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.
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).
|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
In the morning when the sad bell;
Up there in its gloomy bell-tower,
Where we watch It toll.
At each sound, at each groan,
We hurry, one and all,
We drones, young girls,
We hurry, wrapped in our shawls,
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 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,
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.
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
Never the sweet babble,
Nor games, nor pleasures
Embellish their domain;
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
Atop your moving carriages,
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.
 Ouvrière (in the feminine) is a worker-bee or other worker-insect. The masculine, ouvrière, is used for a human laborer.
 Clocher can also be used as a metaphor for someone’s parish or village.
 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.”
 Maintille literally refers to a particular kind of Spanish lace or silk shawl (a mantilla). Here, Girouard is probably referring to more everyday wear.
 Métier has a double meaning – it can signify a loom, but also any craft or trade.
 Appanage is an old term for the domain of a French king granted him for financial support.
 Ivresse can mean “drunkenness” or simply a sense of euphoria.
 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.