The Working Ladies Of Lowell

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As the bloom wore off the noble experiment, there were murmurs of discontent. Fourteen hours of daily indoor work, broken only for two hastily gulped meals, took some of the spring out of the millworkers. Those whose health broke down could enter a company-built hospital, but had to pay three dollars a week for the privilege, and often emerged with a heavy debt to be worked off. The hardy few who had energy left to enjoy the “advantages” of the boardinghouses began to leave. Labor reformer Seth Luther sardonically compared those who remained to the horse of a hardfisted farmer, who explained that his animal had “a bushel and a half of oats, only he ain’t got no time to eat em.” Luther, and others like him, resented the corporation owners’ growing sense of superiority, however patriarchal it might be. A small but articulate labor press denounced the “mushroom aristocracy of New England, who so arrogantly aspire to lord it over God’s heritage.”

The real sin of the mushroom aristocrats, however, was nothing so impalpable as an attitude. The truth was that as early as 1836, in the face of growing competition, they began to cut costs at the expense of the workers. In that year the wages of the Lowell mill girls were reduced by a dollar each week. Some 1,500 girls staged a “turn-out” in protest. It was a decorous enough affair: they walked through the streets waving their handkerchiefs and singing a parody of a popular tune:

Oh! isn’t it a pity, such a pretty girl as I—Should be sent to the factory to pine away and die?/ Oh! I cannot be a slave,/ I will not be a slave,/ For I’m so fond of liberty/ That I cannot be a slave.

It was charming, intelligent, and utterly futile. The companies did not restore the cuts—then or later. In addition, they began to increase the number of frames and looms each girl had to watch, and then to overcrowd the boardinghouses, assigning as many as eight to a room. The operatives began, after all, to look like the washed-out and exhausted creatures of Jefferson’s most dire predictions.

For the girls who had come on the scene early, of course, there was the option of going home. That appealed to them even more than striking, which had an unladylike and un-Christian character about it, hardly becoming to the virtuous daughters of independent yeomen. They would return to the farm until the owners, short of hands, saw reason. In time, the girls believed, they must see it, for in America there was no “irrepressible conflict” between capital and labor.

So the more aggressive and independent girls drifted away from Lowell. But the owners were not concerned with the problem of replacements. For in the 1840’s a mighty tide of immigration was setting in, much of it Irish. A few of Erin’s sons had been in Lowell in Lucy Larcom’s day—some six hundred in 1835—living with their large families in shanties on the town’s fringe. Sometimes on their way to work Lucy and her friends would toss a slice of boardinghouse bread to an elderly Irishwoman in order to elicit a musical flood of grateful brogue.

There was nothing quaint about the effect of the Irish on the labor market, however. By 1860 they constituted nearly half the population of Lowell. There were no friendly farms to which they could retreat when conditions worsened. The roofs that they could call their own were in Lowell only, and they were not the decent roofs of the boardinghouses, but overcrowded, jerry-built, or decaying homes. The companies were spared the expense of boardinghouses in this way, a point not lost upon them. And the millowners did not worry especially about the “moral character” of their Hibernian operatives, being quite willing to leave that to the priests and the police.