Milton Mills Shoe Strike of 1889

By Muriel Bristol (Transcriber) | November 1, 2018

A Boston Globe news article about the commencement of the Milton Mills shoe industry strike of November 18, 1889.

The older spelling of employé or employe instead of the modern employee is not an error. Note too the practice of breaking a sentence in the middle to make a part of it a heading.

Milton Mills had a good water-power source, but it was four or five miles by wagon from the railhead at Union. That would have meant a rather high additional transport cost for both raw materials and finished goods. Note that the wealthier residents of Milton purchased an existing factory in 1888 and gave it to the Varney & Lane company free of charge. A majority of the town residents voted to exempt the firm from all taxation for a period of ten years. These would seem to have been rather substantial levels of “encouragement.”


Stories of Cheap Work at Milton Mills, N.H.

Big Meeting of Malcontents Opened by Fervent Prayer.

Knights of Labor Endorse Henry George’s Land Theories in Substance.

MILTON MILLS, N.H., Nov. 18 – Seldom, if ever, has any meeting of a trade union in the United States, called to inaugurate a strike, been opened with a prayer by a minister of the gospel. Such was the case with the public meeting of the local union of the Boot and Shoeworkers’ International Union last evening in Fox’s Hall. The purpose of the meeting was to ascertain how much support the citizens of the town would render the union members employed at Varney & Lane’s shoe factory in case there should be any trouble. This firm when it came there, was furnished a factory free of rent and exempted from taxation for 10 years.

One of the wealthiest and most prominent citizens of the town, Freeman Stevens, acted as chairman and introduced Rev. Charles Atkins, who offered a prayer for the success of the movement.

Harry C. Moulton of the executive board of the international organization, who

Organized the Union

a month ago, was the principal speaker. He stated that “the shoe workers of Milton Mills were receiving the very lowest prices for shoemaking in the United States. Even convicts in the Lawrence jail received more. Either Milton Mills prices must be advanced or else prices in other sections of New England must be lowered.”

Mr. Stevens, the chairman, said that he hoped the union would be successful in the attempt to get an advance in wages. If this firm would not pay as much as it competitors on the same grade of work then he would give as much money to help the firm move out of town as he subscribed to get it to come here.

Mr. Brierly, a woolen manufacturer and formerly part-owner of the factory occupied by Varney & Lane said that he would rather see the factory empty then have the young people continue at work in the factory at such low wages. Many of the latter have given from four to six weeks’ labor to this firm for nothing.

The difference in wages between this firm and those paid in other towns was ascertained by the citizens and employes writing to shoe manufacturers and employes in other places and finding out the prices paid. When they began to compare prices paid by this firm’s competitors with those paid in this town the indignation began to grow until it resulted in this meeting. There is now some talk of reconsidering the vote of the town by which the firm was granted exemption from taxation.

The union at a business meeting after the public meeting, instructed Mr. Moulton to present a new price list to the firm, which means an advance of from 10 to CO [SIC] per cent. In case the firm refused to grant it he was authorized to order a strike. Every employe is a member of the union, and all will walk out if the advance is not granted.

Mr. Moulton told the writer today that this case is of national importance. Every shoe firm in the United States is

More or Less Interested.

This firm made 3000 cases of shoes this year and sold its product from $3.60 to $10 a case less than any other firm, thus demoralizing the market. Whenever any manufacturer in New England running country shops was asked to increase the wages of his employes he always pointed to Milton Mills and asked why that firm was not called on to increase wages first, as they were so much lower.

“The prices here are way down to bed rock,” said Mr. Moulton. “Now that this firm is coming up there is some prospect of other firms in New England also increasing wages. We think we have at last solved the problem of country shops by rounding up on the very lowest scale of wages paid for shoemaking in New England. The firms of Morgan & Dore of Richmond, Me., Kimball Brothers of Gardiner, Me., C.B. Lancaster & Co. of Pittsfield, N.H., Hollis & Co. of Bumstead [Barnstead], N.H., Bartlett Shoe Co. of Laconia, N.H., and Cropley & Munroe of Wolfeboro, N.H., as well as other firms in other localities, will cease to be sufferers from the underselling made possible by the extremely low wages formerly paid for labor by this firm. In fact the whole shoe trade of New England will be benefited by the rise in wages which is sure to come.”

The feeling of the people of this place is such that if the firm attempts to fight the union and bring in outside shoemakers the latter will not be able to get board, food, or any other of the necessaries of life. Nearly everyone who subscribed money to buy the factory, to present rent free to the firm, is willing to subscribe as much to help the union members in this struggle. The young men and women employed are farmers sons and daughters living at home. They are thus well provided with the necessaries of life and comfortable homes, and so are in a condition to stand a long siege (Boston Globe, November 19, 1889).

Eighty Shoe Workers on Strike

Milton Mills, N.H., November 21. – As a result of the demand of the Shoeworkers’ Union for more wages and the refusal of the firm of Varney & Lane to grant the increase, the employes struck today. About 80 men and women are out, and the factory is deserted except by two boys and a few girls in the stitching room. When Harry C. Moulton of the general executive board of the Boot and Shoe Workers’ International Union, acting in the capacity of agent of the local union, presented the price list to the firm at its office in Lynn, he was informed by Mr. Lane that his firm could not pay the prices and would remove their business to Lynn. A soon as the union was informed of this they quit work.

The citizens of the place are generally much excited over this affair (Boston Globe, November 22, 1889).

They Want Fair Treatment

Concerning the labor troubles at Milton Mills, N.H., E.J. Brierly writes to THE GLOBE: “The strike has been precipitated by the change of superintendents, but the underlying cause is the ridiculously low prices paid by Messrs’ Varney & Lane, which are not as high as in other country shops for the same kind of work. Nothing is known of any threats against Mr. and Mrs. Rockwell. The statement that “such a sentiment has been developed as to compel the firm to remove from town” is wrong. They have the support of the majority of the citizens when they located at Milton Mills $3000 was subscribed for them and they were aided in many ways. The citizens are now ready to meet with the principals and if it can be shown that the wages they have paid are as stated it will be found that the citizens will rally to their support. All that is asked is simple justice by the people who contributed both their saving and labor in starting the shop (Boston Globe, November 22, 1889).

C.W. VARNEY & CO.’S RETURN. Explanation by the Firm and Action of the Lynn Boot and Shoe Council. Lynn, Mass., Nov. 22. C.W. Varney & Co., shoe manufacturers, who have for nearly a year been conducting business in Milton Mills, N.H., have decided to bring their work back to Lynn, and will, in connection with the brick block on Broad street, occupy the wooden factory on Box place, formerly occupied by M.F. Donovan. One of the firm says: “In comparing our prices paid at Milton Mills, N.H., with those of Lynn, we have only to say we went into the country to manufacture a cheap grade of shoes, in order to offer to our trade a line such as is made in Maine and New Hampshire by our competitors. Realizing how long it takes to overcome and live down a prejudice, we have firmly decided to remove our country business to Lynn, without the slightest idea of ever attempting to manufacture again in the country. Our factory plant, one of the finest in New Hampshire, is for sale.” The Lynn Boot and Shoe Council held its meeting last evening, and the matter of C.W. Varney & Co. bringing its work back to Lynn from Milton Mills, N.H., was discussed, and it was decided to give to the members of the council and the general public the position of the council on matters of this kind, while the council, representing the different shoe organizations of Lynn attached to N.S.A., 216, are heartily in accord with any legitimate endeavor to bring back to Lynn any of the works that left here, they are not in accord with the desire of any manufacturer to bring his work here temporarily in order to defeat the ends of organized labor in the county shops (Boston Globe, November 22, 1889).


Strike Settling Down – Union and K. of L. Appreciate Each Other

MILTON MILLS, N.H., Nov. 22. It is more than possible that in the next 24 hours the strike in Varney & Lane’s factory will be settled. Negotiations looking to that end are now in progress between representatives of the union and the firm. Much satisfaction is expressed over the action of the Lynn Boot and Shoe Council, which is composed principally of Knights of Labor, in stating to the manufacturers that they did not believe in any manufacturer removing his work to Lynn temporarily in order to defeat organized labor in country shoe shops.

These two organizations, the K. of L. and union shoemakers, were formally not in perfect harmony, but the union men express warm approval of this square dealing (Boston Globe, November 23, 1889).

Varney & Lane and its striking employees came to an agreement on Monday, December 23, 1889.

Settled Their Difficulties. Dover, N.H., Dec. 24. – The trouble between Varney & Lane, shoe manufacturers, of Milton, N.H., and their employes was settled Monday, and an agreement signed to remain in force until Jan. 23, 1891. It reinstates the old help and increases prices from 20 to 25 per cent. The event was celebrated with a band, parade, speeches and a banquet ((Decatur, IL) Morning Review. December 25, 1889).

An Advance for the Lasters. DOVER, N.H., Dec. 21. The difficulty in the shoe shop at Milton Mills has been adjusted. The lasters have been granted an advance of 15 per cent, and have returned to work. This will be followed by a proportionate advance of prices in other departments (Pike County Dispatch, December 26, 1889).

Moulton’s Side

In a lengthy article of a month later regarding strikes in Portland and Freeport, ME, the union organizer, Harry C. Moulton, was asked “What success did you have in settling the labor trouble at Milton mills?”

To which Moulton replied:

All settled and signed until June. The strike was on for five weeks and resulted in a complete victory for the union. Last evening the town was ablaze with excitement. We had a flag raising, a meeting with speeches from prominent citizens, and a banquet followed by a dance (Boston Globe, December 24, 1889).


Prior to the June expiration of the December settlement Varney & Lane put the Milton Mills factory, along with its tax privilege, up for sale:

BUSINESS CHANCES. FOR SALE. Large shoe factory, at Milton Mills, N.H., with or without machinery; the finest plant in the state, at a shoe centre; capacity 75 cases per day; excellent water power; 65-horse power engine; automatic sprinklers, summer and winter boilers, steam heat, elevator, and all modern improvements; with the above are 10 tenements and 15 acres land; business exempt from taxation for a period of years; will sell all the above property at a low price. Apply to SILSBEE & GEER, 10 Andrew st., Lynn, Mass. (Boston Globe, April 30, 1890).


Boston Globe. (1889, November 19). Soles Made from Souls. Boston, MA: Boston Globe.

Boston Globe. (1889, November 21). Eighty Shoe Workers on Strike. Boston, MA: Boston Globe.

Boston Globe. (1889, November 21). They Want Fair Treatment. Boston, MA: Boston Globe.

Boston Globe. (1889, November 23). Strike Settling Down. Boston, MA: Boston Globe.

Boston Globe. (1889, December 24). Moulton’s Side. Boston, MA: Boston Globe.

Boston Globe. (1890, April 30). Business Chances. Boston, MA: Boston Globe.

Author: Muriel Bristol

"Lady drinking tea"

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