Proud to be a Mill Girl

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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. The novel sight of so many elegant young women in one place, parading in formation like an invincible distaff army, nearly moved the gallant old general to tears.

In the 1830s and 1840s, the so-called mill girls who flocked to the mushrooming textile cities of New England were widely taken as one of the wonders of the New World. European travel writers invariably put Lowell on their list of must-visits, alongside an Indian encampment, a slave plantation, and Niagara Falls. Up close, the mill girls were impressive specimens of what seemed a new kind of woman. “Few British gentlemen,” wrote Scottish visitor Patrick Shirreff, after standing among a throng of young women in bonnets pouring from a Lowell cotton mill in 1835, “need have been ashamed of leading any one of them to a tea-party.”

That same year, a spirited 10-year-old named Harriet Hanson started work in one of the huge Lowell mills. As a doffer—a worker who removed filled bobbins and replaced them with empty ones—she had little time for tea parties. Harriet and her co-workers were factory girls, after all, often regarded as “so many ants that cannot be distinguished one from another,” she wrote, “whose condition was fixed, and who must continue to spin and to weave to the end of their natural existence.” Harriet herself was feisty and outspoken. At 11 she led a walkout on her factory floor. At 15 she was paying for her own drawing, dancing, and German lessons after work. This was no ant. Nor were her co-workers.

One of the ironies of the American Industrial Revolution is that the entrepreneurs who built the nation’s first large factories—the textile mills of New England—sought out independent, hard-working farm girls to work in them. Having done so, the men were continually surprised by the spirit and grit of the work force they had assembled. These young women were not only the country’s first large-scale industrial labor force but also the biggest gatherings yet of women without men. By bringing thousands of unmarried, unaccompanied women together and putting money in their pockets, the Boston Brahmins who bankrolled New England’s mills inadvertently triggered powerful new social forces that rippled across the country. The women of the mills undercut the male-dominated status quo of 19th-century America and helped fuel changes that would flower in the 20th.

By 1910, when Lewis Hine published his indelible photograph of a grimy 12-year-old factory worker standing barefoot in a Vermont mill, the New England textile industry had long ago stopped being a tourist mecca. Two years later—precisely 100 years ago this winter—the bloody “Bread and Roses” strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts, doomed the industry’s image once and for all. It was easy to forget how cotton had once seemed like a godsend to rural New England, and especially to the region’s young women.

 

Traditionally women sewed their families’ clothing from “homespun,” which they made with spinning wheels and hand looms. By the early 1800s, New England farms had a surplus of females. Stay-at-home women were seen as extras mouths to feed, thus the negative cast of the word “spinster.” When small commercial spinning mills began to appear in New England at this time, many rural women welcomed the chance for paid work. Other people, however—having heard chilling stories of England’s grim cotton mills and the diseased, hollow-eyed wretches inside them—suspected that factories were somehow corrupting, both physically and morally. Many rural New Englanders sided with Thomas Jefferson: the United States was better off as a nation of land-owning, self-sufficient farmers. If machine-made goods were needed, let them be imported.

Following the trade disruptions caused by the War of 1812, a group of Boston-area financiers created a new kind of factory. On a small river just outside Boston, the men built the country’s first integrated cotton mill, filled with mechanized looms based on English designs: bales of raw cotton entered the building, rolls of cloth emerged. Unlike England’s “dark Satanic Mills” (in William Blake’s memorable phrase), this one ran on water power, not coal. A national magazine, Niles’ Weekly Register, hailed it as “the pride of America.”

The most sweeping innovation pioneered by the group’s leader, Francis Cabot Lowell, was the hiring of healthy young women as mill workers. Lowell provided a decent wage and housing in handsome, well-supervised brick dormitories. This, too, contrasted sharply with the English practice, which involved employing children, orphans, and the indigent, as well as using “whipping rooms” to keep the recalcitrant in line.