- Historic Sites
The Working Ladies Of Lowell
Proud and independent, the farm girls of New England helped build an industrial Eden, but its paternalistic innocence was not to last
February 1961 | Volume 12, Issue 2
But if the ownership elite did not grow swiftly, the enterprise did. The Merrimack factory was up in December of 1823. Within three years more, little East Chelmsford, with its scattered farmhouses, gristmills, store, and tavern, was ready for incorporation as a village. Its leading businessmen, landowners, and citizens—the mill owners, naturally—renamed it Lowell. And Lowell mushroomed, geysered, exploded. Two new mills went up in 1828, another in 1830, three more in 1831, still another in 1835. The population of 200 in 1820 jumped to 6,477 in 1830, and 17,633 in 1836. A bank appeared, then another, then a hotel, a library, two schoolhouses, and Episcopalian, Baptist, Congregational, Universalist, and Unitarian churches. In 1835 the Boston and Lowell Railroad—one of the country’s earliest—was opened in a flourish of band music and spread-eagle oratory. By 1845 Lowell, population over 30,000, had become a modern factory town in less time than it took small boys who once had fished undisturbed in the Concord to reach the ripe age of thirty.
Lowell was more than a success. It was a showpiece. Its population consisted mostly of factory girls living in the company boardinghouses. From 1823 to about 1845, it seemed to show that the fond hopes of those who planned a rotating and virtuous labor force might be realized. Foreign tourists—Michel Chevalier of France, Harriet Martineau and Charles Dickens of England—and famous Americans like Andrew Jackson, Henry Clay, and David Crockett visited it to wonder and admire. The focus of attention was the band of New England country girls who had turned themselves into mill hands. They had done so for a number of reasons, among them to show, as one of their number put it, that “it is the laborer’s privilege to ennoble his work by the aim with which he undertakes it, and by the enthusiasm and faithfulness he puts into it.”
What kind of girls were they? Precisely as planned, they were farm girls, and not only did they come off the farms as expected, they went back to them according to prediction. In 1845 the author of a small book on Lowell inquired of several mill owners to learn whence came their “hands,” and how long they stayed. In one factory employing 173 workers, 21 were from Massachusetts, 45 from Maine, 55 from New Hampshire, 52 from Vermont. Only five had worked more than ten years, and 114 of them—nearly two-thirds of the total force—had been there for less than four. Even allowing for some shifting from mill to mill, the turnover in Lowell’s population was brisk.
The New England farmer’s daughter was anything but a peasant. She might be classed technically as an “unskilled” laborer, but that was only so far as factory production was concerned. She could grow fruits and vegetables, and put them into pies and preserves of breathtaking quality. She could cook for one man or for twenty at harvest time. She could knit, sew, embroider, and sometimes spin and weave. She could keep a two-story frame house spotless, raise small animals and baby brothers and sisters, and nurse sick aunts and grannies as occasion demanded. She could make such varied household products as cheese, brooms, candles, and soap. Independence came as naturally to her as to her brothers, who at seventeen and eighteen were working their own fields or commanding fishing smacks, trading schooners, and whalers. She had the equivalent of a grade-school education, often kept her father’s books if he was a small businessman on the side, and took as naturally as she breathed to reading or to attending two-hour lectures and sermons.
One of these girls, Lucy Larcom, who later became a well-known poet and editor of a children’s magazine, recalled her childhood in the port town of Newburyport. She remembered leisure hours spent in devouring Aesop, Bunyan, Gulliver’s Travels, The Vicar of Wakefield, and Arabian Nights. The stories in them were no more wonderful than those that she got from retired seamen, who brought home gorgeously colored tropical parrots to squawk from perches in New England parlors, and who spoke to friends (addressed as “shipmate”) about voyages to Calcutta and Hong Kong as casually as they might refer to a pony ride to the next village. Lucy knew the local farmers, too, who tramped into her father’s store in thick boots and coarse trousers, smelling of hay, dung, and honest sweat. When her widowed mother moved to Lowell to run one of the boardinghouses, Lucy, aged eleven, was prepared for hard work and for leisure rigorously spent in self-improvement.
In the mills there was work in plenty. From April to October, operations began about 5 A.M. and ran until close to 7:30 in the evening, with half-hour interruptions for breakfast at 7 A.M. and dinner at 12:30 in the afternoon. In the shorter months, breakfast was served before daylight, and the working day was finished under lamps. Six days of eleven to thirteen hours’ actual work made a long week, but not necessarily a prohibitive one to girls used to being up with the rooster and rarely idle until the sewing basket was set aside for nine o’clock bedtime. (The American factory schedule, in fact, copied farmer’s hours—up at dawn to feed stock before breakfast, home for dinner in hottest daytime, late supper after barnyard chores.)