Working and Living Conditions

At the turn of the 20th century, the French-Canadian working class made up 80 percent of Hull’s population. For working-class women, there were three options for survival: they could join a convent, they could get married or they could work in a factory. Women’s factory work was mainly limited to jobs that required dexterity and concentration, such as working in a textile or match factory. In Hull, Quebec, working in a match factory meant working at the E. B. Eddy match company.

Who were the match factory workers? Most of them were French-Canadian women. They tended to be young and unmarried, some as young as 12 or 13 years old, who would do factory work until they married. Others were widows or, like Donalda Charron, spinsters. They worked 48-hour weeks. They were sometimes paid by piece (a certain amount for every box of matches produced, for example) but, by 1921, most were earning an hourly wage of $0.15 to $0.37. (Compare this with the wage for skilled bricklayers, who earned about $0.80 an hour.) They were grossly underpaid, even by the standards of the time.

These female match workers, known as allumettières, worked dipping matches in phosphorus (which was what made the matches combustible), or putting them in boxes. The work was dangerous for two reasons. First, inhalation of the phosphorus fumes could lead to maxillary necrosis, a condition where the bones of the jaw decayed and died. It was known as “phossy jaw,” and is one of the reasons that various countries began banning the use of white phosphorus in the making of matches as early as the 1870s. Canada banned white phosphorus matches in 1914.

But the ban on white phosphorus did not resolve the second danger, which was fire. Early matches were “strike-anywhere,” which meant that any friction could cause them to ignite. There were sometimes as many as 20 small fires a day with which to contend. The women often worked with pails of water nearby so they could put out small fires before they spread. Many match workers were injured or died in factory fires. Scarred hands and faces were very common.

But even those who escaped “phossy jaw” and dangerous fires had a difficult life. Illness was common and often deadly. Hull’s working poor subsisted on a diet of bread and fat. The working class were so poorly paid that they could not afford luxuries like fruits and vegetables. This poor nutrition, combined with long hours and cold winters, put people at risk for diseases like measles, influenza and scarlet fever. Poor sanitary conditions led to cholera and typhoid.
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