Thursday, February 19, 2015

Bessie Merrill: Child Silk Mill Weaver (#7 of 52 Ancestors)

For centuries children have worked to help their families. They have helped their parents farm, run stores, and do other businesses. But, during the American Industrial Revolution, many children went to work in the mills and mines. They would often work up to twelve hours a day, seven days a week, at dangerous and even deadly jobs.

In Pennsylvania, in the later 1800's, both mindsets and laws were changing to protect children. Work hours were decreased and children were required to attend school for a certain number of months a year. Minimum ages were set in place for certain types of work, though many worked anyway.

In Lock Haven, Pennsylvania, where my ancestors lived, a silk mill opened in 1899. Three hundred people were to be employed, including many women who would work as weavers. By September of 1900, 220 looms were in operation.

Lock Haven Silk Mill, The Scranton Republic, Scranton, Pennsylvania, 02 Jun 1889,
page 2, column 3
, digital image, (, accessed 13 Feb 2015

My great grandmother, Bessie Merrill, was one of the first employees. Twelve months after the mill opened, in June of 1900, the census listed Bessie's occupation as a weaver in the silk mill. At the age of 21, she was still single and living at home. She had been unemployed "0" of the past 12 months.

Her sister, Dollie, was also a weaver at the silk mill. But, she was only 15 years old... an age when most of the girls in Lock Haven were still in school. At the age of 15, she would have been considered a "child laborer."

Bessie and Dollie's father, Augustus, was a shoemaker at this time. He and his wife, Sarah Jane, had six children: two boys and then four girls. One son was off fighting in the Philippine-American War and the other son was grown. That left four daughters in the house with ages from six to twenty-one.

What kind of hours did Bessie and Dollie work at the mill? What were the conditions like? Did Dollie miss school? Did the girls have friends at the mill? And, did they need to work to help their father support their family? 

Bessie married my great grandfather, Andrew McClintock Stewart, less than a year after the census was taken so she probably didn't work at the mill very long. Dollie was still single and living at home when the next census was taken and was no longer working at the silk mill. She was working as a dressmaker.

Dollie made good use of her skills. A newspaper article from 1901 shows Dollie, then 17, working with the Ladies Aid Society of Lock Haven Hospital. She was a member of the sewing committee which had donated sheets, gowns, pajamas, and aprons for the nurses and surgeons. Dollie's contribution was 5 nightgowns "made free of charge by Miss Dollie Merrill."

Dollie would eventually marry not once, but three times. She died at the age of 83 in Williamsport leaving behind her two daughters, three grandchildren, and her oldest brother, James Eastwood Merrill.

(Thanks to Amy Johnson Crow at "No Story Too Small" for creating "52 Ancestors" where we can share our ancestors stories, one week at a time.)

Do we share common ancestors? I'd love to talk! Please write me at

1 comment:

  1. What a great story! My Great-grandfather at age 14 according to the 1880 census worked in a tobacco factory in Quincy, IL and had not attended school during that year. Sure hope he knows that his grandson, my dad, graduated from Annapolis in 1943!


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