By Kenneth J. Souza, Anchor Staff
FALL RIVER, Mass. — Olivia Abdow perks right up when you ask her about working in one of the many mills that once made Fall River the undisputed “textile capital of the world.”
“Fall River is a great little city,” Abdow said. “Some people don’t realize what we have here.”
So when members of the Fall River Historical Society recently approached the 78-year-old about contributing her personal recollections for a project entitled “Women at Work: An Oral History of Working Class Women in Fall River, 1920-1950,” Abdow was only too eager to participate.
“When they first asked me about the history project, I thought: ‘Why not?’” she recently told The Anchor. “I’m proud of this city and I love talking about Fall River.”
Now a permanent resident at Catholic Memorial Home in her native hometown, Abdow worked for 28 years in a mill doing what was known as “piecework” — getting paid for each completed dress she cobbled together.
“My mother-in-law would take care of my son while I went to work,” Abdow recalled. “I didn’t stay idle. My husband didn’t like the idea, but he got used to it.”
“My father kept saying: ‘You should stay home; there’s no need for you to go to work,’” Abdow added. “But I told him I wanted to work, I wanted to be independent.”
Under the guidance and direction of Joyce B. Rodrigues, former high school history teacher and Fall River Historical Society member, the “Women at Work” project aspires to tell the story of the economic impact of women in the workplace during the decades when families and the city underwent the decline of the once-great textile industry — from the early depression era of the 1920s to the Great Depression years of the 1930s.
“I’m a Depression baby and I’m proud of it,” Abdow said. “My mother worked and my father worked. We never had a lot of money, but we lived decently.”
“The overriding theme is the story of the economic transition of Fall River from a major cotton textile industrial center to a major garment and manufacturing site in the space of a generation,” Rodrigues said. “The interviews will also focus on the secondary themes of the deindustrialization of the northeast and the rise of labor unions.”
The project was borne out of Rodrigues’ desire to document these little-known stories before the memories are forever lost.
“I came to the realization that an entire generation of women have been and are rapidly passing on and that their generation and their contributions to their families and to the history in Fall River needed to be documented,” she said. “These stories of working women are the stories of my family and are my history.”
For Rodrigues, the project is also something of a personal labor of love.
“My four aunts and later their daughters (my mother and aunt) all worked in the needle-trades and manufacturing industries in Fall River,” she said. “Their work helped to build Fall River, make its products and its profits.”
Rodrigues claimed their work also made it possible for her to be the first in the family to not only attend B.M.C. Durfee High School but also graduate from Bridgewater State College and later Boston University.
“I want to be able to recognize the contributions of their generation to the history of Fall River by directing this study for the Fall River Historical Society,” she said.
Staring out her second-floor window onto Highland Avenue, it’s as if Abdow was being transported back to more than a half-century ago when she first started working in “the shop,” as she refers to the former garment-manufacturing mill.
“I got married when I was 20, so I must have been about 21,” she said. “In the shop where I was working on the second floor, the clothing ran out for the season. So the floor lady told me she would call me back when there was more work.
“So I climbed down the stairs and I was just about to turn around the corner when somebody opened the door and asked me: ‘What’s the matter? No work?’ I told them they were changing over to the summer stock. She asked me if I wanted a job and I said: ‘Sure.’ And I was hired right there on the spot.”
Abdow would work in that very same first-floor “shop” until her retirement almost three decades later.
“My husband finally said: ‘That’s it!’ He wanted me to stay home,” she said. “He said I had worked enough.”
Just a few doors down on the same level of Catholic Memorial Home, 93-year-old Marita Harnett reminisced about her own days working at Fall River’s S&S Manufacturing Company and the HarLee Mill.
Like Abdow, her story is another important thread that will be stitched into “Women at Work.”
“I think the rule at that time was you could go to work when you were 16, especially during summer vacations when you were out of school,” Harnett said. “I would work with my mother side-by-side on those big power machines. We used to carry our lunch, walk to work, then walk back (home). None of us had cars in those days.”
Taking this stroll down memory lane is something that Harnett seems to relish retelling.
“I like to remember those times — I’m not mystified by it,” she told The Anchor. “I don’t know how important it is; I wasn’t the only one who worked in the mills. But I’m glad to let people know what I know.”
In later years Harnett would transition from textiles to retail — including a stint at the famed Edgar’s Department Store in downtown Fall River — and then she worked at White’s Restaurant in Westport before retiring.
“I waited on tables for weddings and testimonials,” she said. “I met all the big shots there — you know, the Kennedys and Jackie Onassis. I put her coat on when I worked in the checkroom. Those were good years.”
But it’s the memory of working as a “side joiner” — someone who stitched together the two sides of a dress that was already joined at the shoulder — that seems to loom large for her.
“Fall River was known for ‘hills, mills and pork pies,’” Harnett said. “That’s the saying we used to hear growing up.”
In November, Harnett and Abdow were interviewed extensively at the Catholic Memorial Home by John J. Conforti, a retired BMC Durfee High School history teacher and member of the Fall River Historical Society, for “Women at Work.”
Conforti was assisted by fellow Historical Society members Ann Rockett-Sperling, also a retired school teacher, and George D. Kelly, retired history teacher and Vice Principal at BMC Durfee High School.
Hours of their recollections were recorded for posterity and will be woven into the final oral history project.
“I talked for more than an hour,” Harnett said, laughing. “They were supposed to ask me questions, but I just kept rambling on.”
Rodrigues said a preview of “Women at Work” will debut at Bristol Community College this March as part of Women’s History Month, whose theme this year is “Weaving the Stories of Women’s Lives.”
“The theme presents the opportunity to weave women’s stories — individually and collectively — into the essential fabric of our nation’s history,” she said. “How appropriate (is that) for our stories in Fall River?”
Plans are also in the works to have a community exhibit next summer, most likely at Fall River’s Cherry and Webb Gallery, and to collect all the women’s stories into a book to be published by the Fall River Historical Society at a later date.
“Our goal is to reach students, young adults, and the general public,” Rodrigues explained. “The interviews will be indexed, edited, and available in print and online. We will also curate the oral history collection with the assistance of the Fall River Public Library and the Special Collections department at the Carney Library (at) UMass Dartmouth.”
The Fall River Historical Society plans to share the stories and other material collected during the study through both traditional and virtual exhibits and in a publication. In addition, an archive of family papers and photographs will be established for all of the interviewees.
“As the project develops, we’ll be going to radio stations, neighborhood associations, senior centers, the Council on Aging, clubs, churches and nursing homes (like the Catholic Memorial Home) to seek out more interviewees,” Rodrigues added.
The “Women at Work” oral history project is funded, in part, by Mass Humanities, which receives support from Massachusetts Cultural Council and is an affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities.
Anyone with photographs to contribute to “Women at Work” or names of potential interviewees is encouraged to contact Michael Martins at the Fall River Historical Society, 451 Rock Street, Fall River, Mass., or by calling 508-679-1071.