Proud to be a Mill Girl

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Soon a cotton boom swept New England. Lowell died in 1817, but his partners, led by Nathan Appleton, Patrick Tracy Jackson, and Amos and Abbott Lawrence, built a string of ever bigger mills on powerful rivers far from the cities. With their leafy environs and picturesque waterways, the new mill complexes seemed everything that the English textile cities were not. The largest and grandest cotton metropolis was sited on a turbulent stretch of the Merrimack River where it dropped 32 feet in a single mile. The hamlet of East Chelmsford became Lowell in honor of the late entrepreneur. Within 10 years, the so-called City of Spindles was the second largest city in New England, with three dozen cotton mills, hundreds of boardinghouses, miles of canals, landscaped parks, and 16,000 inhabitants—mostly young and mostly female.

The cotton men promoted their freshly painted factory towns as industrial utopias. For a few thrilling years, the “Lowell system” seemed indeed to have opened the gates to a workers’ paradise. Lowell in particular was celebrated as American industry’s glittering crown jewel—a “palace of labor,” in the words of 19th-century Swedish visitor Fredrika Bremer. From the 1820s through the 1840s, nearly all the young women who worked there lived in company-owned boardinghouses, where music lessons were encouraged and good manners reigned. Younger workers attended company-owned schools three months a year. The mill girls maintained their own bank accounts, went shopping unchaperoned, subscribed to lending libraries, and crowded lectures by such visiting dignitaries as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Edgar Allan Poe.

The phenomenon of factory workers seeking intellectual stimulation established part of the Lowell system’s particular mystique. “I have never seen anywhere so assiduous note-taking,” recalled a Harvard professor, the theologian A. P. Peabody, who regularly lectured to packed audiences at the Lowell Lyceum. “No, not even in a college class.”

In 1834 Jackson’s frontier-legend rival Davy Crockett wrote of the city’s legendary labor force that they were “all well dressed, lively, and genteel in their appearance.” Pouring out of the mills at the sound of the citywide dinner bells, “the girls looked as if they were coming from a quilting frolic.”

By then, a flood of young women was abandoning northeastern farms for mill jobs in the New England boomtowns. The migration caused a social upheaval like nothing else before in this country, except war. “Lowell fever” was epidemic. “One hundred girls passed through this village on the 29th, en route for Lowell,” reported the Plattsburgh (New York) Republican in 1847, “and some fifty for the same destination two weeks since.” Mill agents pulled up in village squares aboard large horse-drawn recruiting wagons—cynics called them “slavers”—and rounded up willing females.

Many didn’t need much convincing other than the promise of making more than a schoolteacher or household servant, the only legal occupations commonly open to women at a time when they couldn’t vote, buy land, or, practically speaking, attend college. “There are a grate many more trying to git in than can git in,” wrote Jemima Sanborn to her sister, of the huge Jackson Mill in Nashua, New Hampshire, in 1843. “It is quite apleasant place hear but it dont seeme much like home.”

The agents looked for docile young woman between the ages of 15 and 25 who didn’t plan to work long. After a year or two, they were expected to leave and get married. The cotton moguls—like most Americans of the day—abhorred the idea of a permanent working class taking root on this side of the Atlantic.

It was customary for the mill owners to take credit for the exemplary industriousness of their girls. The official line was that employment in the mills had rescued their help from lives of poverty and idleness, both well-known sins. That they were mostly pious farm girls who had been raised since infancy to toil without complaint went unmentioned. Civic leaders routinely praised the mills for their “philanthropy.” This helped the corporations expand into new locales: they were perceived to be eradicating sin as they went.

Not everyone believed this. In fact, the concentration of so many unattached young women in urban settings raised many eyebrows. To many men and women both, the taint of prostitution clung to female wage labor. By the early 1840s, newspapers warned that venereal disease had spread among the Lowell girls. Not surprisingly, novels about factory girls who made bad choices came into rather prurient vogue at this time.

There was no disputing that the young farm girls who migrated to mill jobs were embracing a new life—brightened by store-bought dresses and hot meals served on tablecloths. Among their counterparts in England and even in southern New England, jobs were still usually arranged by parents, who housed them and claimed their pay. “I have earned enough to school me awhile,” wrote one mill girl in Clinton, Massachusetts, to a cousin in 1851, “& have not I a right to do so, or must I go home, like a dutiful girl, place the money in father’s hands, & then there goes all my hard earnings.”

Soon enough these rural migrants saw themselves as urban sophisticates. In 1855, after working in a Lowell mill for a number of years, a woman in her 20s named Mary Paul met a couple visiting from her tiny Vermont hometown. “They are real nice folks,” she wrote her father, “but seem rather countryfied in their ideas.”