What We Can Learn from the Mill’s Accident Reports

Ninth in an occasional series of Schwamb Shares

The Old Schwamb Mill’s archives include 78 accident reports completed between 1915 and 1930. The reports were submitted to the Federal Mutual Liability Insurance Company of Boston, Mass., the insurance company covering the Clinton W. Schwamb Company’s workers in accordance with Massachusetts Workmen’s Compensation Act of 1911. A copy of each report was also to be submitted to the Commonwealth’s Industrial Accident Board.

There are some gaps in this series; there are no reports between 1915 and 1919, and none for 1924. But for most of the 1920s, these reports are the most illuminating documents in the Clinton W. Schwamb Company’s business records. Here are some questions they help to answer.

“How many people worked here?”

There are many sources of information of the Schwamb workforce over the company’s 104 years in business, but for the 1920s, the accident reports are the best resource.

For the years 1915 to 1930, the workforce gradually increased from 7 to 12. This is in keeping with the amount spent on payroll over the same period (adjusted for inflation).

The horizontal axis at bottom shows the range in the number of workers known to be employed for each year.

While the Mill had as many as 37 workers in the 1870s, this declined to 14 by the 1890s. When Clinton and Louis Schwamb took over from their father Carl William in 1904, there were as few as four workers in some weeks. From what we can see during the prosperous 1920s, ten to twelve was the optimal number of workers for the rest of the Mill’s life as business.

“How old were the workers?”

For the 1920s, the accident reports give workers’ ages as follows:

The chart above suggests, younger single men were more common than older, married men. However, this picture is incomplete because many known workers of that time had no accidents to report.

“What else do we know about the workers?

Of the 38 workers named in these reports, 27 lived in Arlington, 11 of these in the Heights. Other towns where workers lived included Melrose, Everett, Roslindale, Boston, Lexington, Cambridge, Somerville, and Dorchester.

The question of how long an employee had worked at the Mill was not always completed, but most workers in the accident reports had worked with the Schwambs less that three years, and more than half had worked there less that two years. We know from other sources that turnover was a constant challenge at the factory, where the best paying jobs such as the moulder were relatively few.

People often ask if there were many immigrants working in the Schwamb Mill. The accident reports do not answer this question, but the employee names (Fitzpatrick, Comeau, Gonsalves, Sarnie, Pierce, Tanck, Boudreaux, Camarano, etc.) suggest an ethnically diverse workplace typical of the Boston area in  the early twentieth century. Further research in the US Census records would provide a definitive answer.

“What were the jobs at the Mill?”

The reports demanded more job classification than the Schwambs themselves imposed on their workforce. As Peter Jerardi, who worked at the Mill in the early 1920s, recalled, a worker generally took a frame order from start to finish, cutting the four segments, squaring and grooving the ends, gluing the segments together, and finally turning the oval frame. We know from later production reports, broken down by worker and task, that certain jobs such as selecting the wood to be used or setting up the four cutter heads of the straight moulding machine, required a particular worker.

But as the Schwambs described things on the accident reports, here are the skilled and unskilled jobs one might be doing at the Mill in the 1920s.

The reports also tell us what different workers earned both before and after the accident occurred – important information since the law forbid reducing a worker’s pay because of an accident.

“What were the most common accidents?”

In a woodworking shop like the Schwamb Mill, interaction with machines was nearly always by hand. Hands were the part of the body most likely to be hurt in the course of sawing, moulding, or turning wood.

Here’s what the reports tell us about the nature of the workers’ injuries in the 1920s.

Apart from the machines, causes of injury included deep splinters (always with a possibility of blood poisoning in the 1920s) or burns in the steam boiler room across Mill Lane. Then as now, falling or hurting one’s back at work also counted as a workplace injury. Getting emery from the grinding wheel in one’s eye (neglecting to wear safety glasses) required a doctor to rinse the eye out, but the worker might be back on the job the same day.  A back injury or broken bone might keep one out of work for weeks.

Most machines had guards of some kind, either as part of the purchased machine or manufactured by the Schwambs themselves. But machine guards, even safety glasses which existed, could be dispensed with if they were inconvenient or obstructed a view of the work. The questions “Is there a guard for this machine?” and “Was the guard in place at the time of the accident?” drew a variety of answers from Louis Schwamb as he completed the reports. Indeed, he was not usually a witness to the accident and had to record it as related by the injured worker.

Some unusual accidents:

  • “Typewriter slide is disappearing type on heavy springs. The machine was off the slide man was putting slide in place it slammed up catching finger.” Fractured bone, third finger, left hand.
  • “Operator was turning an oval frame his tool caught breaking frame and a piece flew off and struck him on side of nose.” Slight cut on side of nose.
  • “Had just closed a high window in wall and in getting to floor had walked along a pile of lumber striking head against pulley.” Scalp slight cut one stitch.

“Do any workers stand out?”

Some of the workers do, for different reasons.

  • Tony Johnson, in his late twenties, managed to have eleven accidents (that we know of) in eight years: jambed finger, wrenched back, finger cuts, emery in his eye. Some accidents were minor, and others more serious.
  • John Skoglund of Cambridge was hurt on his first day. Using the shaper, a machine like a router, without the hold-down guard in place and secure, he grazed his hand on the cutter head, requiring 3-4 stitches.
  • Gordon Richardson (who banged his head on a pulley, described above) was hurt three months after starting work at the Mill in 1927. He was still working for the company when it closed in 1969 and remained on in the early years of the Old Schwamb Mill under Patricia Fitzmaurice.

What was the Mill itself like in the 1920s?

Each report includes a short description of the accident, usually written by Louis Schwamb, the shop foreman. He often captured incidental aspects of work at the Mill that add to our understanding of the manufacturing process and Mill layout in those days.

For instance, we know that workers used the shaper, in addition to the face plate lathes, to mould the edge of oval frames.

Incidental facts captured by Louis in his descriptions appear in red in these examples:

These accident reports from the 1915-1930 period are the only ones we are aware of, though accidents certainly occurred throughout the Mill’s history as a business. The Massachusetts Industrial Accident Board issued annual reports that summarized accident data and provided details about cases that went to court; however, we know of no repository for specific accident reports of the kind we have in the archives.

There is some evidence that, even before the 1911 workers’ compensation law, the Mill covered the cost of accidents through insurance, as we know the Theodore Schwamb Company did. In addition, for the period from 1872 to 1904, we can turn to the Arlington Advocate, which reported accidents wherever they might occur – in the home, on the streets, or in the workplace. Several accidents connected with the various Schwamb mills in town are described there.

Until we have time and resources to research individual worker’s lives through census and other records, these reports of mishaps in the factory provide the most personal and detailed glimpses of the people who spent their working hours in the Schwamb Mill.

Dermot Whittaker, Schwamb Mill Preservation Trust, Inc.

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Old Schwamb Mill
17 Mill Lane
Arlington, MA 01730

We look forward to opening soon.

One thought on “What We Can Learn from the Mill’s Accident Reports

  1. edhg says:

    It would be interesting to go into the Grantee/Grantor records for the names given and see what deeds are available. Likewise the Probated wills.

    Those are all online and could be pulled up digitally; I use them for my 17th-18th c. work.

    It’s often possible to find out, of the ones living in the area, when they bought their homes (or inherited them), who else lived with them, and sometimes where their families came from, especially if a probated document needed to be sent to others to sign off on (I once located 5 unknown members of a family who had variously moved from Concord to Denver, Los Angeles, and Halifax, NS, and we had no idea they existed until the division of the land into 1/6ths was required and notification documented…!)

    Anyway, very interesting!

    Also, my dad was a safety director for his firm (installed electrical trunk lines in the 1960s-70s) and had those kinds of files and documents as well. He used to talk to us about safety (to practice his presentations to the line workers) and show us the training films they used. So it does indeed give you a window into the details of the work, etc.

    Best–DLa Rue

    Donna La Rue, Independent Scholar, writing on “Dance and Sens Cathedral, Did They or Didn’t They?” and “The Place of the Arts in the Life of Faith” / http://independent.academia.edu/DonnaLaRue

    a.k.a Mistress Elizabeth de la Rue ocbground.wordpress.com (@dwyndlelee)

    82 Cleveland St Arlington MA 02474 Skype: ihsdlrue Email: ihsdlrue @ gmail.com

    *pax in terra choragibus ballo non bello parare *

    Like

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