Lewis Hine caption: Slovenly kitchen living-room of family of Alfred Benoit, 191 N. Front St., a sweeper in Bennett Mill; has been there for two months. Mother works in the same mill; father is a canvasser (and shiftless). Said, “I’m de father of 11 children.” The baby in the girl’s arms is one they are keeping for another woman. The mother would not get in the photo. Alfred had bad eyes this morning (influenza apparently) and mop[p]ing them with a filthy rag. One of the little ones had the same trouble. Another had a boil on his face. Location: New Bedford, Massachusetts, January 1912.
“He was a jolly guy. He was a checker champion. He would go to Canada and play in tournaments there, representing the New Bedford Driving Club. That was the highlight of his life when he did that. He used to bowl on the greens in the park. He had a lot of friends. He used to hang around with Mayor (Francis) Lawler, who was a lot younger than him. They used to go to the dog track together.” -Romeo Pothier, son-in-law of Alfred Benoit
“In one of the pictures, the caption said he had an eye affliction and that he was wiping it with a dirty cloth. I felt so bad for him. It made me think of him a lot, when I hadn’t thought about him or reminisced about him as much for a long time. My father said that everyone in that neighborhood was like that back then. But the house that my grandfather’s father wound up living in later, on Nash Road, was one that he built and owned.” -Nancy McKenna, granddaughter of Alfred Benoit
Lewis Hine was trained as a social worker before he took a job as a teacher, and then a photographer. At the turn of the 20th century, social workers and public health advocates were concerned with issues such as personal hygiene, disease prevention, food-borne illnesses, child care and even moral values. Those concerns were expressed bluntly in Hine’s caption. Note words such as “slovenly” and “shiftless.” They seem oddly judgmental now, and perhaps an inappropriate characterization of the Benoit family, but looking back, living conditions in the mostly triple-decker tenements of New Bedford and other industrial cities were far from ideal. Nevertheless, in the three other photos of Alfred, his eyes look much better, and he appears well dressed.
Lewis Hine caption: Alfred Beniot, 191 North St. Sweeper in Bennett Mill, in spinning room #2 has been there two months; seemed to be 11 yrs. old. Alfred recorded as 12 years old. Location: New Bedford, Massachusetts, January 1912.
In the late 1800s, New Bedford had already become one the leading textile manufacturing cities in Massachusetts. Between 1900 and 1910, eleven more factories were built, making the city one of the largest producers of cotton yarns and textiles in the country. By 1920, there were 70 mills, which employed more than 40,000 workers, an amazing 35% of the population. But in the 1920s, textile manufacturing in the South grew rapidly because of lower production costs, mostly because most raw cotton was grown there, and because the companies paid lower wages. This led to a huge textile workers strike in New Bedford in 1928, when manufacturers instituted a 10% wage cut.
The strike lasted six months, and helped to spearhead the relocation of many of the mills to the Carolinas and Georgia. During WWII, textile manufacturing in the city made a comeback, due to a demand from the armed forces. And there was also a growth in the production of clothing, an industry that still prospers today in New Bedford. -compiled from information on the City of New Bedford website
Lewis Hine caption: Alfred Beniot, 191 North St. Sweeper in Bennett Mill, in spinning room #2 has been there two months; seemed to be 11 yrs. old. Alfred recorded as 12 years old. Location: New Bedford, Massachusetts.
When Alfred was photographed in 1912, a lot was about to happen in the city over the next several months. There was the prospect of a serious strike that would affect his father’s livelihood. And at the end of April, President Taft visited the city, an event that Alfred and his family most likely witnessed.
“The possibility of a strike of thousands of cotton mill operatives in New Bedford was faced by the New Bedford Manufacturers’ Association meeting to consider the demands of the mill workers for an advance of ten per cent in wages. The workers have refused to accept an increase of five per cent granted by the manufacturers. ‘A ten per cent increase or a strike’ is the ultimatum of the labor leaders. Approximately 30,000 persons are employed in the local mills. The meeting of the Manufacturers’ Association was set for 2:30 o’clock this afternoon.” –Boston Evening Transcript, March 28, 1912
“Although strikes are still in progress in various Massachusetts textile centers, the largest one at Lowell, the past week has brought about a noticeable improvement in conditions. Several of the smaller labor difficulties have been settled and a strike 30,000 cotton mill operatives at New Bedford was averted by the action of the manufacturers in announcing the doubling of the original five per cent advance in wages.” –New York Times, April 1, 1912
“President Taft’s tour began at Attleboro at 8:10 A. M., and ended at Lowell at 6:40 P. M. At first his cold interfered with his speech, but as the day grew older his hoarseness grew less marked and his voice carried far into the crowds. Everywhere he spoke the crowds were enormous. Factories and schools suspended, and it is estimated that he spoke to 500,000 persons. At Fall River, for five miles, the Presidential party, which included Secretary Nagel and Secretary Hilles, was cheered by crowds that numbered fully 30,000. It remained, however, for New Bedford to give the President the greatest reception. More than 60,000 people thronged the streets and packed the Common where he spoke, and 10,000 American flags were waved at him.” -excerpted from New York Times article published April 30, 1912
Alfred Benoit was born on September 3, 1900, in Waltham, Massachusetts. He was one of nine children, three who died before 1910. His parents were Archille Benoit (often called Archie) and Valentine Cormier Benoit. Census information and city directories seem to indicate that Archille came to the US from Canada about 1895, settled first in New Bedford, and worked as a weaver. He married Valentine about 1897, probably in Fall River, Mass., where he was living and working then. By 1899, he was living in Waltham. In 1906 and 1907, they had two children born in Canada, so they probably moved back there for several years. Their next child was born in New Bedford in 1909.
Alfred worked in the New Bedford mills from at least 1912 until he retired. For most of that time, he was a loom fixer. He married Nora (maiden name unknown) about 1923, and they had seven children. According to the census, they were renting a house in 1930 at 67 Clark Street. Alfred’s mother died about 1925, and his father died in the 1950s. Alfred Benoit died in New Bedford in March of 1966, at the age of 65. His wife Nora died in 1971. I was able to contact two descendants after locating Alfred’s obituary.
Edited interview with Romeo Pothier (RP), son-in-law of Alfred Benoit. Interview conducted by Joe Manning (JM) on November 22, 2009.
JM: When were you born?
JM: Who did you marry in this family?
RP: I married Alfred’s daughter, Frances. She was born in 1923. She passed away about three years ago.
JM: Did you recognize the people in the pictures?
RP: I recognized my father-in-law, Alfred. He looked just like he did when he was older and I knew him.
JM: What did you think of the picture of the family in the house? Mr. Hine was trying to show that families that had child laborers were having difficulties.
RP: They had it pretty rough in those days. Archie, the father, worked in the mills. Alfred worked in the mills. They used to live down on North Front Street. Sometime later, they had a house up on Brook Street, about where the old Arlan’s Department Store used to be. Before they had that, Archibald had a piece of land up there and he sold it and built a house on Nash Road.
JM: What did Alfred do for a living when he grew up?
RP: He was a loom fixer in the mills. Then he retired, and that was it. He died at age 65.
JM: How many children did he have?
JM: What was his wife’s name?
JM: Did she have a job?
RP: No. She stayed at home.
JM: Where did they live?
RP: They lived on Clark St, then Clifford St, and then Princeton St. That’s where Alfred died.
JM: Did he ever own a house?
JM: Was he well off, or was he always struggling?
RP: He was always struggling. Alfred and all of his brothers never had any money. They all worked in the mills. All the sisters married and stayed home, except Lena, who moved to Florida and married a doctor. She had a few bucks, I guess, but she was the only one who did. She passed away about four years ago.
JM: When did Archie die?
RP: At least 50 years ago. He was in his eighties. His wife’s name was Valentine. She was only 49 when she died.
JM: What was Alfred like?
RP: He was a jolly guy. He was a checker champion. He would go to Canada and play in tournaments there, representing the New Bedford Driving Club. That was the highlight of his life when he did that. He used to bowl on the greens in the park. He had a lot of friends. He used to hang around with Mayor (Francis) Lawler, who was a lot younger than him. They used to go to the dog track together.
JM: How tall was he?
RP: About 5′ 7″. His wife was only about 4′ 11″, and weighed about 90 pounds.
JM: Was she French?
RP: No, Irish. She was born in Stonington, Connecticut.
JM: Are any of Alfred’s children still living?
RP: No, they’re all gone.
JM: Did his children have better jobs than he did?
RP: They all had average jobs. One of them was a foreman at Pratt & Whitney, in Hartford (Connecticut). None of them went to college.
JM: How far did Alfred get in school?
RP: About the fifth grade. He quit early to go to work, but he could read and write.
JM: Did Alfred speak French?
RP: Yes, but not fluently.
JM: Did he ever tell you about working as a child?
RP: He told me once, ‘Ever since I can remember, I’ve been working.’
Edited interview with Nancy McKenna, granddaughter of Alfred Benoit. Interview conducted by Joe Manning (JM) on May 11, 2010.
JM: When were you born?
JM: Did you live close to your grandfather?
Nancy: Yes. My mother was the oldest of his children. When I was born, he lived on the first floor, and we lived on the second floor. That was on Clifford Street. When I was about five, we moved to the next street over. My parents bought a single-family home. A couple of years later, my grandparents moved to the same street. Both my parents were working, so my grandparents were my babysitters. But my grandfather used to work the 2 to 10 shift, so when I got home from school, he would be gone.
I just loved being around him. He was jolly man. We lived adjacent to a park. He used to do lawn bowling, and he would take the grandchildren. And every Saturday, we went to the Buttonwood Park Zoo. He didn’t drive, so one of my uncles would take us. One of my grandfather’s sons, William, lived in Connecticut. He had a boat, and my grandfather liked to fish. My grandparents would take me there for a couple of weeks every summer.
He was diagnosed with liver problems when he was in his early sixties. I was a sophomore in high school when he died. After he was diagnosed, he was in the hospital for a while, and my grandmother came and stayed with us. After he got out of the hospital, I remember that he started giving me a lot of compliments, which he hadn’t done prior to that. He would says things like, ‘Oh, that’s a pretty dress,’ or ‘Oh, you look nice.’ I wonder if at that point, he knew that his time was going to be cut short.
JM: How did you feel when you found out that your grandfather was in some famous photographs, and that he was poor and working in a mill as a little boy?
Nancy: It made me very sad. In one of the pictures, the caption said he had an eye affliction and that he was wiping it with a dirty cloth. I felt so bad for him. It made me think of him a lot, when I hadn’t thought about him or reminisced about him as much for a long time. I talked to my father about it, and he told me: ‘You have to consider the times. That wasn’t abnormal back then. The majority of people were poor, but they didn’t really realize it because everyone they knew was poor.’ He said that they were probably better off than they would have been if they had stayed in Canada. It wasn’t until after World War II that most people realized that they could achieve more. Now, if someone is poor, it’s more of a stigma than it was then.
JM: What do you do for a living?
Nancy: I’m a teacher.
JM: Were you the first person in your grandfather’s family to graduate from college?
Nancy: Yes, I was. One of my daughters is a history teacher, and she wants to incorporate this whole story of my grandfather into her classes. Sometimes I think of my grandparents and what they would think if they saw my children now, and how far this family has come. I think they would be amazed.
My grandfather was a man who truly enjoyed life. He loved his family. He wasn’t an overachiever. He enjoyed what he had. I don’t think he had a lot of drive. In his family, some of his children didn’t tend to have a lot of drive either. But the siblings that my mother was closest to tended to have drive and had nicer homes, and they would chuckle about my grandfather’s lifestyle. On the other hand, he had an awful lot of interests. Fishing was big on his list, as was lawn bowling and checker tournaments. My father was the first man on the block to have a TV, and my grandfather would come over every Friday night to watch the fights.
There was a little barroom called the Brown Jug. My husband’s cousin owns it now. It’s in the north end of New Bedford. My grandfather spent a lot of time there. One of the former mayors once owned it, and he was one of my grandfather’s best friends. They went to many events together. My grandfather had a very enjoyable life. He was a loom fixer in the mills, and my father said that was a very good job to have. If he decided in June that he was going to take two months off, he could comfortably leave that position and find a new position in September without much effort. Obviously, he was good at what he did, and he took advantage of that. I can remember my parents chuckling about how he seemed to get laid off at the most convenient times.
JM: The picture of your grandfather and his family in the tenement is pretty sad.
Nancy: My father said that everyone in that neighborhood was like that back then. But the house that my grandfather’s father wound up living in later, on Nash Road, was one that he built and owned. It was a two-family, but it was beautiful. But my grandfather never owned a house. That didn’t fit into his lifestyle. He never wanted too much responsibility. At least, that’s what everybody in his family said. Having responsibility wasn’t his main goal.
JM: I wonder what his wife thought about that.
Nancy: She was just a good little Irish woman who was very happy with her husband and children, and didn’t aspire to a whole lot in life. Of course, this is looking back. I’m sure they had issues, like everyone does, but they were happy.
Alfred J. Benoit: 1900 – 1966
The Benoit family could not locate any photos of Alfred. Thus, the Lewis Hine photos appear to be the only ones that exist.
*Story published in 2010.