Featured image: “Kissing the shuttle” was the process by which weavers sucked thread through the eye of a shuttle when the pirn (bobbin) was replaced.

ipswich_mills
EBSCO Publishing is at the location of the former Ipswich Hosiery Mill.

The Kiss of Death Story

The following article is from The Kiss of Death Story by Horatio Rogers, M.D. for Old Time New England, Volume LXI, #2, Fall 1970.

“A person of a historical turn of mind living in the Merrimack Valley can hardly escape becoming interested in the early days of the textile industry, which once flourished here. Among the fascinating details bound to come to his attention is the story of the “kiss of death” shuttle. Since the Middle Ages, a boat-shaped object called a shuttle has been used to carry the weft thread across the loom in the process of weaving cloth. This shuttle contained a hollow space for holding the spool of weft thread and a hole or “eye” through which the loose end of the thread emerged.

bobbin_girl
“Bobbin Girl” by Winslow Homer. Thread is wrapped around an empty bobbin, or “pirn.” The bobbins were then loaded into shuttles for installation on the looms.

The weaver, after loading a new pirn wrapped with thread into a shuttle, drew the loose end through the hole with the breath. No one would object to this unsanitary habit so long as weaving took place only in the weaver’s home. Even later on, when professional weavers were brought together in “manufactories” and later still in the weave rooms of textile mills, no one saw reason to object.

ipswich_mills_workers
Young women working at the Ipswich hosiery mill branch in Boston

Certainly no one connected this habit with the observation, made sometime in the nineteenth century, that weavers were dying of what was then called consumption at a higher rate than was the general public. In 1882 the German bacteriologist Robert Koch succeeded in isolating the tubercle bacillus from the sputum of consumptive patients. Tuberculosis became known as “the Great White Plague.” Popular campaigns complete with exhibits were staged against it by Public Health agencies, even in small towns.

mill_girl

Photo above provided by the New England Historical Society. Lewis Hine took this photo in April 1909 of a young at Interlaken Mill, Arkwright, R. I.

At about this time observers remembered about the weavers’ habit of sucking the thread end through the shuttle and realized that by contaminating a number of shuttles a single tuberculous weaver could infect a whole weave room. Owners and superintendents of textile mills quickly made rules against the old practice of sucking through. As might be expected, they were largely ignored. In some mills each weaver was provided with a small metal hook with which to pull the weft end through the shuttle eye. Weavers still preferred the “good old way.”

shuttles
Left to right: (1) Traditional shuttle with hole at end; (2) Early shuttle used in textile mills; (3) Shuttle with hook to pull the thread; (4) “Safety shuttle” with a small ball of yarn to make sucking the shuttle ineffective.

Massachusetts passed Chapter 281 of the Acts of 1911, making the use of the kiss of death shuttle unlawful.

Commonwealth of Massachusetts Acts of 1911, Chapter 281: “An Act to Prohibit the Use of Suction Shuttles in Factories”

Section I. It shall be unlawful for any proprietor of a factory or any officer or agent or other person to require or permit the use of suction shuttles, or any form of shuttle in the use of which any part of the shuttle or any thread is put in the mouth or touched by the lips of the operator. It shall be the duty of the state board of labor and industries to enforce the provisions of this act.

Section 2. Violations of this act shall be punished by a fine of not less than fifty dollars for each offense.

mill_workers
Young women moved from the countryside to work in the textile mills in New England.

It was not until the introduction of the self-threading shuttle that the problem was finally solved. Modern looms now reload the empty shuttle automatically, and modern shuttles re-thread themselves. The “Kiss of Death” shuttle had its day, and take its place with the vast company of solved problems which mark the progress of textile history from the earliest times.”

self-threading-shuttle_top
Patent for Self-threading Shuttle
textile_workers_new_bedford
Textile workers n New Bedford

The Toll of Tuberculosis

An estimated 110,000 Americans died each year from tuberculosis in the 1900’s. In 1921, the publication, “Textile World,” announced a campaign to reduce tuberculosis among factory workers, and included shocking statistics in the United States Department of Labor report, ” Causes of Death by Occupation.” before the age of 35.

Male textile workers: 2,390 deaths of textile mills. 525 died from tuberculosis. In other words, 22 per cent of deaths among male textile workers is due to tuberculosis. 47 per cent of deaths in the age period 25 to 34 years, is from tuberculosis.

Female textile workers: (In the study group of workers who died before age 35) the average at death is 33.9 years, while the age at death of those dying tuberculosis is 26.7. Thirty-six per cent of all deaths among female textile workers is due to tuberculosis. Among these, 50 per cent of all deaths at age period, 15 to 24, is due to tuberculosis. At the ages of 25 to 34, 49 cent of deaths are from tuberculosis.”

Ipswich hosiery
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Further reading:

11 thoughts on ““Kiss of Death” at New England textile mills

  1. My mother worked as a ” twister” in Philadelphia for many years and developed lung cancer from working with angel hair thread. A twister is the woman (all women in those days) who would climb up the looms to the ceiling level and catch the thread and climb down and tie it to the next spool, She would put it in her mouth as climbed down so that she could hold on. http://www.storiesofipswitch.com

  2. Before ventilation and air-cleaning systems, the air in mills was full of small broken fibers shed by the machines and fanned about by their motion. It would make the workers more susceptible to TB, but in any case the fibers would block, inflame or in the case of stiff brittle flax fibers, actually puncture the alveoli, compromising lung function. Very severe in the linen mills of Northern Ireland.

  3. I have two of the shuttle with the hole at the end. Purchased them from an antique store that was cleared out 10 years after the death of the owner. Using them as décor in my sewing room.

  4. Interesting article but it doesn’t exactly prove that the shuttle was the cause of the high incidence of TB in textile workers or that the improved shuttle solved things. TB is spread by breathing in TB germs, not by kissing or sharing utensils or the like.

  5. I knew about the fluff from cotton creating lung problems but I had no idea about shuttles. Thank you for the historical information.

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