Kiss of death in New England textile mills

“Kiss of Death” at New England textile mills

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.

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” 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.

Young women moved from the countryside to work in the cotton mills.

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.”

loom 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.

Textile 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.”

Textile workers in New Bedford
Textile workers n New Bedford

The Toll of Tuberculosis

An estimated 110,000 Americans died each year from tuberculosis in the 1900s. 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.”

Further reading:

Willowdale community, Topsfield Rd., Ipswich and Hamilton The Willowdale Mill - In 1829, Dr. Thomas Manning of Ipswich constructed a 6' tall dam and mill on the Ipswich River along Topsfield Rd. Workers were provided housing a the large stone house. In 1884 the mill building burned and much of the stone walls for the mill building collapsed. … Continue reading The Willowdale Mill
The Proximity Fuze: How Ipswich women helped win WW II - The former Ipswich Mills, now owned by EBSCO, was the site of one of the most closely guarded secrets of the Second World War.… Continue reading The Proximity Fuze: How Ipswich women helped win WW II
Isinglass Mill in Ipswich MA The Mill Road Bridge and the Isinglass Factory - The triple stone arch Warner Bridge that connects Mill Rd. in Ipswich to Highland St. in Hamilton was constructed in 1829, and rebuilt in 1856. The isinglass mill sat on the downstream Ipswich side of the bridge.… Continue reading The Mill Road Bridge and the Isinglass Factory
letter from an Ipswich mill girl The mill girl’s letter: “I can make you blush.” -

Dear Sir,

I received the ribbon you sent me by mail, and I thank you ever so much for it. I was asking Asa Howe who you were, and he told me. He also said you were a great man for girls. How is it you never holler at me and my chums? I think you're bashful. If you wasn't, you would of handed me the ribbon instead of sending it by mail.

Continue reading The mill girl’s letter: “I can make you blush.”
The Jewel Mill and Stone Arch Bridge - In 1642, a dam and fulling mill were built on the Mill River in Rowley. The stone arch bridge on this property was constructed between 1850 and 1870.… Continue reading The Jewel Mill and Stone Arch Bridge
Ipswich Riverwalk Mural The Ipswich Riverwalk mural - In 2005 EBSCO Publishing commissioned artist Alan Pearsall to paint a 2,700-square-foot mural on one of the old mill buildings occupied by the company in Ipswich. The mural is the centerpiece of the town's Riverwalk. … Continue reading The Ipswich Riverwalk mural
The Ipswich River circa 1900 The Ipswich River - The 35-mile Ipswich River flows into the Atlantic Ocean at Ipswich Bay. The Ipswich River Water Association works to protect the river and its watershed. Foote Brothers Canoes on Topsfield Rd provides rentals and shuttle service from April to October.… Continue reading The Ipswich River
Hayes Hotel, Depot Square, Ipswich MA The Hayes Hotel - The Hayes Hotel was constructed in 1842 as a woolen goods factory. Converted to a tavern and hotel in 1885, the building was being used as a rooming house when it burned in 1969 with a loss of life.… Continue reading The Hayes Hotel
The Greek Hotel, corner of Market and Saltonstall Streets in Ipswich, photo taken 1913 The Greek Hotel - In 1868, the Ipswich Mills built a "fine mansion" for the use of its superintendent. By 1910 the building had become a tenement upstairs and coffee shop downstairs. The house was replaced by a succession of three diners, but the lot is now a parking lot.… Continue reading The Greek Hotel
Burke Heel Factory, Ipswich MA The Burke Heel Factory and Canney Lumber Fire, June 19, 1933 - The factory at Brown Square burned after volatile glues burst into flames. In the adjoining lot was the Canney Lumber Co. where the building lumber were destroyed. The smaller brick building on the right survived and is now the Ipswich Ale Brewery.… Continue reading The Burke Heel Factory and Canney Lumber Fire, June 19, 1933
Soffron Brothers Ipswich Clams - Soffron Brothers were the exclusive suppliers of clams to the Howard Johnson chain for 32 years, which featured Ipswich Fried Clams on the menu. The four brothers, Tom, George, Pete and Steve, were the children of Greek immigrants who came to work at the Ipswich mills. Their Ipswich factory was at Brown Square in the building that now houses the Ipswich Ale Brewery.… Continue reading Soffron Brothers Ipswich Clams
Police open fire at the Ipswich Mills Strike, June 10, 1913 - On June 10, 1913, police fired into a crowd of protesting immigrant workers at the Ipswich hosiery mill. A young Greek woman named Nicholetta Paudelopoulou was shot in the head and killed by police. Fifteen persons, including the local leaders of the I.W.W. were taken into custody.… Continue reading Police open fire at the Ipswich Mills Strike, June 10, 1913
Pemberton Mill in Lawrence collapses and burns, killing workers; January 10, 1860 - The collapse of the Pemberton Mill in Lawrence is the worst industrial accident in Massachusetts history. On Tuesday afternoon January 10, 1860, hundreds of men, women, and children were buried alive in the ruins.… Continue reading Pemberton Mill in Lawrence collapses and burns, killing workers; January 10, 1860
Lawrence textile "Bread and Roses" strike marchers January 12, 1912: Lawrence Bread and Roses strike - On January 12, 1912, the labor protest later known as the "Bread and Roses" strike began in Lawrence, MA. Violent methods were used to suppress the protest, but the strikers maintained their solidarity.… Continue reading January 12, 1912: Lawrence Bread and Roses strike
Ipswich during World War II - The end to the Great Depression coincided with America's entry into World War II. The Ipswich Guard was stationed on Old England Rd., and Sylvania employees worked on a top-secret project. Minesweepers and other small craft were produced at Robinson's Boatyard. … Continue reading Ipswich during World War II
Burke Shoe Factory Ipswich Ma Hammatt Street, Brown Square and Farley Brook - Until the second half of the 19th Century, much of the area bounded by Central Street, Washington Street, Mineral Street and Market Street was a wetland with an open sewer known as Farley Brook running through it.… Continue reading Hammatt Street, Brown Square and Farley Brook
Dr. Manning’s windmill - In 1792, Dr. John Manning erected a factory at the corner of South Main and Market Street beside the Choate Bridge and began manufacturing cloth and blankets. On the roof squatted a great octagonal tower, inside of which was a horizontal windmill.… Continue reading Dr. Manning’s windmill
County Street bridge and factories, Ipswich MA County Street, Sawmill Point, and bare hills - The town voted in 1861 to build County Street and its stone arch bridge, connecting Cross and Mill Streets. A Woolen mill, saw mill, blacksmith shop and veneer mill operated near the bridge.… Continue reading County Street, Sawmill Point, and bare hills
Ipswich mill worker immigrant families A town of immigrants - Puritans founded Ipswich during the “Great Migration” of the early 17th Century. Many residents of the town descend from immigrants who arrived in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to work in the mills.… Continue reading A town of immigrants
Old footbridge on the Ipswich River at the downtown dam. A photographic history of the Ipswich Mills Dam - Until 350 years ago, the Ipswich River ran unencumbered from its origin 35 miles upstream, carving its way through a 148-square-mile watershed. Herring, shad, salmon and alewife swam upstream to spawn. Thomas Franklin Waters noted that, “Great shoals of alewives came up the river in the Spring and were seined at night by the light… Continue reading A photographic history of the Ipswich Mills Dam
Anti-Immigrant Know Nothing Party "American Patriot" 1854: Anti-immigrant Know Nothing Party sweeps Massachusetts elections - Prejudice disguised as patriotism repeats itself in American politics. In 1854, the "Know Nothing" American Party formed in opposition to Irish immigration and carried local elections in New England communities. They swept the state of Massachusetts in the fall 1854 elections but were defeated two years later.… Continue reading 1854: Anti-immigrant Know Nothing Party sweeps Massachusetts elections
Kiss of death in New England textile mills “Kiss of Death” at New England textile mills - The weaver, after loading thread into a shuttle, drew the loose end through the hole with her breath. No one connected this habit with the observation that weavers were dying of consumption, known now as tuberculosis.… Continue reading “Kiss of Death” at New England textile mills

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

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

  2. 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.

  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. I worked at Eastland Woolen Mill in maine. I strongly believe that is where I got my breast cancer from. Look at the cancer history up and down the river where a woolen mill once sat.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

    1. My mom worked in a cotton Mill and one way to prevent this was the practice of ” dipping snuff” men and women both did this it caused one to spit regularly ironically the nicotine in snuff caused many to have cancer of mouth tongue and throat. My mom dipped until her death in 2011 . She was 86 years old.

  7. I am a handweaver and use a one type of shuttle that is similar to these mill shuttles. Ours do not have metal trips, and we load this type of shuttle with yarn on a pirn but ours has a release exit whereby the last inches of the yarn is dropped into it from above and tugged through. No breathing is needed to switch pirns/yarns quickly.

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