We (Still) Want Bread, and Roses Too

The centennial of the famous strike in Lawrence, Mass., reminds us that our fight is about more than economics.
Lawrence strike, photo by wikipedia

Massachusetts militiamen with fixed bayonets surround a parade of striking textile workers during the "bread and Roses" strike, which began January 11, 1912.

A century ago, in what has come to be known as the Bread and Roses strike, a group of women walked out of the Lawrence, Mass., textile mill where they worked.

A new law had limited their working hours to 54 a week, two fewer than most of them had been working—so far, so good. But mill owners responded by decreasing the women's weekly wage, a difference that would cost their already hungry families a loaf of bread a day.

So the women demanded a pay raise of two cents an hour—from 16 to 18 cents—so they could buy enough bread; they also demanded extra pay for overtime work. During the following days and weeks, thousands of workers, most of them immigrant women, joined them in the streets.

Somehow, we came to believe we could live on “bread” alone; the roses are left to wilt.

The women faced clubs, bayonets, and frequent arrests. Many were hauled off to jail, children in tow. One, Annie LoPizzo, was shot and killed by the police. Still, they kept up the strike for two months, while national sympathy for their cause grew. Finally, in March, the mill owners conceded to their demands.

Today, the strike is remembered for a slogan that the women were reported to have used on their banners: “We want bread, and roses, too!” The slogan comes from a 1911 poem by James Oppenheim. A hundred years later, its words might speak for the Occupy movement:

No more the drudge and idler, ten that toil where one reposes[…]
Hearts starve as well as bodies, give us bread but give us roses.

Hearts starve as well as bodies. It’s an old message from our religious traditions, and one the Bread and Roses centennial should call back to our attention.

100 Years Later, Still Fighting for the Roses

For half a century after the Lawrence strike, American workers fought not only for higher wages—bread—but also for shorter hours—roses. In other words, time for non-material sources of happiness—time to stop and smell the roses. Time for families, for nature, for learning, for friends and community, for reflection, rest and regeneration, time to meet non-material needs that deliver happiness, time to love and be loved.

Yet somehow, we came to believe we could live on “bread” alone; the roses are left to wilt.
One reason is that, in our current measurements of economic success, “bread” is really all that matters. Our prime economic indicator—the Gross Domestic Product (GDP)—measures only what we spend on final products and services. If it is bought and sold it counts; otherwise, it’s worth nothing.

If you crash your expensive SUV and end up with insurance, legal, medical and repair bills, congratulations—you’ve added to the GDP. Walk in the woods, volunteer, garden, or spend time with your kids, and you’ve done nothing economically useful, despite the happiness these activities provide. Robert Kennedy got it right back in 1968, when he observed that the Gross National Product “measures, in short, everything but that which makes life worthwhile.”

We need new measurements to tell us whether our economic activities are beneficial or harmful.  Around the world, new indicators of success are emerging that measure the roses as well as the bread. From France to Bhutan to the United Kingdom to Maryland, governments are testing ways to measure how their policies affect well-being.

One such measurement is a survey of well-being recently introduced by The Happiness Initiative, a Seattle non-profit. The survey measures how well we are doing in ten areas of life: material well-being; physical health; mental health; access to arts, education, recreation and culture; time balance; confidence in government; environmental quality; work satisfaction; community participation and social support. The modern science of happiness has shown that each of these conditions plays an important role in our well-being. When you take the survey, you get a score comparing you to the American average. Communities—from Seattle to Eau Claire, Wisconsin and Nevada City, California—are now using the survey to assess their well-being, as are nearly a hundred colleges and universities.

The centennial of the Lawrence textile strike reminds us to value the roses and count them.  It calls us to be gardeners of happiness, awakening our senses and watering the roses again.

John de Graaf author


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  • The way we design our communities plays a huge role in how we experience our lives.