Poetry from the Lewiston Mills of 1909

Workers in a textile mill, thought to be in Lewiston, Maine. Image: University of Southern Maine, Franco-American Collection / Maine Memory Network

In the early twentieth century, thousands of children worked in Maine’s manufacturing industries – in textile mills, shoe shops, granite quarries, and sardine canneries. These children faced dangerous working conditions, worked long hours, and missed out on the opportunity for an education. Although the state did pass a series of laws to regulate child labor, these laws were often incremental (for example requiring 16 weeks schooling for child workers), and brazenly ignored by many factory owners.

The practice of child labor was especially prevalent among Maine’s Franco-Americans, for several reasons. Firstly, Franco-American families were more likely to be poor, and in need of the extra income. But most French-Canadian immigrants also came from an agricultural context, in which children were expected to work from a young age. Even in rural Quebec, school attendance was relatively low.

Recruiting poster, Bates Mill, Lewiston, 1861. Image: Museum L-A

Children worked in Maine’s mills from their earliest beginnings, but by the turn of the 20th century, there was increasing concern for the welfare of the children and the abuses perpetrated by employers. In 1909, the National Child Labor Committee dispatched photographer Lewis Hine to Maine to record and report on conditions for children there. Hine. who is now well known for his photographs of child laborers, visited industrial sites across the country. In Maine, Hine did not photograph inside the factories, because the local owners had been “warned” about him from their colleagues further south, and prevented him from entering the factories. Instead, he talked to children entering and leaving the mills.

The same year as Hine compiled his photographs and reports, a local physician, Doctor Joseph-Amedée Girouard, published two poems against child labor. The works, part of a collection called Au Fil de la Vie (Lewiston, Le Messager, 1909), are strident and forthright, calling out the well-to-do of society for overlooking the plight of the children and other workers.

Girouard was born in Saint-Hyacinthe, Quebec, in 1865. After attending the local seminary, and medical school in Montréal,  he practiced in Montana, before moving to Maine, and working first in Wesbrook, and then Lewiston. There, Girouard joined fellow natives of St-Hyacinthe A-N Gendreau, and Louis Martel, as the founding doctors of St Mary’s Hospital, the first hospital in the state of Maine. All three were artists as well as medical men. Gendreau and Martel founded Le Messager, Lewiston’s Franco-American newspaper, and Martel was a longtime civic leader, including in the musical and theatrical fields. Girouard’s contributions included his poetry.

The two poems below are reprinted from Au Fil de la Vie. The original French is accompanied by my own inadequate translation (thanks to members of Facebook’s “French-Canadian Descendants” group for their help with some words).


“Girls going to work in Bates Mfg. Co.” Lewis Hine for the National Child Labor Committee, April 24, 1909. Image: Library of Congress.

La Chanson des Ouvrières


Le matin quand la cloche triste;

Là-haut dans le sombre clocher,

Où nous la voyons trébucher.

A chaque son, à chaque plainte,

Nous accourons d’un pas égal,

Nous ouvrières, jeunes filles,

Nous accourons dans nos mantilles,

Et dans le grand air matinal.


Nous sentons bien notre paupière.

Quelque fois lourde sur nos yeux;

Mais nos cœurs sont pourtant joyeux,

Nous avons fait notre prière.

A nos métiers nous accourons

Et sans jamais nous mettre en peine,

Nous surveillons nos brins de laine;

Ensemble donc nous travaillons.


Et comme là dans la feuillée,

Du haut des grands arbres mouvants,

Nous entendons dès le printemps,

De sa fine voix ondulée;

L’oiseau qui chante ses chansons,

Lorsque sur la branche il travaille,

Faisant son petit nid de paille;

De même aussi nous, nous chantons.


Tandis que de nos mains fiévreuses,

Nous attachons les fils cassés,

Qui sont devant nous disposés,

En longues nappes filandreuses;

Surveillant toujours nos métiers,

Avec la même exactitude,

Sans relâche, sans lassitude,

Dans leurs mouvements réguliers.


Et nous tissons ainsi sans cesse,

Pour couvrir indifféremment,

Le vieillard, l’adulte, l’enfant,

Et l’indigence, et la richesse;

Le misérable ou le proscrit,

Et l’épouse et la fille infâme,

L’infidèle et la belle dame

Et l’orphelin qui nous sourit.


Puis si parfois quelque tristesse

Soudain vient obscurcir nous yeux,

Que quelque soupir douloureux

Monte en nos cœurs pleins de jeunesse;

Il faut du revers de nos main,

Des larmes arrêter la foule,

Car chacune d’elle qui coule,

Nous empêche de voir nos brins.


Il faut que rien ne nous chagrine,

Et pourquoi pleurer après tout?

Ne trouvons-nous pas que partout,

Le travail est la loi divine?

Ne voyons-nous à chaque instant,

L’homme ici-bas à bout d’haleine.

Et que sous le poids de sa peine,

Chacun se traîne, agonissant?


The Song of the Drones[1]


In the morning when the sad bell;

Up there in its gloomy bell-tower,[2]

Where we watch It toll.[3]

At each sound, at each groan,

We hurry, one and all,

We drones, young girls,

We hurry, wrapped in our shawls,[4]

And in the fresh morning air.


We feel our poverty keenly.

Sometimes heavily in our eyes,

But our hearts are yet joyful,

We have said our prayers.

To our looms[5] we hurry

And never without being in pain,

We watch over our wisps of wool;

And so, together, we work.


And just as the foliage

Sways atop the great trees,

And we hear, as soon as spring comes,

From his delicate undulating voice;

The bird singing his songs,

While he works on the branch,

Making his little nest of straw;

So we also sing.


While with our feverish hands

We tie together the broken threads,

Which are put in front of us,

In long stringy sheets;

Always watching our looms,

With the same care,

Without relaxing, without tiring,

In our regular movements.


And we weave like this incessantly,

To cover mercilessly,

The old man, the adult, the child,

Poverty and wealth,

The wretched or the forbidden,

The wife and the fallen woman,

The infidel and the beautiful woman

And the orphan who smiles at us.


If, sometimes, some sudden

Sadness comes across our eyes,

That brings up some aching sigh

In our joyful hearts;

It puts a stop to our hand,

Tears to stop the whole group,

Because each drop that trickles

Stops us from seeing our threads.


It must never distress us,

And why cry about it?

Don’t we find that, throughout,

Work is the law of God?

Don’t we see, at each turn,

Man on earth, breathless,

Each under the weight of his pain,

Crawling, dying?



Lewis Hine for National Child Labor Committee, 6 P.M. April 23, 1909. Hine’s caption reads “Boys all work in Bates Mfg. Co., Lewiston, Me. Several of smallest have been there several years. Larger boys get $4 to $5 a week. Nearly any one could not speak English.” Image: Library of Congress.



Le Travail de L’Enfance


Les petits qui vont à l’usine

Ont un sort bien avarié;

Car le travail les assassine,

Et devant l’infâme machine,

Comme ils font pitié!


Leurs deux petites mains s’épuisent,

En rattachant là tous les jours,

Les brins que les machines brisent;

Leurs petits pieds se paralysent

A peiner toujours.


Eux qui devraient courir ensemble

Le long des grands bois parfumés

Où la fraîcheur de l’ombre tremble;

Le dûr maître qui les rassemble,

Les tient enfermés.


Comme des oiseaux mis en cage,

Nés pour l’air et la liberté

Perdent bientôt leur doux ramage;

Ainsi ce petit monde à gage,

Passe sans gaîté.


Jamais ni le doux babillage,

Ni les jeux et ni les plaisirs

N’embelliront leur apanage;

Ils ne connaitront de leur âge

Aucun des loisirs.


Puis dans cette ignoble fournaise,

Où le grand nombre doit périr,

Leur petite forme s’affaisse,

Et bientôt tombant de faiblesse,

On les voit mourir.


Riches, à travers votre ivresse

Du haut de vos chars émouvants,

Ne voyez-vous pas la tristesse,

Et la désolant faiblesse

De ces enfants.


Malgré votre pieux sourire,

Où par des mots sous-entendus

Tant de mépris pourrait se lire;

Ne les entendez-vos dire

Nous sommes perdus.


Entendez-vous l’accent qu’ils mettent

A crier leurs appels divers

A vos cœurs dûrs [sic] qui les rejettent;

Et  la triste plainte qu’émettent

Leurs tombeaux ouverts.


Child Labor


The children who work in the mills

Bear a curse most rotten;

For their work will kill them,

And faced with the infernal machine,

How pitiful they are!


Their two little hands are exhausted

From reattaching every day

The blades of the machines which break;

Their little feet are paralyzed

With pain every day.


They should be running together

Beside the great sweet-smelling forests

Where the cool shade waves;

The harsh master who brought them there,

Holds them prisoner.


Like birds put in a cage,

Born for fresh air and freedom

Soon lose their sweet chirping;

So this little world of wages

Passes joylessly.


Never the sweet babble,

Nor games, nor pleasures

Embellish their domain;[6]

They do not know any

Of the pleasures of their age.


Then into this awful furnace

Where a great many will perish,

Their little bodies sink,

And soon drop down from feebleness,

Watch them die.


You wealthy folk, riding high[7]

Atop your moving carriages,[8]

Do you not see the sadness,

And the sorry enfeeblement

Of these children.


Despite your pious smiles,

One can read so much contempt

Behind your implied words;

Do you not hear them saying

We are lost.


Listen to the emphasis they put

On calling out their many appeals

To your hard hearts that reject them;

And the sad groans which come from

Their open tombs.




[1] Ouvrière (in the feminine) is a worker-bee or other worker-insect. The masculine, ouvrière, is used for a human laborer.

[2] Clocher can also be used as a metaphor for someone’s parish or village.

[3] Trébucher typically means to “trip” or “stumble.” Here it perhaps implies that the bell is not chiming in perfect time. The image is also reminiscent of well-known lines from John Donne’s Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions (1624): “Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.”

[4] Maintille literally refers to a particular kind of Spanish lace or silk shawl (a mantilla). Here, Girouard is probably referring to more everyday wear.

[5] Métier has a double meaning – it can signify a loom, but also any craft or trade.

[6] Appanage is an old term for the domain of a French king granted him for financial support.

[7] Ivresse can mean “drunkenness” or simply a sense of euphoria.

[8] Char typically denotes an automobile among Maine’s Franco-Americans in the 20th century. The traditional meaning is a “chariot,” but it can also be used for a float, as in a parade.

James Myall

About James Myall

While I currently work for an Augusta-based non-profit, I spent four years as the Coordinator of the Franco-American Collection at the University of Southern Maine. In 2015, I co-authored "The Franco-Americans of Lewiston-Auburn," a general history of that population from 1850 to the present. I was also a consultant for the State Legislative Task Force on Franco-Americans in 2012. I live in Topsham with my wife and two young daughters.