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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
Massachusetts passed Chapter 281 of the Acts of 1911, making the use of the kiss of death shuttle unlawful.
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.
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.”
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.”
- The Kiss of Death Story, Horation Rogers, M.D. for Old Time New EnglandVolume LXI, #2, Fall 1970.
- Stop Kissing and Steaming!’: Tuberculosis and the Occupational Health Movement in the Massachusetts and Lancashire Cotton Weaving Industries, 1870–1918
- Dark Satanic Mills by Diamond Environmental
- Annual Reports of the Boston Tuberculosis Association
- Ipswich Mills and Brown Stocking Mills
- Ipswich Hosiery
- The Ipswich Hosiery Industry
- Ipswich Mills and Factories
- Fine Thread, Lace and Hosiery
- The Ipswich Mills Strike, 1913
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.”