Notes on collections at the RIHS
If you are a member of RIHS you may recognize the photograph here from our recent annual campaign postcard. Perhaps you wondered about the story behind this exuberant image of young girls and women running at top speed. The energy and delight apparent on the faces of the runners is contagious- it’s hard not to smile when you look at this picture.
The setting is the 8th Annual Sayles Finishing Plants Employees’ Outing on July 18, 1923. We have countless panoramic images of employees’ dinners, picnics and outings; unidentified people sitting or standing in long rows for a group photo op. But there a few, like this one, that catch the spirit and spontaneity of a day off from the grind. We don’t know the names of the young women in this photo, but they certainly do communicate something and they stay with us for a while.
Annual outings were a popular way for owners and managers of large companies and factories to cultivate a sense of community and loyalty. Sayles Finishing Plants was a conglomerate of the various plants owned by Frank A. Sayles in Saylesville, Phillipsdale and Valley Falls, Rhode Island and in Asheville, North Carolina. As one of the largest finishers of textiles in the world in the early 19th to mid-20th centuries, the company could well afford to throw elaborate picnics for its workers.
In September 1934, not too many years after the outing depicted above, a violent strike at the non-union Saylesville plant kicked off a national strike of textile workers in an attempt to raise wages and improve working conditions during the Great Depression. This was a major event in the gradual migration of the textile industry in Rhode Island and the rest of New England to the southern states, where overhead costs were low and labor could still be had on the cheap. On your average day, working at a textile mill was no picnic.