“Bread & Roses”…

The early 1900’s saw many labor strikes in America in the effort to attain better working conditions, particularly in industrial manufacturing. It was perfectly common for men, women and children to spend their lives working ten-twelve hour days, seven days a week. In textile mills of the day, as well as the carpet factories of places such as India today, children are especially prized as laborers for their small hands and ability to work the looms. One of the most famous strikes took place in Lawrence, Massachusetts in 1912. Working conditions were deplorable, and citizens of fifty-two different nations were living within a nine-mile radius of the mill. When the mill randomly cut the weekly pay by thirty-two cents, somewhere around 30,000 workers protested for over nine weeks, using the opportunity for their union to fight for a reduction in the work hours for women and children from twelve to ten hours daily (http://www.history.com/news/the-strike-that-shook-america-100-years-ago). The mill staunchly refused any compromise, and the battle raged on. It came to be known as one that shook America, and most famously, as the “Bread and Roses” strike, for the song the payless workers would sing as they came to protest each day (James Oppenheim).

As we go marching, marching

In the beauty of the day

A million darkened kitchens

A thousand mill lofts grey

Are touched with all the radiance

That a sudden sun discloses

For the people hear us singing

Bread and roses, bread and roses

As we go marching, marching

We battle too for men

For they are women’s children

And we mother them again

Our lives shall not be sweated

From birth until life closes

Hearts starve as well as bodies

Give us bread, but give us roses

It’s words always give me chills. It wasn’t until the U.S. federal government became involved that the union demands were met, but the victory was for many workers yet to come, and it served to awaken America’s social consciousness. This song is so essential historically, but also so meaning to me personally. It touches on the need for beauty in our lives. Work is a blessing in so many ways, and can bring a sense of purpose and connection. We must also cultivate our awareness and attention to the beauty in our lives. There’s always more present than we can conceive, always enough to feed our souls. “Our lives will not be sweated from birth until life closes. Hearts starve as well as bodies; give us bread, but give us roses.”

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