Proud to be a Mill Girl

New England industrialists hired thousands of young farm girls to work together in early textile mills—and spawned a host of unintended consequences

In June 1833 President Andrew Jackson, visiting the brand-new factory town of Lowell, Massachusetts, watched as 2,500 female mill workers marched past the balcony of his hotel. The “mile of gals,” as one male observer dubbed the spectacle, bore no resemblance to the ragged, sickly paupers crowding English cotton mills of Manchester and Birmingham. These were proud, well-behaved Yankee farmers’ daughters, nearly all of them in their teens or 20s, wearing white dresses and carrying silk parasols in Old Hickory’s honor.Read more »

Reinventing A River

Its waters drove our first Industrial Revolution—and were poisoned by it. Thoreau believed the Merrimack might not run pure again for thousands of years, but today it is a welcoming pathway through a hundred-mile-long red-brick museum of America’s rise to power.

Matters did not look promising. the path down to the canoe launch onto the Merrimack River was long and steep, thick with roots and brambles and sharply angled. Pushing, pulling, and grunting, we reached a scum-slicked spit of sand just below a wide stretch of renovated nineteenth-century mill buildings in Manchester, New Hampshire, and pushed off.

 
 
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The Working Ladies Of Lowell

Proud and independent, the farm girls of New England helped build an industrial Eden, but its paternalistic innocence was not to last

Dusk fell over the city of Lawrence, Massachusetts, a few minutes before five o’clock on January 10, 1860. In the five-story brick textile factory owned by the Pemberlon Manufacturing Company, lamps began to flicker in the ritual of “lighting-up time.” The big building—nearly three hundred feet long and eighty-five wide—rumbled unceasingly with the noise of its hundreds of machines for turning cotton into cloth: its scutchers and spreaders, carders, drawing frames and speeders; its warpers and dressers; and its power looms for weaving the finished fabric.