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Rise of Industrial America
Work in the Late 19th Century
Piece Work in the Knife Factory

William Dunbar, the subject of the following excerpted interview, was more than 80 years of age when this interview took place in the late 1930s. He lived in Reynolds Bridge near the main highways from Thomaston to Waterbury and Watertown, Connecticut. Mr. Dunbar worked in knife making for years, which is the subject of the interview. How did Mr. Dunbar learn his trade? What were his views about the nature of the work in the knife making industry?

View the entire interview with Mr. Dunbar from American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940. Use your browser's Back Button to return to this point.

"This here concern," says Mr. Dunbar (meaning the old factory at Reynolds Bridge) "was called the American Knife Company, and when it started I can't tell you. But I know it was begun by Pierpont and Morse. Squire Morse, he owned a clock shop down there on the site of the factory building, and it burned down. And afterwards he got together with Pierpont and started the knife factory.

"No, I don't think either one of them knew anything about knifemakin'. They were good businessmen. They hired the knifemakers and let 'em go, and I guess they made money. My father worked in Waterville and then came up here. No, sir, he was a Yankee, he wasn't an Englishman. I learned the trade from him when I was a kid and went to work in the shop here when I was fourteen.

"And it was a good place to work too. All piece work. You could do just about as you was a mind to, and do your work whenever you wanted to as long as you got it done. Way I look at it, it was done. Way I look at it, it was an ideal system for any factory . The help had a kind of independent spirit, and they were satisfied. Why, you could take your breakfast in the shop if you wanted to.

"'Twas all done by hand--the work was--pretty good prices as piece work went in those days, and you didn't have to break your neck on it to make a day's pay. You had to drill and grind, and square the blades--most of the time you were workin' on emory wheels. Old Man Pierpont had a daughter who married Dr. Ferguson and when the old man died she fell into the business and the doctor tried to run it, but he was Irish and he couldn't seem to get along with the Englishmen. They were always strikin' and one thing or another, and finally he got tired of it and sold the place to a New Jersey concern.

"Well, sir when my father went to work there, he and two other fellers were the only Yankees in the place. All the rest were English--I imagine the place employed about 75 when it was goin' full blast. Jealous of the trade? The English? Why, no. They were a happy go lucky bunch. Anyone could come in there and watch them work, they didn't give a damn.

"You could bring the work home and do it nights, if you wanted to. Most of the fellers had tools and a vice in their homes. The steel was Bessemer--imported from England. I used to go down to the shop nights around Christmas time when I needed extra money and help the blade forger. I used to heat the blades and pass 'em to him and he'd turn 'em out and [seuare?] 'em--that way we'd get a lot done. Then they got so they pressed 'em out of sheet steel instead of the rod. There was a good deal of vice work and bench work . . . .

"Before knifemakers came there was only four houses down here. They built twenty six houses for company employes, and every one of 'em was occupied by knifemakers. You got paid once a month, and the company took the rent out of your pay, which wasn't a bad idea. That way you didn't have to worry about it and they didn't either. Now'days your lucky if you can collect it. Rents ain't very high here now, and we get a lot of people that just stay for a while and run up a couple of months' rent and then move on. Ain't the class of people there used to be.

"Where'd the knifemakers go? Well, a lot of 'em went to work in other factories around here when the business folded up, but there was a good many who wouldn't work at anything but their trade. They moved on to other places. Some of them went up to Canastoga, New York, where there was a knife factory; some of them went up to Walden. I'm the only one left here unless you count Billy Morehouse, who lives over here to Matthews'. He was a blade forger."
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View the entire interview with Mr. Dunbar from American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940. Use your browser's Back Button to return to this point.