100 Years Ago, Maine’s Economy Was Powered by Immigrants


In 1910, Maine was at the peak of an immigration wave that was providing crucial labor for its biggest industries. The US Census of that year found that 16% of Maine’s population, or one in eight residents, were immigrants. That’s a far greater share than today, when less than 3% of the state’s population was born abroad. In fact, the diversity of the Maine of 1910 more closely resembles the populations of New York or Florida today. And just as immigrants today provide a critical source of workers for key industries in those states, Maine’s biggest industries a century ago depended on immigrant labor.

Winding Room Workers, Cabot Mill, Brunswick, 1925. Image: Pejepscot Historical Society / Maine Memory Network.

Understanding the extent of this phenomenon is made possible by a demographic project from the University of Minnesota, the Integrated Public Use Microdata Series (IPUMS), which provides harmonized data from various censuses, stretching back as far as 1850 in the United States. For some years, the project provides sample data (from 1 to 10% of all records), but for an increasing number of censuses, data is available for every recorded individual. In 1910, the census enumerated more than 750,000 residents, and IPUMS allows users to download and analyze a plethora of information on each person, including their place of birth and occupation.

Contemporary reports by the US Census Bureau estimated that Maine’s manufacturing industries produced $176 million of goods in 1909 (more than $4.4 billion in today’s money). Two-thirds of that output came from just four sectors – paper and wood pulp; lumber and timber; textiles; and footwear. Analysis of the IPUMS data show that each sector was heavily dependent on immigrant – and often Franco-American – workers. In the two most productive industries, paper and textiles, nearly half of the workforce was born abroad.

Source: US Census 1910 and IPUMS. Author’s analysis.


These data confirm the long-held narrative that Franco-Americans and other immigrants powered the industrial revolution in Maine, and elsewhere in New England. But they also reveal just how crucial these workers were to the Maine economy in 1910. Without this supply of labor from abroad, it’s hard to imagine how any of these industries would have operated at the same level.

Lewiston Evening Journal, July 29, 1885.

The data also show that Franco-Americans and other immigrants were a strong presence in other sectors of the economy, some less well-known than the textile and paper mills. Despite the effects of the industrial revolution, Maine still had a strong agrarian economy in 1910. While the size of this sector was less precisely estimated, reports at the time put its value at $60 million, more than the textile and paper industries combined. More Mainers were working as farmers than any other single occupation, and while the majority of them were native-born Americans, one in nine (11%) farmers was still born abroad. In the later 19th century, thousands of New England farmers had headed West, and newspaper accounts  noted that their abandoned farms were increasingly being revived by Franco-Americans and other new arrivals.


Source: US Census 1910 and IPUMS. Author’s analysis.


Just as today, the immigrants of a century ago also did much of the manual work that native-born Americans preferred not to do. The 1910 census shows disproportionate numbers of immigrants working on the railroads, as construction workers, and as “general laborers” – who would work on short term projects as needed, from clearing canals and laying roadbeds to working in the shipyards on seasonally on Maine’s farms. Some of the earliest Franco-Americans in Maine arrived in the 1840s and 50s in this role, and many had occupied the same position in Québec. The 1910 census shows that this itinerant and intermittent form of work was still a way of life for many.

Canal workers, Lewiston’s Little Canada, date unknown. Image: University of Southern Maine / Maine Memory Network

1910 marked the high point of immigration to Maine for several reasons. At the national level, the first comprehensive immigration laws were soon enacted, greatly restricting the flow of new workers from Europe (though they did not apply to arrivals from the Americas). The 1920s saw a rising tide of anti-immigrant sentiment that made Maine a more hostile place for Franco-Americans, and the Great Depression then made the US a far less attractive destination for immigrants.  By the time the United States was experiencing its post-war recovery, the political and economic dynamics of Canada, and Quebec in particular, were shifting to provide more opportunities for French Canadians, and less incentive to leave for the US.  As a result, the foreign-born population of Maine dropped to half its size by 1950, and reached its present historic low by the 1980s.

 Source: US Census 1850-2000, American Community Survey 2001-15 and IPUMS. Author’s analysis.


We can learn from this history. Maine’s economy was most vibrant when it had a growing supply of workers, facilitated by a steady stream of arrivals from Canada, Europe, and elsewhere. Today, Maine faces many of the same demographic challenges as in the 19th century. Employers are struggling to find workers, the population is aging at an alarming rate, and school districts are wrestling with the impacts of declining enrollment numbers. In overcoming these current challenges, Maine could draw many lessons from its past successes.

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.