The Working Ladies Of Lowell

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Undoubtedly it was only a small number of the girls who were grimly intellectual, but they gave a tone to the entire enterprise. They were the ones who went to lectures at the lyceum in Lowell, and solemnly took note of the pearls of wisdom that fell from the lips of John Quincy Adams, Edward Everett, Ralph Waldo Emerson, John Greenleaf Whittier, and the other gods of New England. They were the girls who took books into the factories, and later, when this was tabooed, pasted pages of newspaper poetry to their looms and frames and memorized as they worked. Some girls felt that the Bible ought to be exempt from the rule, and brought their pocket Testaments to work, creating a nice problem for pious overseers. Under the rules, they had to confiscate all literature discovered, but it went hard for some to wrest the Scriptures from a girl. “I did think,” said one of them ruefully to a victim of such a seizure, “you had more conscience than to bring that book in here.” One group of these “factory ladies,” relentlessly bent upon improving each shining hour, flabbergasted Charles Dickens (who visited Lowell in 1841) by clubbing together to buy a piano for their boardinghouse parlor. The novelist was not merely confounded by such a genteel instrument in what was, after all, a home for “working-class” women, but he shared the amazement which a modern reader must feel that girls who worked a fourteen-hour day could be interested in anything more taxing in the evening than climbing wearily into bed.

Perhaps the most astonishing fact of all was that some of the girls, after a dawn-to-dusk session in the mill, not only found time to read literature, but to make it. Some of the ministers whose congregations included a sprinkling of highly literate mill girls had taken the lead in forming “improvement circles” as early as 1838. At the meetings of these groups—as in the literary clubs of the colleges of that day—members read their own compositions to each other for mutual criticism. The Reverend Abel Thomas, of Lowell’s First Universalist Church, gradually accumulated a drawerful of essays, short stories, and poems by the members of his “circle.” Enthused by what he read, he raised enough money to issue a collection of the pieces in a pamphlet entitled The Lowell Offering. Some of the money came from the company, which sensed the publicity value of the scheme, in the form of a large order for copies.

Having still more material on hand, Thomas undertook to edit the Offering as a regular periodical. Four numbers appeared in 1840 and 1841. Meanwhile an “improvement circle” in the First Congregationalist Church had independently launched an Operatives’ Magazine. In 1842, the Reverend Mr. Thomas turned the editorship of the Offering over completely to two of the millworkers, Harriot F. Curtis and Harriet Farley. Presumably, he wanted to prove once and for all that the “operatives” could write, edit, and publish a magazine entirely under their own power. The two women merged the Lowell Offering and Operatives’ Magazine, and managed to run it for five volumes. It finally died, as conditions began to change in Lowell, and a few efforts to revive it under other titles failed.

The Lowell Offering was by no means the cream of American periodical literature of the mid-nineteenth century. Yet it was an incredible production to emerge from a factory working force. It contained, Harriet Robinson recalled, “allegories, poems, conversations on physiology, astronomy, and other scientific subjects, dissertations on poetry, and on the beauties of nature, didactic pieces on highly moral and religious subjects, translations from French and Latin, stories of factory and other life, sketches of local New England history, and sometimes chapters of a novel.” The poetry was in the mold of popular female bards of the period like Lydia Sigourney; the prose had overtones of Addison, Goldsmith, and the briskly selling lady novelist, Lydia Maria Child. The fifty-seven girls who contributed to it chose pen names as far from “Harriet,” “Lucy,” “Abby,” and “Sarah” as they could get—“Ella,” “Adelaide,” “Aramantha,” “Oriana,” “Dolly Dindle,” and “Grace Gayfeather.” Two or three of the contributors continued as writers in later life; others became missionaries, schoolteachers, and suffragettes, and at least one—Margaret Foley—was a successful sculptor.