Above, "Bobbin Girl" by Winslow Homer.
English novelist Charles Dickens came on a book tour to the United States in 1842. Wherever he traveled, locals showed off to him what they were most proud of in their towns and cities. When he was in the Boston area, he was brought to Lowell to see the factories.
The Industrial Revolution had hit the United States in a profound way. Lowell personified it. On a planned grid of streets that formed a little world, workers housing stood right near the huge four and five-story factories. What amazed Dickens most of all were the workers. Most of them were young, unmarried women.
Mill work had been a different experience for Dickens. The Industrial Revolution started in England, with sometimes devastating effects to the poorer populations. The workers of the mills were far more downtrodden and exploited.
Possibly because of the class system in England where one likely remained in the level of society one was born into, with scant prospects of upward social mobility, the people who worked in the mills were the lowest of the low. They were poor, uneducated. Many had been farmers and peasants whom the Industrial Revolution displaced off the land.
Some workers were from the debtor’s prisons, where people would be sent if they owed money, like an industrial servitude. Some people spent a good part of their lives repaying debt in the workhouses, and whole families were sent to workhouses: mothers, fathers, and children. When he was a young man, Charles Dickens was sent to work in a factory to pay off his father’s debt. It was a bitter memory.
But the mill girls he witnessed in Lowell seemed to stride into those factories as if they wanted to be there. They did.
Lowell was named for Francis Lowell, the member of a very famous, well-established Boston family. Francis Lowell went to England when he was young man to learn about the Industrial Revolution and to bring some ideas to North America.
He established a factory in Waltham outside of Boston, and made some of his own innovations on what he had learned. He built an enormous factory, intending to run the entire process of manufacturing cotton textiles in this factory, under one roof, which had never before been done. The whole process from start to finish, from raw bales of cotton to finished bolt of cloth would be made through a series of about ten or twelve steps. The cotton was carded and spun into the thread and put on the mechanical power looms.
They were not hired for jobs outside the home. They were not even being hired for teachers at this point. A woman could work as a servant, but if she lived in a small community with few wealthy families, even this opportunity was not available. It was an era when women were not allowed to own property, not allowed to inherit property. Women were totally dependent on men, on their fathers and on their brothers for support. If they did not have fathers or brothers who were willing or able to support them, then they needed to be married.
The economic need to be married sometimes was as great as, or greater than, the romantic desire to be married. But in a small village there are a limited number of available young people, and therefore a small marriage pool. A lot of marriages in the late 1700s and early 1800s were arranged, and marriage for some people became a matter as much for mutual survival as for love.
If a woman did not marry and had no male relatives to support her, she had two options: prostitution or the poorhouse. Prostitution obviously led to a very grim and short life. The poorhouse was almost as bleak a prospect.
Though a charitable institution in an age of growing enlightenment, nevertheless the poorhouse carried the stigma of shame. The sick, injured and elderly were sent there, with no families who either could or would take care of them. Widows and children were sent there. Once sent to the poorhouse, one was forgotten. Socially, it was the end of the line.
Francis Lowell offered the young women of New England a way to avoid the poorhouse and to provide for themselves. Hundreds responded. For the first time, someone important in society told them they were of value.
For many of them, this was an opportunity to help out their struggling families. Just by leaving home there is one less mouth to feed. Many young men were sent to school by their sister's factory earnings in this period. Some of the girls saved to send themselves to college. Not only could they contribute to their families and to society, but they could have their own dreams.
Lucy Larcom, one of Lowell’s mill girls who wrote a book about her experience said she went to her first day at the mill “with a light heart…I thought it would be a pleasure to feel that I was not a trouble or a burden or expense to anybody.” She noted of her fellow mill girls, “It brought out in them a dormant strength of character which the world did not previously see, but now fully acknowledged.”
Francis Lowell died in 1817, and never lived to see the city that was named for him. He was part of a group of investors called the Boston Associates. They started an even grander project on the Merrimack River, which was to be an entirely planned city, that they would call Lowell. The Boston Associates were so successful they branched out and tried the experiment in other places, and one of them was the western Massachusetts town of Chicopee.
Another powerful river, another grid of streets, more enormous factories, canals, and mill girls from all over western Massachusetts and up into Vermont worked here at this new mill town. The factory owners here often sent agents in wagons with handbills out into the Berkshires, and up into Vermont to recruit more girls.
The idea of these girls working and living away from home in the early 19th century required lot of cooperation between the girls and the factories and their families, with an understanding of mutual respectability.
Respectability was a quality of the 19th century that contained the condemnation of a societal judgment. In the 19th century even a little scandal could destroy a person. This was much worse for women than it was for men. Respectability for women had cache; it was like money in the bank. It was like insurance. It allowed one a job, a place to live, and social contacts, possibly a good marriage, all of which meant safety from the poorhouse.
The factories guaranteed a respectable environment for the young ladies. They would live in company-sponsored dormitories right by the mill. They would be chaperoned by matrons that the company picked. The landladies were usually older women, often widows, always very respectable. The mill girls would be required to go to church. Some factories actually took the pew fees out of the girls’ pay to make sure that they went to church. The young ladies had a 10 o’clock curfew.
The girls’ respectability reflected on the good name of the employers, and their employers’ good name reflected on the respectability of the girls. The girls usually would sign on for a year. They would be paid once a month, although the early days some companies only paid twice a year. In the meantime, they would charge what they wanted at the local stores and on payday, twice a year they would pay for what they bought.
Their room and board were deducted. The mill girls made about a $1.75 week to $3 week without board. Some jobs in the mills paid better than other. Weaving paid the best. The men earned twice as much as the women. Men performed the heavier work, serviced machinery, and were mechanics. The girls actually made the cloth.
Most of these “girls” ranged in age from 15 years old to 25 years old, though there were some older women as well. Child labor was also a part of the mill experience.
Depending on the size of the room, quite often there were as many as six girls to a room. Three double beds in a room, two girls to bed.
The girls worked at first eleven hours a day, and another eight hours on Saturday, around sixty hours a week. One must be understand of the lack of career opportunities for women at this time to understand how they could view this hard work and this much work as a good opportunity for them. In many ways, it was.
For the first time, in an era when women were not allowed to own property, women were earning their own money and saving it in bank accounts in their own names. They were saving for their futures, providing their own dowries for the time when they hoped to be married. Most of these mills girls worked in the mills only for a period of a few years. They always intended to either be married, or return to their own villages. When they did go home to visit, they often wore new clothes and brought presents.
The United States began to transform itself from a subsistence agricultural economy to an industrial and consumer economy.
Mills girls also changed society. They married on average a bit later than their mothers’ generation, and had fewer children than their mothers’ generation. They chose their own spouses, most often from among men they met in either the mills or the brothers and cousins of the girls they worked and lived with from all over New England. The marriage pool became very large, and away from their parents’ supervision, the girls could decide whom to marry.
What was negative about the mill working experience was also soon apparent. The long hours were arduous. The work could be dangerous. The power looms, the various machines ran constantly, and injuries occurred, occasionally deaths occurred. In the 1850s United States cities led the world in the highest death rate, due mostly to lung diseases and to mill work. In cotton textile mills, the machines would throw off little bits of cotton fiber. The fibers hung in the air like snow, and the workers breathed it in all day. Tuberculosis and other lung diseases were major killers at that time.
In the winter, it got dark early, so to keep the plant running until 6 or 7 o’clock at night, gas lighting was piped into the mills.
The gas lighting in mills, because the open floors were so large, didn't always give off a lot of light. The dim lighting made working around the machinery even more unsafe, and being an open naked jet of flame, it was dangerous, particularly with all the cotton fiber being thrown into the air. It was a fire hazard.
The gas lighting was used from about September to about March and then the gas lighting was turned off for the summer season, usually about March 20th. The mill girls would observe the occasion and looked forward to it. Some factories even had little parties to celebrate the blowing out of the gas lighting. These parties were called blowouts. If you've ever heard of a big party, or even an ad in the newspaper referring to a big sale as a "blowout", that's where we get the term, courtesy of the mill girls.
There was no sick pay; if injured or sick, one did not work for a few days and did not earn any money.
The worst trial for the mill girls was simply a consequence of successful capitalism. The efforts of the Boston Associates were so successful, they were copied all over the northeast, and competition drove prices down. The cotton textile industry reached a plateau.
Factory owners needed to cut costs to increase their profits. The girls were already working eleven hours a day in the 1830s. By the 1850s, they were working thirteen and a half hours a day, plus eight hours on Saturday. They were working over seventy hours a week.
They were given more machines to tend at once, and the machines were sped up, made to go faster, which also increased the danger of the work and increased the girls’ exhaustion.
Salaries were reduced. Average salaries were lower in the 1850s than they were in the 1830s.
Occasional strikes occurred. Most were not successful. Some unions began to form, but they had no political clout. Going out on strike was a dangerous thing for the men because they could lose their jobs and be blacklisted. But for the women, it was even more dangerous because they would lose something else. They would lose their respectability.
Young women did not leave jobs and disobey their employers, and just walk out. Women didn't walk around the street with banners and shouting slogans, drawing attention to themselves. In 19th century sensibilities, one step above being a prostitute.
A labor newspaper called The New York State Mechanic reported in 1843 on an attempted strike in Cabotville, a village which would later be part of the town of Chicopee, because wages had been decreased, and their work increased. The reporter noted of one group of strikers,
“They formed in solemn column, arrayed in their best bibs and tuckers, and marched to the music of fife and drum through the streets, waved their kerchiefs to the girls in the other mills to join them.”
No one joined them. They attempted another demonstration a few days later, but again, no one joined them. They were then fired.
At the time, a paper called the Cabotville Chronicle was run by an editor who supported the industrialist when he first started it. But after a while, he changed his editorial slant and began to write editorials in favor of the factory workers, which he described as slaves, and he described the mill owners as slave-owners, and he wrote very fiery and sometimes flowery reports about these poor downtrodden women. He also started a workers’ newspaper that was kind of like the Lowell Offering where the women factory workers themselves could submit stories and poems. It was called the Olive Leaf and Factory Girl’s Repository. This experiment lasted only a couple of years, as he was shut down and the factory owners practically chased him out of town. He was replaced by a new newspaper called the Chicopee Journal, which said absolutely nothing controversial about the factories.
The Cabotville Chronicle reported that the mills were “Forcing poor girls from their quiet homes, to become their tools, and like the southern slaves, to give up her life and liberty to the heartless tyrants and taskmasters.”
While the Chicopee Journal published a poem on its front page called “Song of the Factory Girls.”
Oh, sing me a song of the factory girl!
So merry and glad and free!
The bloom on her cheeks, of health how it speaks,
Oh, a happy creature is she.”
The end of this era of the Yankee mill girl was beginning in the 1850s, and ended by the Civil War. In the 1850s, three circumstances occurred that made this era come to a close, and the first was the influx of Irish immigrants. The Irish came from a country which had just suffered a very long famine.
The mills began to hire more Irish, until their population in the mills was greater than the Yankees. In the early days in the 1830s, Irish were not hired in mills because they were not respectable. The Irish man could dig canals or actually build factories, but not work in them. “No Irish Need Apply” signs were posted outside mill hiring offices. When some Irish women were first hired in Lowell, they were segregated.
By the 1850s the mill owners were willing to hire the Irish. They could be hired for less money.
The second occurrence which helped to bring to an end the era of the Yankee mill girl was the Panic of 1857. This financial crash didn't last very long, but was quite severe, especially New England. Factories closed, stores and businesses closed. Some factories when on half time, laid off workers, and cut wages.
The third circumstance to bring an end to the era of the Yankee mill girl was the Civil War. At war with the South, cotton became very difficult for northern factories to obtain. Many cotton mills reduced operations until hostilities ended. Meanwhile, the Yankee mill girl got married, went back to her village, or moved west as a pioneer, and otherwise walked off into history.
The mill girls would probably like to be remembered for being both adventurous and industrious, and for being ambitious in a time when ambition was not supposed to be ladylike.
Being 19th Century women, perhaps they would most want to be remembered for being very respectable.