- 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
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.
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.”
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.
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.
The Yankee mill girls did not vanish, of course. They became women. After leaving the mills, they married, worked, and traveled. Migration to cities and towns was already a noticeable trend in the United States, but the mill-girl migrations accelerated it. Most of the farmers’ daughters who came to the mills were reluctant to return to their family farms. Nor did they want to marry farmers. A majority of those whose lives can be traced settled in cities and towns after leaving the mills. Of those who married, more than half wed tradesmen, merchants, or other professionals.
Compared to most American women, mill girls and former mill girls had a tendency to speak up, often loudly. Earlier in the century, a few ministers had urged women to refrain from praying in mixed company. Now mill girls past and present were not only praying out loud but also delivering fiery speeches in town squares, denouncing their male elected leaders, standing up to employers, and leading business boycotts. In many cases, they had learned their assertiveness on the job. During the 1840s, Lowell’s workers had petitioned the Massachusetts legislature repeatedly for a law mandating a 10-hour workday. One 1846 petition was signed by more than 10,000 mill workers, 4,000 of them from Lowell. The petition was 130 feet long.
A diaspora of Yankee mill girls moved west, where many became schoolteachers. Western communities looked to cities such as Lowell as recruiting grounds for young teachers with good work habits. Many former mill girls entered female seminaries, the forerunners of the late 19th-century’s women’s colleges. A number became writers and journalists. Lucy Larcom became a popular writer and friend of Whittier and Longfellow. Her friend Harriet Robinson spoke frequently to abolitionist groups, later becoming an active campaigner for women’s suffrage. As an impatient 10-year-old, young Harriet had been the first on her floor to stride from her mill in the 1836 turnout; this habit of acting decisively and speaking her mind stayed with her. As for Sarah Bagley, she became the nation’s first female telegraph operator.
For many mill girls, the most life-changing aspect of their jobs was simply living and working closely with so many other independent young women. Their experience as self-supporting laborers imparted an enduring confidence. “I felt that I belonged to the world, that there was something for me to do in it,” wrote Lucy Larcom in 1889 about her mill-floor education a half-century before, “though I had not yet found out what. Something to do; it might be very little, but it would be my own work.”