make sure you dry it well afterwards otherwise the scanner plate will get messed up. I have a lot of photos in this state, far too many, in fact. I tend, these days, to scan them with a sheet of clear acetate beneath them to be on the safe side!

    And yes, you could get rid of some of the spotting, but probably not all of it or without losing a lot of detail. It’s painstaking work though so, if you want to try it, I’d suggest only getting rid of it on the faces and other important details, or you’ll be at it for ages! Do it manually, though. What I mean by that, is use the program’s individual tools rather than the anti-dust type filters. It’s slow work, but much more reliable.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Val! I’m quite familiar with foxing, having seen it so much over the years. This spotting is decidedly different. Foxing has soft edges and is dark grey. These specks have clean edges and are inky blue in color, almost purple. The closest parallel I can think of is spots of missing paint on the surface of an oil painting where the paint has flecked off. But these specks occur throughout the image, which makes me think they were caused by improperly applied chemicals. Perhaps the fixer wasn’t removed completely after printing.

      Using a sheet of clear acetate to protect your scanner is a brilliant idea! I mainly worry about scratching the scanner, but cleaning it is tricky as well, as you note. Maybe I’ll give acetate a try.

      Your comment about removing the spots from faces manually is helpful, because I don’t have experience with anti-dust filters. You’ve probably tried everything over the years! My concern was that they might remove more than I wanted, or make the image look less natural.

      Have you been enjoying your “retirement” from blogging?


      1. My thought on it, then, is that it’s just dust that appears to be blue or purple against the original Sepia (complementary colours). It might be a reaction to the sepia itself or it might be an effect of the saturation mode in your graphics or scanner program. If you take the saturation right down to zero (in a duplicate background layer or using an adjustment layer, so you don’t affect the original scan) so that it becomes black and white and zoom in closely you can usually tell if it’s dust from the shape and where it has settled.

        Yeah, I’m enjoying not blogging!

        Hope all’s well with you.

        Liked by 1 person

  7. What a marvelous perspective of the space! The photographer chose a wonderful angle and I almost wish there was a companion photo to this where the ladies were at their normal working positions in the room. I can feel both the stillness of the moment and the movement when everything must have been moving and spinning. I’m very touched by the women’s smiles and the gentle positioning of their hands, all of them. And, you know, in an odd sort of way I find the spotting to be appropriate as it’s indicative of how they must have felt at the end of a shift going home, dyed by their daily task. Quite a lovely share as always Brad ☺️🌷

    Liked by 1 person

    1. A wonderful analysis! You have the ability to envision the hustle and bustle of a workday, and also the fatigue that would be evident on these young faces after a long day of work. That takes imagination, or even a sort of poetic vision.

      One thing that struck me was how much light is coming in the room from the large windows on either side. I don’t see electric lights of any kind, which would provide a clue about when the photo was taken.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. March is Women’s History Month in the UK as well and we are busily promoting it on my museum’s blog and social media. I can’t really add anything useful, but I was reminded of the clothing factory that used to be here in Abingdon, I think it closed in the 1930s. A lot of women were employed there, too, but a lot of them were working “from home”, i.e. had the ready cut-out pieces of trousers or whatever at home and sewed them together there.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hey LS! So nice to hear from you! I just looked at your museum’s website and found the link to the new blog. I look forward to reading it! I was wondering what you had been up to this year.

      You make a really good point about cottage industries there in the UK. I don’t know if they were still common here in the US at the end of the 19th century.


    1. Hi Laura!! That looks like a great website you found! It has a lot of information about belt-powered machines like the ones in this photo. Power would be generated by a steam engine at one end of the building (or a water wheel), which would turn the shafts mounted along the ceiling, which would turn pulleys, which had leather belts connecting them to the machines. To tell the truth, I never gave it much thought before, but it was an ingenious system.

      So good to hear from you! Thank you for visiting and commenting on my blog!


  9. I really like this photo, and I can’t exactly say why. Like others have said, the range of expressions is remarkable. I agree with a previous comment re: the lives of these workers making for an interesting movie.

    Organizing a company photograph is a difficult task, although maybe it was easier 100 years ago. To get everyone in the same place at the same time, and having a coordinated “look” with clothing, is almost like working a miracle – so I admire it for that, too.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: