Fall River in 1911 – But if Lizzie Borden Could See it Today

07 Jun


In celebration of Fall River’s Cotton Bicentennial, The Fall River Historical Society hosts a lecture series on Fall River’s textile industry. The location is Bristol Community College, Building B, Room 201.

June 15, 6:30 pm, The Story of Fall River’s 1811 Mill,
Jay J. Lambert.

June 22, 6:30 pm, Terrorism Rides The Rails Into Fall River, Philip T. Silvia Jr., PhD.

June 29, 6:30 pm, The Cotton Centennial: The Biggest Party That Fall River Ever Threw, Robert Kitchen.


In 1911, Lizzie Borden, a half century old, had been separated from her sister, Emma, for five years.  They never reconciled and Lizzie lived with her servants the remainder of her life up on “The Hill”.  She had the money to buy the things that allowed her to live in total comfort, if not to buy herself into the society to which she had once so much wanted to belong.

It was in 1911 that Lizzie had an elaborate garage built with a “turntable” platform for her car, its own gas pump, and quarters for her chauffeur. It was the year Irving Berlin wrote “Alexander’s Ragtime Band”, and it was the year of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company factory fire on New York’s lower east side, claiming 147 lives.  Let’s bring into focus what it was like in 1911:

  • The average life expectancy for men was 47 years.
  • Fuel for this car was sold in drug stores only.
  • Only 14 percent of the homes had a bathtub.
  • Only 8 percent of the homes had a telephone.
  • There were only 8,000 cars and only 144 miles of paved roads.
  • The maximum speed limit in most cities was 10 mph.
  • The tallest structure in the world was the Eiffel Tower !
  • The average US wage in 1910 was 22 cents per hour.
  • The average US worker made between $200 and $400 per year ..
  • A competent accountant could expect to earn $2000 per year,
  • A dentist $2,500 per year, a veterinarian between $1,500 and $4,000 per year, and a mechanical engineer about $5,000 per year.
  • More than 95 percent of all births took place at home .
  • Ninety percent of all Doctors had NO COLLEGE EDUCATION!
  • (Instead, they attended so-called medical schools, many of which were condemned in the press AND the government as “substandard.”)
  • Sugar cost four cents a pound.
  • Eggs were fourteen cents a dozen.
  • Coffee was fifteen cents a pound.
  • Most women only washed their hair once a month, and used Borax or egg yolks for shampoo.
  • Canada passed a law that prohibited poor people from entering into their country for any reason.
  • The Five leading causes of death were:

1. Pneumonia and influenza
2. Tuberculosis
3. Diarrhea
4. Heart disease
5. Stroke

  • The American flag had 45 stars…
  • The population of Las Vegas , Nevada , was only 30!!!
  • Crossword puzzles, canned beer, and iced tea hadn’t been invented yet.
  • There was neither a Mother’s Day nor a Father’s Day.
  • Two out of every 10 adults couldn’t read or write and only 6 percent of all Americans had graduated from high school.
  • Marijuana, heroin, and morphine were all available over the counter at the local corner drugstores. (Back then pharmacists said, “Heroin clears the complexion, gives buoyancy to the mind, Regulates the stomach and bowels, and is, in fact, a perfect guardian of health!”)
  • Eighteen percent of households had at least one full-time servant or domestic help .
    There were about 230 reported murders in the whole USA.

In 1911, Fall River held the biggest event in its entire history:  The first mill was built in 1811, and although it had not been an initial success, after one hundred years, Fall River had become – and still was – “Cotton King”, preeminent producer of cotton textiles.  So Fall River threw itself a 5 day party to celebrate.   To grasp how big and major this was, please read about it  HERE.

Leontine Lincoln (white beard) escorts President Taft

In 1911, the founding families still controlled the cotton industry and its bi-product businesses which were the economic engine of the town.  These same families also controlled all the shipping, railroads, the town’s transportation systems, banking, and city government itself.  The “Hill” people still ruled, and the lesser fortunate, the mill workers, worked long hours at their jobs – but thanks to the unions (and no thanks to the mill owners) those hours weren’t as long as they used to be.  Between June 19 and 24th, everyone shared in this mega-celebration and all the festivities. In reading William Moniz’ piece linked above, one can almost see an 8 year old Victoria Lincoln (author of A Private Disgrace) dressed in her finest “Pollyanna” style dress, holding hands and skipping along with her grandfather, Leontine Lincoln. Oh it was a grand time.  Chests heaved high with civic pride. Radiant smiles beneath bonnets and bowlers.  Never before had Fall River had such an event – nor would it ever again.

Was Lizzie drawn by all the hoopla that week to attend some of the events?  Did she just read about it sequestered inside “Maplecroft”?   Or did she go to see Spencer Borden’s Arabian horses at North Wattuppa Pond?  Did she leave town so as not to be disturbed by it all? Maybe we’ll find the answers “that book” the one we’ve have such an exasperatingly long wait for: Parallel Lives.

Now, in the year 2011, one hundred years after the Centennial, Fall River will celebrate its Bicentennial.  A new Cotton Queen will be crowned and rein for the next 100 years.  But, sadly, 2011 Fall River is as different from 1911 Fall River as bengaline silk is to polyester.  Long gone are the thriving mills, the bustling downtown district, horse driven carriages, the bellowing whistles of the great, grand steamers, and the expansive gardens bordering the beautifully maintained stately Victorians.

Remaining descendents of the founding families are no more a force of power as is the underground flow of the Quequechan River.  The Portuguese and French Canadians dominate in business and local politics.  Schools are failing, unemployment is among the highest in the country, drugs and assaults are commonplace, potholes and trash dot the landscape.  Neighborhoods are splintered; the cohesive sense of community is a thin thread compared to the tightly woven fabric it once was. Instead of growth in population and its economy, Fall River has lost 30,000 of its residents over the past 100 years. It has lost its industry and lost a workforce that valued hard work over entitlements.  Industrial, demographic and political shifts have changed Fall River forever.  It has not adapted.  It has not re-invented itself.

But the underlying spirit of a city is often slow to relinquish its claim to fame.  And so Fall River will celebrate its Bicentennial this month.  What began in 1811 and reached a pinnacle in 1911 will still be recognized in 2011 through the Mayoral welcoming address, through lectures, and other presentations. However, this time, a sitting U.S. President will not be taking part; the gathered crowds will not approach anywhere near 50,000;  and the parade will not be as long.  But for those who still care – for those who organize this event – Fall River’s history shall not be denied.  Its history of becoming the nation’s leader in textile manufacturing will be trumpeted to a new generation who cares less for what was as for what “now”.  I suspect little of any mention will be made of Lizzie Borden during the festivities.   Just was well.  If Lizzie Borden could see Fall River today, she would not be attending.  She would likely consider most events, except the lectures, garish and cheap.  She would not approve of the young men in white tank tops and khaki pants hanging so shockingly low.  She would not approve of the 16 year old girls with tattoos pushing baby strollers.  But mostly she would be filled with sorrow, weeping then sobbing of what had become of Fall River.  She would remember 1911 Fall River.  The Fall River of her time.

She would find no reason to celebrate this June.  No reason at all.


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6 responses to “Fall River in 1911 – But if Lizzie Borden Could See it Today

  1. Barbara Morrissey

    June 9, 2011 at 4:27 PM

    This is a lovely article about a Fall River not often remembered. As a child of the early 1950’s, Fall River was still a vibrant city. Main St. was always busy with commerce., ladies hurried about shopping, families went to movies, and City Hall and Granite Block were still there. All I need do is shut my eyes and it all floods back. So thank you Shelley, this article brings me a mixture of longing and sadness.

    • phayemuss

      June 12, 2011 at 10:29 AM

      I’m not Shelley. I’m Faye. But that’s okay. We’re all 3 seniors and I know how that gets! 🙂

      • Al Deston

        June 24, 2011 at 9:15 AM

        What a great commentary as we all await the publication of ‘Parallel Lives’. Will be in touch soon.

  2. Bryan Kress

    January 5, 2012 at 9:04 AM

    I enjoyed reading your article and couldn’t help but draw comparisons to my hometown of St. Joseph, Missouri. Like Fall River we are often reluctant to embrace (and capitalize on) the very things that made us great. In St Joseph’s case: The Pony Express, Westward Expansion, Jessie James (killed here) etc. I’m not sure why there’s such a detachment to actual historical events in trade for mock history. Branson Missouri has literally no claim to any historic events, yet over 5 million people visit there annually to patronize its Disneyesque streetscapes and theaters.

    I believe America as a whole would be better off clearing our minds of the trite low-brow tendencies that have pervasively intruded on our consciousness over the past 50 years, but instead, begin to invest our energies back into localization. Until we begin to take pride in our local communities again, we can only expect more of the same degradation of our culture.

    PS has Parallel Lives been publihsed yet?

    • phayemuss

      January 5, 2012 at 11:43 PM

      Indeed it has and I HIGHLY recommend it. Scroll down for reviews and you can buy it from the Fall River Historical Society’s website or this link.

    • phayemuss

      January 17, 2012 at 11:12 PM

      Bryan, sorry for the late reply. Yes, Parallel Lives is published. Order it from the Fall River Historical Society website or just call them up. IT’S A MUST HAVE IF YOU ARE TRULY INTERESTED IN LIZZIE BORDEN!!! 🙂


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