See what a break that was? We got the 40 hour week

Posted by | April 17, 2017

In 1924, when I was 16 years old, I started workin’ at the Appalachian Mill as a cone winder operator. Now on that machine, that was a long machine, it had about 50 spindles on it and I was windin’ threads from a cone up to a spool. There wasn’t a clock in the room. I didn’t have a watch and I didn’t know what time it was. So about 9 o’clock I thought it must be time to go home. That was the longest day that I can ever remember. And I remember, very definitely, eating my lunch at 10:30 because I thought it must be lunchtime. It wasn’t lunchtime.

I still had to continue on until 12, until the whistle blew and most of us carried our lunch. And that was the shortest 30 minutes you’ve ever had, too. We would go outside the mill and sit on the steps and eat our lunch, but that was a long day. And when I started to thinkin’ about that, “From now till 4:30, can I make it, can I make it?” But I did make it and, of course, each day that got a little easier, you know.

Did I know what I was doin’ when I went into the cotton mill? No, I did not. It was just a way to, ah, help earn a living for the family. I had no ideas at all about, ah, ah, union labor. Now I had heard of the railroad strike in 1921, but there were—there wasn’t any railroad workers living around where we were and there was very little in the papers about it. But I didn’t know that they were even in the union. I thought they just quit work. I—I had no way of knowing anything about the labor movement.

It was the last thing in the world that my parents wanted, for us to go into cotton mills. They wanted us to all continue going to school. My mother had visions of us going to university and college and graduatin’ and becoming doctors and lawyers and all that. And that was a dream that was never realized, because of the Depression there and there was no way.

My father couldn’t make a livin’ workin’ in a butcher shop and in food markets around. And he had no other skills either. And my mother had been a—a cook and a dressmaker and they had no way of makin’ a livin’. So it was up to us children to do that. We—we had to. We had to go to work.

boys & girls in Tennessee cotton millBoys and girls at Bemis Cotton Mill in Bemis, TN, 1905.

The—at the Cherokee Spinnin’ Company there in 1933, where I was still working as a winding machine operator, but the end of my machine was near a window and right around the corner from that was the weave shop. And I looked out there one day and here’s all these weavers sittin’ out there in the afternoon—it wasn’t their lunch hour—they were sittin’ out there on a pile of lumber, just sitting there. And we all—I told everbody to run to the window and looked at ‘em and we all wondered, “What are—what are they doing?”

And we still didn’t quite understand it, but I think now that they did gain something from that strike.

Oh, yes. That’s—that’s when we got the 8 hours. When the NRA came in, we got 8 hours then and our wages went up to $12.40 a week.

That was great, but you know what an argument here in Knoxville was and it was in all the newspapers. What—wasn’t that gonna cause a crime wave or wasn’t something gonna happen with those people with all that leisure time on their hands? In fact, a newspaper reporter—I don’t think that’s in my scrapbook anywhere, but a newspaper reporter came out to my house one day to ask, “What do you do with all this leisure time?” We—that was time that we hadn’t had before and they were really afraid of it, that we had that leisure time. And then we were off on Saturday. See what a break that was there? We got the 40-hour week.

Lucille Thornburgh


In 1933, after President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the National Recovery Act, which included provisions that protected the right of workers to organize, Lucille Thornburgh and seven coworkers drew up a union charter. With the help of a local union organizer, they signed up all 603 employees at Cherokee Mills.

In 1934 Cherokee workers joined textile workers across the South in a general strike known as the Uprising of 1934. Knoxville workers remained out for eight weeks, but the strike collapsed following the sudden death of owner Hal Mebane, an event Thornburgh says workers interpreted in religious terms. When the workers returned, Thornburgh was blacklisted, and other mill owners refused to hire her.

In 1995 Thornburgh was featured in the PBS film Uprising of ’34, which documented the general textile strike.

Source: Lucille Thornburgh interview, edited, from WORK ‘N PROGRESS: Lessons in the History of American Labor at Archives, Library and Information Center, Georgia Institute of Technology

commentary by Connie L. Lester, Mississippi State University/Tennessee Historical Society/Tennessee Encyclopedia

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