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The Dinner Pail

June 2024
5min read

In the years since I have had to use the services of a baby-sitter, inflation has hit this little business. I was amazed to find that the rate per hour has more than doubled. My grandchildren are baby-sitters, and they make a lot of money. Listening to one of their conversations, I discovered that accompanying fringe benefits are important to them and are carefully considered before they accept jobs: large color televisions, for instance, and families that leave out lots of snacks.

I couldn’t resist a lecture on how tough things were when I was young and how lucky they were to be able to earn money so easily. I had a different way of earning money, and memory came flooding back as I described it.

I was born in Fall River, Massachusetts, a hilltop city overlooking Mount Hope Bay, an arm of Narragansett Bay. These deep blue waterways were carved out by the same glacial activity that forged a chain of long, narrow lakes east of the hill, which funnel into the Quequechan River. With the force of the lakes behind it, the river descends rapidly with a fall of 130 feet in onehalf mile before it joins the waters of the bay.

As early as 1700 gristmills and iron-works were standing along its banks, and when a few decades later the spinning jenny made such improvements in the weaving of cloth that what had been a cottage industry moved into mills, the swift Quequechan proved an ideal site for them. Eleven mills were strung along the banks of the lakes in 1872, and there were forty-three by 1876. By 1900 Fall River was largely given over to the weaving of cotton cloth.

The mills were enormous affairs, three stories high, built of the granite that was abundant in the area. They were insatiable in their demand for workers. Sometimes whole families labored in them, and what long hours they worked! The starting whistle summoned them to the job at seven o’clock and, except for a toot at noon, didn’t blow again until five-thirty, with no coffee breaks and only a half-hour for lunch. The short lunch break posed a problem in getting these hardworking people fed. It was before the days of company cafeterias, and there wasn’t time enough to go home. This is how my friends and I earned our spending money. We carried dinners to the mills, either for our parents and relatives or for families whose children were grown.

Fall River has been called the City of the Dinner Pail. Although I haven’t seen a dinner nail in many years, I remember it well. It was made of galvanized tin, had three nesting compartments, and a bail handle. A hot drink in the bottom compartment kept meat and potatoes warm in the smaller compartment above. A still smaller compartment on top held dessert, and a tight-fitting lid covered the whole thing. Thus this ingenious pail carried a whole dinner. The meals were prepared at home and carried by us children to the mills. The school day was broken up into two sessions, with a two-hour break in between, so at eleven-thirty hundreds of schoolchildren poured out of my school, rushed home to pick up the dinners, then set off for the mills, hurrying to get there before the noon whistle blew. There was no lingering to talk with friends on the way, but coming back I could saunter along if it was warm. If it was cold, I wasted no time getting back to my own warm dinner. I remember walking through snow up to my hips and through drenching rainstorms that made it feel as though my journey was a long one. But it couldn’t have been very far if I walked to the mill and back, ate my own dinner, and got back to school by one-thirty.

So it was that I began my working life at the age of seven. We were very poor but weren’t aware of it since all the families we knew were poor too. There was nothing unusual in women going to work as soon as the youngest child was in school. So when my younger sister started school, my mother went back to her old job as a weaver, and I was considered old enough to bring her lunch. After all, my grandmother, who had been born during the Industrial Revolution in England, had actually worked in a mill from dawn to dusk when she was just a year older than I. All I was asked to do was carry a pail. I felt capable of it and proud to be “carrying dinners” along with my friends.

The weavers worked in a downstairs room. To get to it, I opened a heavy door at the top of a flight of brass-bound stairs that led to another heavy door at the bottom. I was so short that the bottom of the pail bumped on the steps as I went down. The handle was not rigid, and the pail tipped perilously at each bump. The brass bindings were loose, and I was terrified that I would trip on the step and spill the dinner pail’s contents. Each trip down was a nightmare as I made my way, step by step, until I reached the bottom and struggled to open the other heavy door. Only then could I relax my viselike grip on the pail and breathe a little more easily as I crossed the spinning room: rows and rows of spindles where that marvelous spinning jenny quietly twisted the yarn into thread.

On the other side of this room was the door to the weaving room. I always hesitated before opening this door; the noise from the clattering looms, combined with the hot, oily smell, was a blow in the face, and I hated to go in. Hundreds of looms were lined up here, each working away with a life of its own. I would watch fascinated as the shuttle carrying the warp flew back and forth between the two rows of thread, while the heavy harness banged each row taut. It always looked as though the harness was trying to catch the shuttle in mid-flight, and I would wait nervously for the disaster to happen. But in spite of appearances, the looms were well under the control of the workers, who paced back and forth between the rows, changing bobbins and watching for imperfections in the woven cloth, each one tending from two to six looms. Spoken communication was impossible, but the workers became adept at carrying on long conversations in sign language. I couldn’t understand all of it, but I watched with admiration as they talked. A woman told my mother of a telephone call she had had, and the motions of her hands described the conversation perfectly.

The end of my journey came as I delivered the pail to my mother, its contents intact. At twelve o’clock the looms stopped, and the weavers were free to enjoy their lunches in the deafening silence.

We were paid twenty-five cents a week for this work. It doesn’t sound like a demanding job; the pain was in the doing of it every day. Many children carried two pails in each hand, and I remember one enterprising boy who used to load six or eight pails into a wagon. For a while I carried dinner to a supervisor who thought it beneath his dignity to be seen carrying a pail home at night. He paid me an extra ten cents a week to carry the pail home for him.

The job began to seem to be beneath my dignity, too, as I neared the end of grammar school. After struggling through a particularly heavy snow-storm, I told my employer not to expect me if we had another one. My days as a dinner carrier came to an inglorious end when I didn’t appear after the next storm and was abruptly dismissed. I can’t believe my own callousness in not thinking of the poor soul who missed his dinner!

Naturally, my grandchildren thought this was a pretty hard way to earn twenty-five cents. Looking back on it now, I can see benefits other than the money. The walk to the mills in all kinds of weather strengthened our legs, and the fresh air sharpened our appetites. It isn’t the long walk that I remember most when I think of those days. Rather, it is the rattling of loose brass as I crept down the steps toward the pandemonium and my mother’s smiling face.

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