Pelletier Family, shoe workers
French Canadian Peter Pelletier was a young man of 27 in 1910, when he worked as a buffer in the Cummings shoe factory in South Berwick. His job was to sand smooth the leather on the soles of shoes before they were polished. His task was one of the last in a long series of about 40 operations that produced a single shoe. In the factory system, the buffer took the shoe from a shaver, who shaped heel edges; he passed the shoe to a burnisher, who coated and shined the bottom of the shoe before delivering it to the packer.
Cummings Factory workers
Steam-powered machines revolutionized the process of shoemaking in the 1870s, when the Cummings factory was built. With a single machine, the McKay stitcher, a worker could sew the leather soles on eighty pairs of shoes in an hour, when only one pair could be sewn by hand methods. Commenting on the radical change in the daily labor of craftsmen that happened between 1860 and 1890, one historian wrote: “The man who was called a shoemaker thirty years ago made shoes; the man who claims to be a shoemaker today makes only part of a shoe. What was once a trade in itself is now a multiplicity of trades. Once there were shoemakers, now we have Beaters, Binders, Bottomers, Buffers, Burnishers, Channelers, Crimpers, Cutters, Dressers, Edge Setters, Eyeletters, Finishers, Fitters, Heelers, Lasters, Packers, Pasters, Peggers, Pressers, Rosette Makers, Stitchers, Treers, Trimmers, Welters, and several other workers at the shoe trade.”
Peter worked on the fourth floor of the factory, in the lasting room, where the bottom and upper parts of the shoe were assembled. There the clatter of machines was lively. The lasting machine stretched the shoe “upper” around an iron form, called a shoe last, and tacked it to the sole. Other machines were used to stitch the sole, nail the heel, trim the heel, sand the sole, and polish the bottom. Shoes were loaded on wooden racks and moved from floor to floor by elevator.
The cutting room, where heavy leather hides were cut and trimmed into shoe parts, was located on the first floor. In the packing room on the second floor, shoes were cleaned and polished, inspected and packed in wooden boxes made on site. The company office was also located there, where bookkeepers recorded purchases and sales, and the superintendent could oversee final shipments. Above, on the third floor, was the stitching room, where shoe “uppers” and linings were sewn, and on the fourth floor shoes were assembled and finished.
Peter walked to work from the Landing, at the other end of town, where he lived in a house he owned on Pleasant Street. His wife, Phebe Martel Pelletier, was born in Quebec and emigrated at the age of 16 only 12 years before, in 1898. She spoke only French, but their daughter Olive, age 5, and their son Oliver, age 3, were learning English, as their father had. Peter was born with the French name Pierre Pelletier. His father, Joseph, had emigrated from Laurierville, Quebec (about 30 miles south of Quebec City) with his wife Emilie and young son Thomas in 1882, the year Peter was born. Ellen, his younger sister (baptized Marie Helen Angel), was born two years later.
In the century after 1840, roughly 900,000 French Canadians left Canada for the United States. By 1900, most families in Quebec had some members living in the U. S., and this migration affected their close-knit society in profound ways. Immigrants left behind a rural society with strong cultural bonds of language, religion, and customs. They entered an industrial world of New England mill towns, such as South Berwick, where the dominant language and religion was foreign to them and their livelihoods changed. They were motivated to leave by the hardships of earning a living in a region whose rural population had grown rapidly (estimated at 400 percent) in the early 1800s, leaving little productive land to farm. Overpopulation, poverty, debt, and poor farming soils combined to push French Canadians like Joseph Pelletier to leave home and begin life over. At age 40, Joseph brought his family to Somersworth, New Hampshire, where he could find relatively stable work in the cotton mills for higher wages than at home. In South Berwick in the 1880s, three factories and a foundry were operating within one square mile. Although factory conditions were harsh, for many French-Canadian immigrants, industrial work improved their standard of living, providing steady income and utilities such as electricity and plumbing. Railroad service connecting South Berwick to Montreal was completed by 1860, giving immigrants ready access to work in the local mills.
Peter’s father and brother, Thomas, worked in the iron foundry across the river in Rollinsford. They walked to work across the bridge from their home at the Landing.
When Peter began work at the local woolen mill, he took a short walk up Factory Street (now Liberty Street) to reach the mills at Great Works. As a wool finisher, he worked in wet, cold conditions in the rooms where wool cloth was washed, dyed, shrunk, and sheared. Those tough conditions may have prompted Peter to seek work finishing shoes instead. He was 27 and working at the David Cummings and Company shoe factory when the harsh conditions of factory life seem to have overtaken him. He died of tuberculosis on November 12, 1910, four days after his 28th birthday. His wife Phebe moved after he died, but not back to Canada. Instead, the Pelletier family relocated to the industrial city of Worcester, Massachusetts, where factories producing textiles and loom machinery had attracted a large French Canadian population.
(Written by Nina Maurer for the Hike through History.)