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Henry Boucher, French Canadian Textile Worker

Henry Boucher was interviewed as part of the WPA Federal Writer's Project in January 1939. The interviewer asserted that Boucher's story, from American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940, was most likely typical of woolen and worsted textile workers at the time. What was life like for these French Canadian immigrants in Rhode Island? How was their life different from (or similar to) your own in terms of work, the importance of schooling, family obligations, neighborhood merchants, and so forth?

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". . . I was born in a basement on Social Street, March 27, 1898. My parents, Henry and Marie Boucher, had emigrated from the village of St. Ours, Quebec, to Woonsocket in 1870. I had four brothers and two sisters, all of whom were born in Woonsocket, and I was the youngest member of the family. Due to an illness my mother was unable to work in the mill and the small pay that my father made did not permit our having any luxuries. During slack times in the mills we were often without many of the necessities of life. My father, an honest, hardworking cotton mill hand who had very little education, scarcely able to read and write, was always willing to work. After finishing his day's work in the mill he would saw cord wood into stove lengths for anyone who would employ him. For this he received one dollar a cord. We were very poor and my first recollection is of the pot of pea soup that was always simmering on the stove. This pea soup and a few slices of bread, covered with lard, formed our regular diet when work was slack. Why, I was working before I had my first taste of butter.

"As soon as I was able to walk I would help my older brothers as they scoured the nearby woods for fire wood, and with bags we would walk along the railroad tracks looking for coal that had dropped from the coal-cars. At the age of seven I entered the Jesus and Marie Convent. After spending four years in this school I was promoted to the Precious Blood College. Both of these were French Parochial schools. The Precious Blood College was a grammar school and here I was taught to read and write in French. One hour a day the English language was taught in this school, but as only French was spoken both in my house and in the Social district, where I lived, I was unable to speak the English language fluently. . . .

"In 1912 at the age of fourteen I left school, and presenting my birth certificate to the Superintendent of Schools, asked for permission to go to work. He told me that I would have to pass a test as to my scholastic ability. Calling me into another room, he handed me a sheet of paper and a pencil and said, 'Write your name and address near the top of that paper.' This I did and apparently that was the test, for after he glanced at the paper he made out my working papers without saying a word.

"My older brother found a job for me in the Card room of the Lippitt mill. My task was to keep the automatic feed of four Cards full of wool. For this work I received seven dollars a week. We worked 55 hours a week then. . . .

"When I brought home my first pay I felt very important and my mother allowed me to keep fifty cents. This was more money than I ever had before, so I promptly changed the fifty cent piece into nickels. How I swaggered around the Social district that night! . . .

[After Henry was fired for pulling a prank at the textile mill] "I then went in search of a job every morning and landed one, as a clerk in a grocery store, within a week. The grocer was a deacon of a church and a very pious man, but he did not let his religious activities interfere with his method of doing business. During my first day's work he called me aside and said, 'Henry, when you refill the sugar barrel I want you to put in one pound of this white sand to every twenty pounds of sugar. In this store the tobacco becomes too dry and loses weight so one of your duties is to add water to the tobacco. Make sure that you keep it damp. And when you are weighing meat be sure that you have your thumb on the scales. I am operating on such a close margin that I have to do these things in order to make a profit.' My hours of labor were long and the pay was but five dollars a week during the eighteen months that I worked for this public spirited grocer.

"Throughout 1913 and the first part of 1914 the mills were very slack and the family had to live on my pay as my brothers and my father were without work most of the time. Although the family could not live on five dollars a week, the storekeepers of that period would allow a responsible family to run a bill and when the mills started in September, 1914, it seemed as if my father owed money to every one in the city. With the mills running steadily my father, by allowing the family only the scantiest living was able to pay most of the back bills within a few months."
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View the entire interview from which this excerpt was taken, from American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940. Use your browser's Back Button to return to this point.