Saturday, October 12, 2019

Honoring Joseph Osias Gagnon (1896-1912)

Preface: I truly wish I had a pic of Osias to go with this honor.  In some ways, I would like my writing to not only recognize the short life of this young man and the contributions he gave to the Dana Warp Mill in Westbrook, Maine, and to his family, but also to have this commentary give homage to so many other children who paid the price of their childhood and some with their lives during the industrial era.

Osias was baptized Joseph Osias Gagnon on August 9, 1896, in Saint-Malo d’Auckland in Quebec province, Canada.  He was a brother to Bernadette Gagnon.

J. Osias Gagnon, 1896 baptism
Here is an image of the baptism record in French from the Drouin Collection on Shown in the image is the signature of his father, Pierre Gagnon

The municipality of Saint-Malo with a 2016 population of 475 is located about 100 miles from Montreal and very near to the border of northern New Hampshire. The largest community within a 50-mile radius is Sherbrooke. 

Saint-Malo d'Auckland, Quebec

The family immigrated to Westbrook, Maine in 1892 according to the 1910 US Census and lived on Brown Street. In the census data, Osias, at age 13, is shown to be attending school and able to read and write English.  Four of his five older siblings though were documented on the census form as working in the cotton mill; their ages were between 14-21. 

Dana Warp Mill as it looked in 1895
Osias would enter the factory workforce the following year when he joined his siblings at the Dana Warp Mill, but this is a story with a tragic ending. On March 2, 1912, at the age of fifteen, Osias’s arm got caught in a machine and it caused a fatal injury.  His occupation listed on the Maine State death record is “mill hand” and the details of it and as described in a published newspaper article were grim. 

I did some research on child labor during the industrial revolution. In 1900, 18 percent of all American workers were under the age of 16, and there were 25,000 to 35,000 deaths and 1 million injuries that occurred that year from work in industrial jobs, many of those victims would have been children. The website,, provides a good summary of what was involved for children working in factories before legislation was enacted to change child labor practices: 

Children were useful as laborers because their size allowed them to move in small spaces in factories and mines where adults couldn’t fit, children were easier to manage and control and perhaps most importantly, children could be paid less than adults.

Image Source:

The summary went on to explain that the dynamic for working children was that their wages were used to support their families as was surely the case for Osias. An obvious and sad consequence of working children was the loss of education. It took the Great Depression to effect real change for the working children of the industrial age. Americans wanted all available jobs to go to adults rather than children.  The view of the nation suddenly refocused on children getting a primary education.

The work of Lewis Hine, sociologist, and photographer, exposed the underside of child labor in America. His photographs showed the appalling working conditions of children in industrial jobs. 

Lewis Hine photograph

It wasn’t until 1936 when the Fair Labor Standards Act was passed that the minimum age of 16 and was set. This act also restricted the number of hours that children could work.

Of course, progressive laws against child labor came far too late for Osias to enjoy a normal childhood and live on into adulthood. Whatever one’s politics, there comes a time when federal regulations change our society for the better, such as in the case of protecting individuals’ rights. There may be no better example of a law that effected child safety on such a huge scale as the one passed in 1936 that changed child labor forever.


Population statistic and scenic image of Saint-Malo:  Child Labor statistics: and  Dana Warp Mill image from 1895:  Lewis Hine image and others: