- 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
All of this was a long way from the factory slums of Birmingham and Manchester, which, in those very 1840’s, were furnishing ammunition for the assaults on capitalism of Engels and Marx. The girls were aware of their uniqueness, and in the brief moments between sleep and work they undertook their mental cultivation proudly and self-consciously. They were, in their own eyes, pioneers, demonstrating that “woman” could be independent, that “manual labor” could be combined with character and intellect, and that the “impossible” concept of a highly educated working class was realizable in the United States. They knew that in their dignity and pride they were the equals of the capitalists who employed them, whatever their incomes. Their writing and poetizing and piano playing were meant to prove, as Lucy Larcom said, that “honest work has no need to assert itself or to humble itself in a nation like ours, but simply to take its place as one of the foundation-stones of the republic.” At Brook Farm, not too far from Lowell, a number of better-educated men and women were conducting an experiment that was not too different. Pitching hay in the afternoons and reading Greek in the evenings in West Roxbury were ways of vindicating the dignity of labor, too. (See “A Season in Utopia,” AMERICAN HERITAGE, April, 1959.)
And so, willingly, the girls accepted the discipline of the boardinghouses. They went to church regularly, were in by 10 P.M., avoided improper conduct and language, and shunned idle companions—all of which came to them easily enough. They were trying to make of their factory community “a rather select industrial school for young people,” Lucy Larcom wrote in 1889. And then she added, proudly: “The girls were just such girls as are knocking at the doors of young women’s colleges today.”
So there was Lowell in 1845 at its high noon, and whether the credit belonged to the tariff or American democracy or creative capital or the frontier or Jehovah who smiled upon America was hard to say. It was not really typical of the growing factory system. But all observers agreed that it was a sight to admire. President Jackson visited Lowell in June of 1833, and rode under triumphal arches amid a procession of drums, militiamen, citizens, schoolchildren, and 2,500 of the factory girls, carrying parasols and wearing stockings of silk. Reputedly Jackson swore that “by the Eternal,” they were pretty women. Congressman Crockett of Tennessee came the next year, and if we can believe the statement in the largely fraudulent Autobiography ghostwritten for him, found the girls “well-dressed, lively, and genteel,” looking as if “they were coming from a quilting frolic.” Henry Clay came to beam at the success, in 1834, of the domestic manufactures whose protection he had so long and eloquently advocated.
Charles Dickens, as late as 1841, found that the whole city still had a fresh, new appearance (except for the mud). Its shiny buildings looked like those of a cardboard toy town, fresh out of the wrappings. He inspected the factories, he watched the girls at work, and he carried off four hundred pages of the Offering to read. Dickens disliked industrialism, and at that time he disliked the United States. He would have been glad, undoubtedly, to pour a little humanitarian spite on an exploitative American industrialism. But after looking long and hard, he declared: “I cannot recall or separate one young face that gave me a painful impression; not one young girl whom, assuming it to be a matter of necessity that she should gain her daily bread by the labour of her hands, I would have removed from those works if I had had the power.”
In another twenty years Dickens’ thoughts might have been different. For shortly after that first visit of his, Lowell began to decline. The cotton factories moved away from the golden day, toward the era of Lawrence, the Pemberton Mill disasters, and bitterness.
The change came gradually, but even in the heyday a sharp eye might have seen the warning signals going up. There was, to begin with, an iron streak in the companies’ paternalism. Their control of the force was as rigid as that of any army. Girls who quit “properly,” giving their employer two weeks’ notice, received an “honorable discharge” (the very words entered on company records) signed by their superintendent. Not a single mill would hire an experienced worker without such a discharge, which meant that a girl who was fired, or left for any reason not approved by her employers, was barred from factory work for good. It also meant that there was no competitive bidding among bosses, and no way of improving conditions, therefore, except as the bosses chose. And since the companies did not hesitate to discharge girls who received bad conduct reports from the boardinghouse matrons, their “stewardship” sometimes became a kind of punitive spying into the employees’ personal lives.