Indiana Magazine of History Image
Indiana Magazine of History Logo

Fort Wayne's Industrial Girls


Purpose of Lesson: This lesson (1) introduces students to Fort Wayne, Indiana's ‘industrial girls' and (2) allows students to examine and analyze the political, economic and social aspects of these women's working lives between 1900 and 1920

Objectives: At the end of this lesson, students should be able to:

  • Identify and describe Fort Wayne, Indiana's 'industrial girls'
  • Describe working life in some of Fort Wayne's mills and factories
  • Identify and describe some of the physical hazards the 'industrial girls' faced
  • Identify and describe some of the economic and social challenges the 'industrial girls' faced
  • Identify and describe some of the ways Fort Wayne's 'factory girls' resisted the inequality

Correlation to Indiana Standards (for Eighth Grade Social Studies)

Social Studies

8.5.6 Give examples of the changing role of women in the northern, southern, and western parts of the United States in the mid-nineteenth century, and examine possible causes for these changes.

8.4.11 Compare and contrast job skills needed in different time periods of United States history, and use a variety of information resources to research jobs and careers.

8.1.18 Analyze different interests and points of view of individuals and groups involved in the abolitionist, feminist and social reform movements and in sectional conflicts.

8.1.31 Examine the causes of the problems in the past, and evaluate solutions chosen as well as possible alternative courses of actions. Consider the information available at the time, the interests of those affected by the decision and the consequences of each course of action.

Historical and Methodological Context for the Lesson:

This lesson is built around “'Industrial Girls' in an Early Twentieth Century Boomtown: Traditions and Change in Fort Wayne, Indiana, 1900-1920,” by Peggy Seigel, which appeared in the IMH (Vol. XCIX, number 3) in September 2003. [This article is included with this lesson plan as a PDF and may be distributed as an in-class reading or as a homework assignment. The lesson activities, as well, might be used as a whole unit, or divided and extended into separate investigations.]

At the beginning of the Progressive Era, one in every five females over the age of ten was employed, and over a million of these females worked in factories. By 1920, the number of working women increased to one in every four, with a significant number joining the ranks of industrial workers. These factory women were young and single, or women who had become widows, divorced or abandoned. Seventy-five percent of them were foreign born or daughters of immigrants. Paid less than men, women workers in mills and factories faced long hours, sweatshop conditions and treatment that spoke of their inferior cultural status. In response to these hardships, many industrial women acted collectively to challenge the inequality of the workplace and of society. (Paraphrased from Dorothy Schneider. American Women in the Progressive Era, 1900-1920. (New York, 1993)).

It is against this national picture that the experiences of Fort Wayne's ‘industrial girls' should be compared. As Peggy Seigel's article reveals, in many cases they were typical of the nation; in other ways, their experiences were made somewhat unique by Fort Wayne 's particular political, industrial and demographic traits.


Lesson Activities:

A. Who They Were

As a discussion, using specifics from Seigel's article, have students describe Fort Wayne's 'industrial girls'

Use the following article excerpts as a guide:

“Like so many other female factory workers in Indiana and nationwide, the women and girls in Fort Wayne worked in low-paying, gender-specific jobs, often under hazardous conditions. However, three elements distinguished this group of female factory workers from a more typical American mode. First, Indiana labor laws were some of the least progressive in the country in the early twentieth century. Second, Fort Wayne and its manufacturing industries grew very rapidly in this period, and third, Fort Wayne , which attracted few African Americans and immigrants, had an unusually large native-born population, about 60 percent of whom shared German heritage. This group also shared strong prejudices against married women working in factories. These factors produced a situation in which most female factory workers were young and unmarried and were expected by their families and their employers to be in the workforce only for a few years.” (p. 231-232)

“While there were many similarities between Fort Wayne female factory workers and their sisters in Indiana and the nation, the Fort Wayne group seems to have contained fewer married women and more girls under sixteen than was usual elsewhere. The city's industrialists hired young, unmarried females who could be regarded as low-paid temporary workers. Both of these practices, however, were rarely articulated and were thus largely hidden from public record.” (p. 240)….” With few exceptions, Fort Wayne's married women were employed only when they were acting as sole providers for their families, or, during the war years, substituting for their soldier-husbands.” (p. 240)


B. Where They Worked

As a discussion, using specifics from Seigel's article, have students identify and describe some of the factories and mills populated by ‘industrial girls'

Use the photographs included on the sidebar and the following excerpts from the article as a guide:

“Although women in the early twentieth century were at work manufacturing a wide variety of products, they were most heavily concentrated in so-called ‘female' industries which included the making of textiles, hosiery, garments, shoes, and cigars, and the processing of food.” (p. 233)

Fort Wayne was heavily dependent upon female industrial workers because of its well-established position as a strategic railroad hub and manufacturing center. (p. 235)

Wayne Knitting Mills (Photo #1 on sidebar)

Boss Manufacturing Company (maker of industrial gloves)

Perfection Biscuit Company (Photo #2 on sidebar)

General Electric Works

Dudlo Manufacturing Company (a pioneer magnet-wire producer)


C. What They Did

As a discussion, using specifics from Seigel's article, have students describe some of the tasks ‘industrial girls' performed in these factories

Use the following article excerpts as a guide:

Division of Labor by gender:

“At Wayne Knitting Mills, the most highly skilled workers were male knitters, who were trained though apprenticeship programs to operate the complex machines that knit the legs of stockings. Male workers also took charge of the dyeing process. Most of the other jobs in the factory were semiskilled or unskilled and were performed by girls or women. Three or four ‘transfer girls' put the stocking tops onto quills that were then used to transfer the stockings onto simpler circular knitting machines, also operated by women. These operators, known as ‘loopers', sewed together the foot of the stocking. Other female workers shaped stockings by a process called ‘boarding.' Women and girls also worked as sorters, inspectors, folders, finishers and menders.” (p. 237)

“Like female workers at Wayne Knitting, girls and women at GE and the Edison Lamp Works were not permitted to train as apprentices. Often working in all-female departments, they did ‘light manufacturing work' involving repetition and requiring dexterity and patience. At GE women operated ‘simple' machines such as drill presses, automatic screw machines, and grinders. At the Edison works, women and girls were employed in the manufacture of incandescent lamps, ‘winding and insulating coils, gauging and inspecting light parts and assembling small devices.” (p. 237)


D. What They Faced

As a discussion, using specifics from Seigel's article, have students list and describe some of the hardships the ‘industrial girls' faced

Use the following list and article excerpts as a guide:

1. Low wages/Long Hours

“According to the 1914 Census, the average annual income for factory workers (most of whom were male) in Indiana was $636. Female garment workers in ten Indiana cities earned little more than half that amount: approximately $358 per year. (p. 236) Fort Wayne 's garment workers were especially poorly paid, earning only $344 annually.

Justification for lower wages for women:

“Women were neither skilled in nor adapted to the use of heavy machinery, and they they were unwilling to commit to long training programs or long-term employment. Women and girls, they argued, were in the workforce either for a short period before marrying or during a temporary financial setback for their families. The male leaders of craft unions feared that higher pay for female workers threatened their own wages….” (p. 233)

“A typical workday lasted at least 10 hours, with five full workdays a week and a half-day on Saturday.” (p. 242)


2. Health Risks

“These female dominated industries were some of the most dangerous workplaces in early twentieth century America….Operatives typically ate poorly, lacked sunshine and fresh air, and worked an average day of ten hours in a five-and-a-half-day week. Such a lifestyle, combined with unhealthy conditions in the factories, resulted in a national death rate for female workers that was twice that of women who stayed at home and more than a third higher than that of all men. Tuberculosis was commonplace. Female workers in textile mills suffered from brown lung disease at an alarming rate. Moreover, few precautions were taken to prevent injuries from machinery and to protect workers from fire.” (p. 233)

“…Women working in woolen and cotton mills in Indianapolis were obliged to stand all day surrounded by the ‘deafening roar of looms and machinery.' Poor ventilation was a common problem.” (p. 237)

“Newspapers occasionally reported injuries inside the knitting mills or the General Electric Works caused by machines that lacked protective guards and by the absence of precautions around burning metals. Women were particularly at risk because their long skirts and hair could become caught in machinery.” (p. 239)

“The factories had inadequate fire escapes and workrooms overcrowded with girls ‘handling highly inflammable materials'” (p. 238)

“Many employees of the Wayne Knitting Mills had no easy, safe access to the company's main buildings, located off West Main Street. At noon and at the end of the workday hundreds of mill employees climbed between freight trains on the tracks of the Nickle Plate and Lake Erie and Western Railroads (located just to the south and east of the main factory buildings) Employees getting on and off crowded streetcars on Main Street to the south of the factory risked being crushed by other workers or being caught between cars.” (p. 238)

3. Gender Bias

Local prejudices existed against the employment of married women.

“Most residents, male and female, of the city and surrounding rural areas believed that a married woman injured her family by entering the workplace. These beliefs reflected the German heritage of more than half of the area's residents and were consistent with the views of both German-born and German-American industrial workers in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Chicago….Specific company policies reinforced Fort Wayne's bias against women in the factory workforce: General Electric automatically terminated from their payrolls women who were married, and this rule spread widely to other companies.” (p. 240)



“During the early years of the twentieth century, Fort Wayne industrialists had been able to draw upon the pool of local female workers to meet their demands. But as production expanded and the need for employees grew, businessmen were confronted with “the girl problem,” a shortage of female workers. Too few immigrants were settling in Fort Wayne to form a new labor source. When local factories needed to attract more workers from the outlying small towns and rural areas, however, they did not offer “girl” workers increased salaries, better working conditions or greater opportunities. Instead, they attempted to create a “happy industrial life” for their female employees with facilities and programs that reinforced the traditional premise that girls belonged in the workforce only temporarily before marriage. Backed by YWCA programs and factory-supported clubs, industrialists and community leaders created a workplace environment strongly resistant to change.” (p. 242)

“Fort Wayne industrialists took advantage of local nativist values as they promoted and institutionalized a paternalistic work community. If parents were to send their daughters off to the city, they needed to be assured that the girls would be properly cared for.

[Because most female factory workers were expected by their families and their employers to be in the workforce only for a few years…] “City leaders and business owners assumed that factory girls needed not better wages and working conditions, but safe, home-like lodgings and wholesome activities for their leisure hours.” (p. 232)

“The YWCA built genteel dormitories and sponsored clubs for young female workers. Through company welfare programs, businessmen encouraged these industrial clubs in a rush to assure parents that they daughters would remain genteel and marriageable while earning and hourly wage. Factory owners also supported internal programs such as beauty contests, picnics, bowling leagues, and dance competitions.” (p. 232)

Wayne Knitting opened a three-story dormitory and clubhouse modeled after facilities in knitting mills in the Northeast. Widely hailed as “a notable step in advance in the industrial sphere” and “the only building of its sort in the state, perhaps in the middle west,” the dormitory accommodated one hundred out-of-town girls in single and double rooms at a weekly price of $3.50 for room and board. The cafeteria in the clubhouse, open to all employees, could seat 500 at a time. A large lounge was a place for residents to meet with male visitors. Recreation facilities, including five bowling alleys in the basement, were open to the women twice a week.”……The detailed descriptions of the dormitory and clubhouse in the local newspapers created an image of middle-class gentility. In the ‘large and brilliantly lighted' sitting room, ‘a young rose cheeked girl in a pretty pink dress sat at the player piano listening to the merry tune she was playing with evident enjoyment. Above the piano was a large oil painting one would look for only in an art gallery.' The room featured ‘comfortable chairs of mission style' and long tables covered with magazines.” (p. 245)

“In 1911, the local YWCA also stepped forward to supply housing for women workers by launching a fund drive to build a $100,000 Y home. Since its founding in 1894, the Y had provided working girls from outside the city ‘the privilege of home and protection.'” (p. 245)

“The Y hired a secretary to organize clubs that offered safe activities to girls who might otherwise be led astray, as social reformers feared, by ‘droves of black guards' who haunted downtown streets. Since its leaders agreed with the widely shared belief that young women were only in the workforce temporarily, the Y's programs did not focus on workplace conditions or trade union involvement, in decided contrast to the work of settlement houses in Chicago and elsewhere. Instead weekly classes taught basketry, sewing, gymnastics, and cooking. Business-like meetings introduced members to some aspects of the pervasive middle-class woman's club culture.” (p. 246)


E. How they coped:

As a discussion, using specifics from Seigel's article, have students list and describe some of the factors that affected the ‘industrial girls' experiences.

Use the following list and article excerpts as a guide:

1. World War I

“Soon after the United States entered World War I in April 1917, an additional ten million women joined the nations' workforce. When female workers became more valuable as a consequence of the war, limitations linked to marital status and gender roles became less important. Working hours and conditions also improved, largely because of Women in Industry Service (WIS), a policy-setting board established by the federal government to safeguard women in war related industries.” (p. 248)

“The record of the General Electric Works provides the most complete picture of how female workers in Fort Wayne took on new roles as a result of wartime conditions. Peak employment during the war was 4,535, and while records of employees' gender are incomplete, it can be assumed that women workers filled in for many of the 748 male employees who left for military service. Quickly adjusting to wartime demands, GE became a major government contractor. Its local factories turned out generators and transformers and power motors for driving factories, rock drills for coal mines, bomb-releasing mechanisms for dropping high explosives from bombing planes, a wide variety of generators for surveillance and military radios, and equipment used for battleships, including the New Mexico …..GE began to place girls in a variety of new factory roles. As preparation for supervisory positions, twenty young women were trained in a course that covered the general working of the plant, the inter-relations of departments, and the methods of accounting. In the summer of 1918 GE offered a six-week intensive class in mechanical drawing to carefully selected applicants. Advertisements stressed that ‘a great number of women' had already proven that they had ‘as much latent mechanical ability as men' but had been discouraged from pursuing related fields. Here was a way to show their abilities and their patriotism.” (p. 248)


2. Union Activity/Strikes

“Shortly before the armistice, in October 1918, local union leaders organized women from many other city factories, stressing ‘equal rights and privileges.' ‘No longer will the factory girls of the city be forced to accept any terms of employment that are given to them,' commented a Fort Wayne newspaper writing covering a large meeting in the Federation of Labor Hall, attended by girls representing nearly every craft in the city.” (p. 250)

“During the winter of 1918-1919, the union's strength did appear to be revolutionary. On December 19, 2,200 GE employees (75 percent of the local workforce, including many women) and all members of the electrical workers and machinists' unions went on strike to protest the firing of thirty workers at the GE plant in Erie , Pennsylvania . In what became the first general strike to affect all GE plants, the Fort Wayne workers showed solidarity with nearly 18,000 fellow union members in Erie , and in Schenectady and Pittsfield , NY . In Fort Wayne , however, it was the level of participation by women strikers and the support they received from fellow male unionists that seemed revolutionary. The unanimous backing of the Fort Wayne Federation of Labor for the GE strikers was also unprecedented. For two weeks, women joined the pickets around the plants and forfeited their regular pay. Because their union was too recently formed to have a strike benefit fund, funds were collected ‘to take care of the girls…really in need' from sales of cards printed with the words “I believe in industrial Democracy, and am helping the GE strikers.' In early January, at a meeting of GE and Edison Lamp electrical workers, women were elected as union officers and as delegates to both the local trade council and an international convention. When the National War Labor Board settled the Erie strike by ordering strikers back to work, the Fort Wayne union voted unanimously to comply. Negotiations continued as union representatives demanded the reinstatement of the fired Erie employees, but female and male members of the local electrical and machinist unions were able to take pride in having made a stand for a lofty purpose.” (p. 251)



Have students use the internet (or the library) to compare the Fort Wayne ‘industrial girls' experiences and activism to events in other areas:

1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Fire

Lawrence and Patterson strikes

“While little record has survived of the participation of the female strikers, their involvement in itself suggests a new consciousness. Unlike the nationally publicized strikes of 1912 and 1913 at textile and silk mills in the East (notably Lawrence, Massachusetts and Patterson, New Jersey ) outside union organizers do not appear to have recruited female workers at the Wayne Knitting Mills. Moreover, since women had little prior involvement with local craft unions, joining the strike meant not only financial loss and social ostracism but also taking a new public role.” (p. 252)

Follow these links for a description of the Paterson (NJ) mills and mill workers' experiences or a discussion of the Lawrence (MA) events.