- 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
The law took no cognizance of woman as a money-spender. She was a ward, an appendage, a relict. Thus it happened, that if a woman did not choose to marry, or, when left a widow, to re-marry, she had no choice but to enter one of the few employments open to her, or to become a burden on the charity of some relative.... The cotton-factory was a great opening to these lonely and dependent women.... At last they had found a place in the universe; they were no longer obliged to finish out their faded lives mere burdens to male relatives.... For the first time in this country woman’s labor had a money value.... And thus a long upward step in our material civilization was taken; woman had begun to earn and hold her own money, and through its aid had learned to think and to act for herself.
Harriet remembered what a blessing the factory was to those unhappy and lonely older women who sat in New England chimney corners, meekly enduring the teasing of the children, the gruffness of the men, and the sharpness of female in-laws who had kitchens and hearthsides of their own. Some went into the factories, and
… after the first pay-day came, and they felt the jingle of silver in their pockets, and had begun to feel its mercurial influence, their bowed heads were lifted, their necks seemed braced with steel, they looked you in the face, sang blithely among their looms or frames, and walked with elastic step to and from work.
To talk of wage slavery to such women was futile; to them the factory gates had opened the way to independence.
When work was done, the girls returned to the boardinghouses. They were usually two or three story frame buildings, standing in neat rows separated from the factory by squares of greenery. They were run by older women, often widows like Mrs. Larcom, or like the mothers of Nathaniel Banks and Benjamin F. Butler, both of whom were to become Massachusetts political leaders and Civil War generals. The houses had kitchens attached in the back, dining rooms and parlors on the ground floor, and bedrooms in which two or four girls roomed together.
They did not seem to regard that a hardship. Companionship, as a matter of fact, took the sting out of initial homesickness. Harriet Robinson remembered how the wagons which had gone into the back country to recruit would pull up before a boardinghouse and discharge a cluster of farm girls, followed by a pile of neat, small trunks, often bound in home-tanned, spotted calfskin on which the hair still showed. The new arrivals would gaze wide-eyed and white-faced at the huge buildings, the crowds, and the rushing canal. As an old woman, Harriet still recalled one girl with a large tear in each eye, pathetically clutching a bandbox on which the name “Plumy Clay” was carefully lettered.
Yet after a few weeks in which Plumy and Samantha and Keziah and Elgardy and Leafy and Ruhamah had come to be friends, it all seemed rather adventuresome. The girls chatted in their rooms in the evening, or sometimes read to each other from books that might have been found on the shelves of any middle-class home of the period. There were such “holy” works as Baxter’s Saints’ Rest, and Pilgrim’s Progress, of course, but in addition, such popular (and less uplifting) novels as Charlotte Temple, The Castle of Otranto, and The Mysteries of Udolpho. On the table in the parlor were the newspapers to which the girls jointly subscribed—religious sheets like the Christian Register, Christian Herald, and Signs of the Times, abolitionist journals such as The Liberator and Herald of Freedom, and ordinary dailies like the Boston Daily Times. The mill girls read and discussed the contents of these organs of opinion, and debated among themselves the fads and fancies of the yeasty 1830’s and 1840’s—phrenology, mesmerism, Grahamism, Fourierism. One boardinghouse even contained a Mormon Bible!