Maritime Log #31 – 19th Century Labor Force: Dangers of Fishing vs. Mill Work

by Dyke Hendrickson, Custom House Maritime Museum Outreach Historian

Historians writing about the 19th working life have suggested that working in textile mills and shoe shops in New England was dangerous and unclean.

Perhaps true. But commercial fishing off New England shores was much more dangerous. Yes, they sold a lot of fish, as is shown here. But often fishermen disappeared forever. I think of this after re-reading Mark Kurlansky’s book, “The Last Fish Tale.”

During one storm in the mid-19th century, 92 fishing vessels from the North Shore were lost. About 24 were from Newburyport. Gloucester had larger losses, because they had more ships. During a storm in about 1860, 120 Cape Ann fishermen disappeared in one storm.

Were textile mills dirty and exploitive? Yes. A mill fire in 1860 in Lawrence killed close to 100. And the Million Dollar Fire of 1934 in Newburyport leveled mills along the waterfront.

Mills were bad. But commercial fishing was absolutely death-defying. Many never returned.

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Thanks. Dyke Hendrickson