True Life: I am a Laurel Mill Worker
“True Life: I’m a Laurel Mill Worker” at the Laurel Museum in Laurel, Maryland explores a different side of Prince George’s County’s only Mill town and the community’s early growth. Using a real 1870s family to tell the story, it introduces visitors to the lives and experiences of the hundreds of men, women and children who worked Laurel, Maryland’s cotton mill between the 1830s-1929, when the mill closed for good. The exhibit opened in February, 2012 and runs through December, 2012.
The exhibition is laid out in two parts. In the first room visitors learn about mill worker life. In the second area, the exhibition recreates the living quarters of a mill family. The exhibition incorporates cotton mill artifacts, photos, contemporary excerpts from the diary of Laurel Mill Superintendent George Nye, and census data. There is a special emphasis on working children and special child-oriented questions and activities included in the exhibition.
Using the 10-member Waterman family, selected from 1870s census records, visitors learn about the jobs different members of the family, including its seven children, might have performed at the cotton mill. Visitors will be given a card for one of the family members and follow them through the exhibit. An adult visitor might follow Mark Waterman, 49, who may have worked in the picking room at the mill, where once the cotton bales were moved into the picking room, the cotton was unpacked and debris such as twigs, leaves, and bugs were removed. He might have earned: $7.43/wk or 11 cents/hr. A younger visitor might follow Sarah, his 13 year –old daughter, who may have worked as a creeler in the weaving room, making sure there was a constant supply of fresh bobbins for the cotton emerging from the card frames. She would have earned $4.00/wk or 6 cents/hr. In a paymaster’s section of this room, and in an area in the Museum’s downstairs, visitors learn firsthand what these wages might have purchased.
The front area also introduces visitors to some of the difficulties the mill experienced, and labor issues of the period. In the course of their research, LHS members discovered that workers over more than 20 years unsuccessfully tried to reduce their workday to 10 hours from 11 hours, and that workers at the factory resisted efforts to prohibit children under 16 from working.
Another area reveals that for Laurel’s 307 Black and Mulatto workers (which is how the 1870 census identified them), mill employment was not an option. According to the census, no African-Americans are listed as working in the mill. The section suggests occupations in which this community might have worked in Laurel and the surrounding areas.
The exhibitions’ second area re-creates an 1870s mill workers home in the Laurel Museum’s building. Housing 10 people (9 family members and one other individual) the space would likely have been very crowded, with multiple children sharing beds and bedrolls. In addition to bedding, and trunks to store items, the space includes 3 kinds of lighting (kerosene, candle and oil), 2 types of heating (wood and coal), a chamber pot, sewing implements, fishing rod, baseball bat, clothing, and other items of everyday life that might have been present in a mill family home. The Laurel Museum building was originally 4 separate apartments, with individual kitchens for each family in the basement. The re-creation also includes a basement kitchen set-up as the 1870s family might have had, and where, the exhibit speculates, Virginia Bradley, a 25 year-old, white female listed as living with the family, might have slept.
Notes LHS Executive Director Lindsey Baker: “This exhibit answers the question that we are often asked when people enter the Museum “Who lived here?”. In ‘True Life: I’m a Laurel Mill Worker’ we’ve explored the lives of the people who may have lived in our house and we hope to give our visitors a glimpse into the hard work these people put in over one hundred years ago.”