Textile mills dominated the economy of Lawrence, Massachusetts. In 1912, approximately 60,000 residents, out of a total population of 85,892, depended directly upon the payrolls of the textile mills. Work in the mills was hard and dangerous. Workers toiled long hours, and families, in order to make ends meet, sent children into the mills at an early age. By 1912, conditions were ripe for a worker protest. Organizing the textile workers was difficult, however, for, although bonded by common experiences in the mills, they were separated by ethnic, religious, and linguistic differences. Nearly 86% of Lawrence’s citizens were first or second generation Americans, and one-third of them had emigrated from southeastern Europe. Immigrants from Italy were the poorest of the recently hired workers.
Crowd in Lawrence, 1912
The population grew rapidly when the mills took on new workers, and problems of congestion and public health were rampant. (Lawrence had witnessed a population growth from 44,654 in 1890 to 85,892 in 1910.) The city of Lawrence went bankrupt trying to cover the expense of educating and policing the growing number of residents. The local government was back on its feet with a new charter and new city officials only two weeks before the strike began.
Living conditions for this influx of workers were terrible. Wages were poor, housing conditions horribly overcrowded, and the life expectancy of workers low. (In fact, Lawrence, along with a few other New England textile centers, led the national death rate.)