Of bread and roses

Bread and Roses
Bread and Roses

Bread and Roses, located at LEA13, is an interactive, educational installation commemorating the 1912 Lawrence Textile Strike, and which is open now through until the end of December 2014.

The strike, which commenced on January 1st, 1912, was prompted by textile mill owners in the town of Lawrence, Massachusetts, arbitrarily cutting workers pay after a new law reduced the working week from 56 hours to 52. The cut, amounting to around 30 cents, equated to the loss of around three loaves of bread for the already hard-pressed working families in the town (hence one of the strike’s other names: “The Three Loaves Strike”).

To put this in perspective, the staple diet of mill workers and their families in Lawrence was bread and molasses. Meat was a luxury few could afford. What’s more, the conditions were so harsh that the mortality rate for children was 50% by age six, and that 36 out of every 100 mill workers, male or female, were dead by the age of 25. Families were crammed into poorly maintained tenement blocks; thus the pay cut was, to say the least, cruelly severe.

With its largely immigrant population (some 51 different nationalities), the work force in Lawrence had been deemed by more conservative trade unions to be too ethnically divided to be properly organised. However, under the guidance of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), representatives of which had been active in the town ahead of the imposition of the pay-cut, the strike grew within a week to encompass some 20,000 workers and ran through a harsh winter prior to both sides reaching agreement.

Bread and Roses
Bread and Roses

The strike particularly came to the attention of the United States as a whole (and the rest of the world) after local police attempted to prevent IWW from sending 100 children from striking families in Lawrence to Philadelphia to stay with the families of supporters of the strike until it had reached a conclusion. Arriving at the railway station, the police drew their batons and began clubbing mothers and children alike, in full view of the press, resulting in Congressional hearings being called.

In the end, the mill owners acceded to the demands of the strike organisers. Pay was raised, working conditions were improved – but it was in the end something of a pyrrhic victory.  The IWW refused to enter into written agreements, allowing the mill owners to slowly but surely take back the concessions made, whilst also removing union representatives from their workforce.

Bread and Roses
Bread and Roses

The installation at LEA13 is the brainchild of Canadian-born Dr. Sharon Collingwood (aka Ellie Brewster in SL), a Professor in the Women’s Studies department at The Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio. It’s an interactive piece, aimed a school students, and offers plenty to do.   A tour through the set takes students through a mill where images provide visual and text-based information on the strike, while large blue buttons provide additional information or questions to be answered by students. In addition, there are media elements and links to external web resources.

As well as examining the strike, the installation also offers some social commentary as well; not just in the strong contrast between the houses and attitudes of the well-to-do mill owners and the frightful conditions endured by the workers – but also in the often entirely blinkered viewpoints of movements which marked the times. The latter is perhaps most clearly demonstrated in the house occupied by the (white, middle-class) suffragettes, citing the strike as an example of the “power” embodied within women, whilst ignoring the black scullery maid in the kitchen…

Bread and Roses
Bread and Roses

An exploration of the installation will reveal it to be seemingly incomplete. There are empty rooms, etc. This is intentional, as it is hoped that students will add to the exhibit throughout its duration. In addition, students can assume one of four identities prior to explore the exhibit and, for the benefit of those who may not be familiar with using Second Life, there is a brief set of tutorial items offering basic instructions on finding one’s way around the viewer.

All told an interesting glimpse into history, and a useful educational tool. Those wishing to use the classroom facilities within the exhibit should contact Ellie Brewster in-world.

And the title of the piece? “Bread and Roses” was another name by which the strike came to be known, after being incorrectly linked to the strike by author Upton Sinclair. The origins of the phrase in fact seem to lie with labour union leader, Rose Schneiderman, who was not directly involved in matter in Lawrence, but who stated during a speech that, “The worker must have bread, but she must have roses, too.” This in turn inspired James Oppenheim to write a poem of the same name, which in turn became a song strongly associated with labour movements and the concepts of fair wages and dignified working and living conditions.


Bread and Roses: Joan Baez and her sister, Mimi Farina, who founded “Bread and Roses”, a nonprofit co-operative organisation, designed to bring free music and entertainment to institutions: jails, hospitals, juvenile facilities, nursing homes, and prisons.

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