The Working Ladies Of Lowell

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Nor was the factory work unremittingly taxing. Lucy’s first job was as a bobbin girl, watching a spinning frame and replacing filled spools with empty ones. It was almost fun to watch a bobbin wax fat, and lift it off at the right moment. Those at spooling, warping, and dressing machines had harder work. The “buzzing and hissing and whizzing of pulleys and rollers and spindles and flyers … often grew tiresome.” But a lucky girl, near a window, could tend flowers in a window box or read (when such things were permitted, as they were at first) or simply daydream. Daydreaming was discouraged, of course, for one real purpose of having attendants at the machinery was to watch for broken threads, overfilled bobbins, twisted belts, spindles that slipped off their shafts—any one of which could in seconds create an ungodly jam of twisted fibers and stalled machinery.

At the looms, the girls had more to watch—warp threads rising and falling regularly to the tug of the heddles, shuttles jerking back and forth between the warp threads at an even 120 picks to the minute, warpbeam and cloth-beam rolling, and reed beating the cross-threads tight together in even thumps. A wary eye was needed here for breaks and snarls, and for shuttle boxes that needed to be changed; but if a girl had only one or two looms to tend, it was not overly burdensome. Then there were other jobs of varying skill and distastefulness—from minding the whippers and pickers which fluffed the newly arrived cotton, to folding, measuring, and packing finished goods in the cloth room. When Lucy Larcom grew up, she chose to work there. It paid less than machine-tending, but left more quiet hours for reading; an overseer once found his intellectual little mill girl deeply absorbed in Cotton Mather’s pedantic Magnalia Christi Americana while she was folding cloth.

For the girl who grew a little weary of it all, it was always possible to go home for a month or two. With Lowell booming and growing, there would always be a job when she returned to the factory. What was more, farm girls did not need to accept assignments that they regarded as unfair. A young woman who knew that she was only a day’s trip from home, where there were chickens in the henyard, milk in the springhouse, and squash in the garden, took no “sass” from an overseer. Early mill records duly chronicled the dismissal of some girls for “insolence,” which undoubtedly meant telling overseers what they thought of them. Wherever industry had not completely displaced a rural way of life, workers had an extra bit of protection. The Englishwoman, Harriet Martineau, noted that the boot and shoe makers of Lynn, Massachusetts, as late as 1835, knocked off in summers to earn money by fishing. In Pennsylvania in the 1820’s, the overseer at an iron foundry carefully recorded that a batch of molten iron had been ruined because, when it was ready to pour, nobody was on hand. “The men,” he sorrowfully noted, “was out hunting with their guns.”

And if, somehow, the hours did seem to stretch a bit toward the close of the day, there were the tangible rewards in cash to consider. It is not easy to generalize about Lowell wages from 1830 to 1845, particularly since much of the pay was by the piece. In 1840 a careful Scot, James Montgomery, made a study of the comparative costs of cotton manufacture in Great Britain and the United States. He estimated that American owners had to figure on paying girls at various spinning machines $2.50 to $3.50 a week. Weavers could earn twenty-five cents per “piece,” which meant that a girl who was willing to work an extra loom might earn as much as $4.50 or even $5.50. (The gap in pay between the rank and file and the “non-coms” in the industrial army was not very great. Bookkeepers rated $9.50 weekly, overseers $12, and superintendents $25. It seems safe to say that the mill girls, in this period, averaged $3.50 a week in wages. In Lowell in 1840, five cents bought a half-dozen eggs, fifteen cents an entire chicken, and two dollars a carcass of mutton. The companies charged the girls $1.25 for their board and lodging, which left $2.25—nearly $5 every fortnight, or $9 every month, according to how paydays fell—for spending or for saving.

In rural New England a century and a quarter ago, that was no inconsiderable sum of cash. The girls saved what must have been a considerable amount of it. In 1845, according to the Reverend Henry Miles in his Lowell As It Was And As It Is, half of the two thousand depositors in the Lowell Savings Bank were factory girls, and their bankbooks showed a total of more than $100,000 laid away. Between 1829 and 1845, the bank had taken in $2,103,500 and paid out $1,423,500, much of it in the girls’ earnings. The girls used this money for their own dowries; they lifted mortgages from fathers’ farms; they supported fatherless nephews, nieces, and cousins; and, apparently not infrequently, they put brothers through college.

But what counted was not whether the girls spent their pay on ribbons and shawls or saved it for the future. What counted was that as women, they had money of their own. This was an age when a woman’s property was still in the absolute control of her husband, and when the single or widowed woman who did not choose to become a seamstress or a housemaid lived on family charity. Another of those literate mill girls, Harriet Hanson Robinson, summed up the advantages of having one’s own income: