Proud to be a Mill Girl

PrintPrintEmailEmail

The most vivid accounts of early mill life come from Harriet Hanson (later Harriet Robinson) and her friend Lucy Larcom, each of whom wrote a memoir of her experiences. Both arrived in Lowell in the early 1830s when the factory town was new, their widowed mothers having been lured there by jobs as boardinghouse keepers. Harriet and Lucy began working in the mills at an earlier age than most, at 10 and 11 respectively, and they labored there longer than most, for more than 10 years.

“We did not call ourselves ladies,” Lucy recalled in her 1889 memoir, A New England Girlhood. “We did not forget that we were working-girls, wearing coarse aprons suitable to our work, and that there was some danger of our becoming drudges.” To ward against becoming an extension of the machines she tended, Lucy pasted math problems and Bible passages on her spinning frame and composed poetry in her head as she worked. To express her independence, the curly-haired, plain-featured mill girl kept houseplants on the windowsill.

Harriet was the more ornery of the pair. In a photograph taken in her late teens,

she looks confidently, almost defiantly, into the camera, aware of her striking good looks and well-coiffed hair. She arrived at the mills at 10, working in the spinning-room as a doffer. “I can see myself now,” she wrote later, “racing down the alley, between the spinning-frames, carrying in front of me a bobbin-box bigger than I was. These mites had to be very swift in their movements, so as not to keep the spinning-frames stopped long.”

At age 15, Harriet was among the hundreds of Lowell mill girls who sang and paraded in public—a distinct novelty in itself—in support of the 1840 Whig presidential candidate, William Henry “Tippecanoe” Harrison. At 17 she managed to get herself excommunicated from her church for being insufficiently devout. (One of the deacons who condemned her happened to be her weaving-room overseer. Later, after publicly chiding him for being too familiar with one of the other mill girls, Harriet was reassigned.) And as a Bostonian among country girls, she set the tone in her boardinghouse for how a proper Lowell operative should speak, dress, and behave.

Like other mill girls, Harriet and Lucy found themselves shaped by their years in Lowell. They were avid participants in the “improvement circles” that met in the brief evening hours between supper and curfew. Here they could discuss books, share poetry they’d written, and debate social issues such as slavery and women’s rights. Harriet later wrote that when she left the mill to be married at 23, she didn’t quit; she “graduated.”

The most dramatic evidence that Lowell’s factory girls weren’t mindless “drudges” was their literary output. Magazines edited by and for mill girls carried poems, articles, essays, and fiction, which girls like Lucy and Harriet wrote in their boardinghouses while off-duty. The Lowell Offering, begun in 1840, was the most successful and long-lasting of the mill-girl magazines. “A strong feeling for the beauties of nature . . . breathes through its pages like wholesome village air,” wrote Charles Dickens, who visited Lowell in 1842 in part to see these working-class scribes for himself.

Years later, Lucy Larcom poked fun at those who were astonished at the talent of the mill girls: “That they should write was no more strange than they should study, or read, or think.” She, Harriet, and their youthful co-workers “were just such girls as are knocking at the doors of young women’s colleges to-day.”

 

Of course, the image of well-mannered ladies working in tidy industrial showcases for the betterment of America was a myth promoted by the corporations. Tending dangerous, deafening equipment while inhaling cotton dust for 12 or 14 hours a day was grueling. A workday might involve feeding endless rolls of coarse cloth into spike-toothed carding machines or tending a high-decibel power loom as its thread-bearing shuttle rocketed back and forth. Shortly after coming to Lowell from Vermont in 1845, 15-year-old Mary Paul wrote to her father in horror: “Last Thursday one girl fell down and broke her neck. The same day a man was killed by the [train] cars. Another had nearly all of his ribs broken. Another was nearly killed by falling down and having a bale of cotton fall on him.” Even allowing for exaggeration, this wasn’t a picture to inspire a nation’s pride.

On the floor and off, the mills controlled every aspect of their workers’ lives. The “operatives” rose at 4:30 a.m. and labored two hours before stopping for breakfast. Work often continued by lamplight after supper. “Up before day, at the clang of the bell,” griped a character in an anonymous story published in the Lowell Offering in 1841, “and out of the mill by the clang of the bell—into the mill, and at work, in obedience to that ding-dong of a bell—just as though we were so many living machines.” Drinking, swearing, and staying out after 10 p.m. were all firing offenses. So were failure to attend church or simply being “a devil in petticoats” (the official grounds for the 1830 dismissal of one Elizabeth Wilson). Sleeping two to a bed in a boardinghouse relieved little stress.