- Historic Sites
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
Spring 2012 | Volume 62, Issue 1
To the farmers who consented to let their daughters seek these jobs, this kind of discipline may have proved reassuring; to many mill workers, it was oppressive. The executive who set the rules was an overbearing British army veteran named Kirk Boott, who lived in a riverfront mansion at Lowell, detested President Jackson’s uncouthness, and defended Southern slave ownership. What he decided became de facto law in the other mill towns of the region. Among the mills’ rank and file, he wasn’t popular, especially for his reaction to increased competition from the new mills starting elsewhere in the 1830s; Boott resorted to “speed-ups” and “stretch-outs”—running the machines faster and assigning more machines to each worker, all the while paying the same wages or sometimes less. Strikes were inevitable.
Several hundred Lowell girls stopped work, or “turned out,” to protest a citywide wage cut in 1834. Two years later, nearly 2,000 women—one third of Lowell’s workforce—walked out over a proposed jump in room and board. The protesters paraded through town singing a parody of a popular song, “I Won’t Be a Nun”:
Oh! Isn’t it a pity, such a pretty
girl as I
Should be sent to the factory to
pine away and die?
Oh! I cannot be a slave,
I will not be a slave
For I’m so fond of liberty,
That I cannot be a slave.
Boott and his allies called the strikers unladylike, their ringleaders “Amazons.” The young women reminded him not only that they were free but often the granddaughters of revolutionaries. After citywide cloth production plummeted, the owners compromised. In the long term, however, Lowell’s mill jobs became increasingly oppressive. By the mid-1840s, the women were working more hours, tending more looms, and weaving more cloth than they ever had before—yet their weekly pay had shrunk. By now, mills in other northeastern states offered more money, and not even English mills demanded as many hours a week.
Those who didn’t quit often joined reform groups. The improvement circles that met after dinner in the boardinghouse parlors evolved into some of the nation’s first labor organizations and women’s rights groups. Indeed, almost from the start, New England’s mill towns became hotbeds of social activism. Utopian socialism was in vogue. Followers of Robert Owen in Scotland, Charles Fourier in France, and New England’s Transcendentalists were setting up cooperative workplaces and planned communities. In Lowell, mill girls flocked to lectures by Owen and other visiting idealists. Abolitionists, too, drew large crowds of attentive young women (whom Southerners called “white slaves”).
In 1845 the Voice of Industry appeared in Lowell, edited by a fire-breathing weaver and schoolteacher from rural New Hampshire named Sarah Bagley. In her first editorial, Bagley denounced an unnamed mill supervisor who had just threatened to fire an operative for supporting reform in her spare time: “What! Persecute her for free expression of honest political opinions! We will make the name of him who dares the act, stink with every wind, from all points of the compass. . . . He shall be hissed in the streets, and all the cities in this widespread republic. . . . Our name is legion, though our oppression be great.”
Bagley, an unmarried 39-year-old, had moved to Lowell eight years earlier. From the start, she was paid more than most new mill girls, probably because she had already gained experience in small New Hampshire cotton mills. She had been drawn to Lowell not just by a chance to earn money but by the opportunities to galvanize efforts toward improving conditions for working women nationwide. In the spirit of self-improvement, she had started her own free night school for local operatives.
Where the protests of the 1830s had focused exclusively on local working conditions, the mill-girl activists were now tying their plight to broader social and moral issues and lobbying for popular support. The young labor reformers saw a shorter work week not as an end in itself “but only as one step toward the end to be attained,” explained mill girl Huldah Stone in Voice of Industry. “They deeply feel that their work will never be accomplished until slavery and oppression, mental, physical, and religious, shall have been done away with.”
The mill-girl militants were part of a larger wave of social activism in the 1840s, a time in which Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels were critiquing capitalism, Sojourner Truth was calling for the emancipation of slaves, and Susan B. Anthony was advancing women’s suffrage. Sarah Bagley and many of the mills girls were as militant as any of them.
By 1847, when the Voice of Industry folded, the mills’ labor force was changing. The potato famine was driving many thousands of destitute Irish families into the United States. Irish mill girls, many of them illiterate, found jobs in Lowell and the other New England textile cities. Such refugees weren’t apt to agitate for better pay or shorter hours; they were thankful just to be employed.
By midcentury, company-owned boardinghouses were disappearing. Mill workers—men, boys, and older women had joined the girls—now crowded into tenements. The owners offered no more two-cent lectures by Harvard faculty. The mills themselves were vastly larger than those of the 1830s; the old 30-foot mill wheels were rotting away and giving place to enormous smokestacks. On the factory floors of the ever more congested, ever more polluted textile cities, farmers’ daughters were a disappearing breed.