James Oppenheim, “Bread and Roses”

“Bread and Roses” is about the Lawrence, Massachusetts, textile mill strike of 1912, right? Everybody knows that.
Well, as it turns out, the association is a bit more complicated. Don’t you just love history?

The “Bread and Roses” Strike

The 1912 “Bread and Roses Strike” in Lawrence, Massachusetts united mostly women textile workers from more than 40 different nationalities. Led by the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), it spread rapidly through the town, growing to include more than twenty thousand workers and nearly every mill in Lawrence. The strike lasted more than two months, through a brutal winter.

In late January, when a bystander was killed during a protest, IWW organizers Joseph Ettor and Arturo Giovannitti were arrested on charges of being accessories to the murder.
So IWW leaders Bill Haywood and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn came to Lawrence to lead the strike. Together they organized a unique type of strike relief, evacuating hundreds of the strikers’ hungry children to sympathetic families in New York, New Jersey, and Vermont. The move drew widespread sympathy, especially after police stopped a further exodus, leading to violence at the Lawrence train station.

Congressional hearings followed, resulting in exposure of shocking conditions in the Lawrence mills and calls for investigation of the “wool trust.” Mill owners soon decided to settle the strike, giving workers in Lawrence and throughout New England raises of up to 20 percent.

Rose Schneiderman (a brief digression)

The phrase “bread and roses” itself originated from a line in a speech given by the labor organizer, socialist and suffragette Rose Schneiderman (who already knew way too much of shocking working conditions in the textile industry); “The worker must have bread, but she must have roses, too.” It’s part of a good speech, but personally I like this story:

A state legislator warned in 1912: “Get women into the arena of politics with its alliances and distressing contests – the delicacy is gone, the charm is gone, and you emasculize women.” Schneiderman replied:

“We have women working in the foundries, stripped to the waist, if you please, because of the heat. Yet the Senator says nothing about these women losing their charm. They have got to retain their charm and delicacy and work in foundries. Of course, you know the reason they are employed in foundries is that they are cheaper and work longer hours than men. Women in the laundries, for instance, stand for 13 or 14 hours in the terrible steam and heat with their hands in hot starch. Surely these women won’t lose any more of their beauty and charm by putting a ballot in a ballot box once a year than they are likely to lose standing in foundries or laundries all year round. There is no harder contest than the contest for bread, let me tell you that.”

Back to the Story

To return to the subject at hand, the “bread and roses” line inspired James Oppenheim to write the poem “Bread and Roses”, published circa 1912 with the attribution line “‘Bread for all, and Roses, too’—a slogan of the women in the West,” The poem has been translated into several languages and has been set to music by at least three different composers. The most widely used tune was composed in 1974 by Mimi Farina, Joan Baez’s younger sister. [fn- Bread & Roses foundation] Farina wrote a tune designed for solidarity singing, and trade union choirs the world over love it. The video below, a clip from the movie “Pride”, shows this beautifully:

The poem is commonly associated with the successful textile strike in Lawrence because Upton Sinclair attributed the origins of the phrase to it in a 1916 book, and the association stuck. Writers do that sort of thing.

Nevertheless, the theme of the slogan/poem/song, the workers right to “sun and life and art”, as Schneiderman put it, is one that recurs throughout labour history, and it does originate with the worker protagonists of Lawrence, who carried banners and placards with the slogan. To my mind, it will always beautifully express why we need a revolution. Judge for yourself.

Bread and Roses, by James Oppenheim

As we go marching, marching, in the beauty of the day
A million darkened kitchens, a thousand mill lofts gray
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 come marching, marching, we battle too, for men,
For they are in the struggle and together we shall win.
Our days shall not be sweated from birth until life closes,
Hearts starve as well as bodies, give us bread, but give us roses.

As we come marching, marching, un-numbered women dead
Go crying through our singing their ancient call for bread,
Small art and love and beauty their trudging spirits knew
Yes, it is bread we. fight for, but we fight for roses, too.

As we go marching, marching, we’re standing proud and tall.
The rising of the women means the rising of us all.
No more the drudge and idler, ten that toil where one reposes,
But a sharing of life’s glories, bread and roses, bread and roses.

For a French translation and some other cool information, see this link: http://unionsong.com/u159.html, or this one: http://www.iww.org/content/bread-and-roses-hundred-years

2 responses to “James Oppenheim, “Bread and Roses”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s