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The Working Ladies Of Lowell

April 2024
28min read

Proud and independent, the farm girls of New England helped build an industrial Eden, but its paternalistic innocence was not to last

Dusk fell over the city of Lawrence, Massachusetts, a few minutes before five o’clock on January 10, 1860. In the five-story brick textile factory owned by the Pemberlon Manufacturing Company, lamps began to flicker in the ritual of “lighting-up time.” The big building—nearly three hundred feet long and eighty-five wide—rumbled unceasingly with the noise of its hundreds of machines for turning cotton into cloth: its scutchers and spreaders, carders, drawing frames and speeders; its warpers and dressers; and its power looms for weaving the finished fabric. Inside, the noise was higher-pitched, a relentless squeak, clatter, and whirr from the belt-and-shaft system that transmitted water power to the machinery. Some six or seven hundred “hands,” mostly women, were at work that afternoon. Those near the windows could look through the twilight at the factory yard, with its two lower buildings running out at right angles from the ends of the main plant. Next to the yard lay the canal which carried the waters of the Merrimack River to the giant water wheels, and beyond that was a row of frame boardinghouses for the employees. Sometime after seven o’clock, bells would jangle and the workers would stream across footbridges over the canal, home to dinner.

But not that night. Suddenly there was a sharp rattle, and then a prolonged, deafening crash. A section of the building’s brick wall seemed to bulge out and explode, and then, literally in seconds, the Pemberton Mill collapsed. Tons of machinery crashed down through crumpling floors, dragging trapped, screaming victims along in their downward path. At a few minutes after five, the factory was a heap of twisted iron, splintered beams, pulverized bricks, and agonized, imprisoned human flesh.

Bonfires, lit to aid rescue workers, made pockets of brightness in the gathering night. But the darkness was merciful, hiding sights of unforgettable horror. Girls and men were carried out on stretchers, with arms and legs torn from their bodies, faces crushed beyond recognition, open wounds in which the bones showed through a paste of dried blood, brick dust, and shredded clothing. The worst was yet to come, however. At about 9:30 P.M., the moans of pain, delirium, and cold coming from those still pinned in the wreckage changed to screams of panic. Someone scrambling through the ruins had upset an oil lantern. Flames raced through the oil-soaked wood and cotton waste, drove back doctors, rescue crews, and spectators (many of them relatives of the mill workers), and snuffed out the final shrieks. Next morning saw only a black and smoking mass of “brick, mortar and human bones … promiscuously mingled” at the scene of the tragedy.

There were ninety dead—fourteen of them unidentifiable or never found—and a long list of crippled and hospitalized. The casualty list read like a cross section of New England’s labor force. There were Yankee girls like Mary York, of Brighton, Maine, and men like Ira Locke, of Derry, New Hampshire. But there were also Nancy Connelly and Bridget Doyle and Kate Harridy, and many others whose names were of Ireland’s “ould sod.” ‘liiere were men like the Swiss George Kraclolfer, the German Henry Bakeman, and the Scotch-Irish Robert Hayer, who had come a long way to suffer at the edge of a New England canal. And there was not a church in Lawrence—Catholic, Methodist, Baptist, Presbyterian, Congregational, Unitarian, Universalist, Episcopalian—that did not have parishioners to mourn or to console on the Sunday after the accident.

What had gone wrong? A lengthy coroner’s inquest did a certain amount of hedging, but certain unpleasant facts emerged. During the factory’s construction, in 1853, cast-iron pillars supporting the floor beams had been shown to be cheap and brittle. They went in nevertheless. Extra machinery had been crowded into the upper floors, ignoring already questionable load limits. Brick walls had not been sufficiently reinforced against the outward thrust of those overburdened doors. After the disaster, the ministers of Lawrence spoke sermons on God’s inscrutable wrath, but it was clear that human oversight and corner cutting on expenses bore much of the blame.

This seemed to point the finger at the owners, David Kevins and George Howe, who had bought the factory from its first owners in 1857, during a financial panic. Yet neither man was callous or dishonest. Both undoubtedly shared the shocked dismay of their fellow businessmen in the New England Society for the Promotion of Manufactures and the Mechanic Arts, who, ironically, had scheduled a dinner in Boston for that dreadful January 10. Nevins and Howe had acted in response to pressures which they themselves did not fully understand, and such guilt as they bore was partly the guilt of the generation of men who had brought industry to New England’s hills forty years before. Those men had nursed lordly dreams of progress and profit through the machine, and some of their visions of growth and gain and uplift had been realized. But industrialism, as America was to learn, brought pain and perplexity with it as well. The horror at the Pemberton Mills was a symbol of another collapse: that of an experiment in creating a strifeless industrial society showering blessings alike on workers and capitalists. Like most such experiments, it expected too much of human nature and counted too little on the unforeseen. For a time, however, it gave a thrill of promise, its beginnings went back beyond Lawrence, to the early days of the Republic.

In the years just after 1789, the “establishment of manufactures” was a focus of debate. Men like Alexander Hamilton and Tench Coxe looked upon the few domestic workshops of the infant nation and found them good. They urged that the national government should protect and nurture these producers of “American” clothing, gunpowder, rope, paper, rum, iron, leather, and a miscellany of other articles. From other quarters, however, came warnings that liberty and industry made poor partners. Thomas Jefferson was only one among many to point to England’s experience and predict that factory workers would inexorably sink into pauperism. They would be forced by the workings of human nature and economic law to “the maximum of labor which the construction of the human body can endure, & to the minimum of food … which will preserve it in life.” MaIthus, Marx, and Ricardo together could not have put it more grimly. Jefferson’s implication needed no spelling out—plainly, an impoverished (and therefore vice-ridden and ignorant) laboring class would be indigestible in a democratic republic.

By and large, the Jeffersonians had the better of the argument for some twenty-five years. Capital, markets, and skilled labor—all necessary to a manufacturing economy—were scarce in an undeveloped America, which still found adequate rewards for its work in the soil, the ocean, and the forest. There were a few significant experiments in industry, in Rhode Island, by way of example, two farsighted Quaker merchants, Moses Brown and William Almy, set up in 1790 a “factory” for spinning cotton yarn and thread. They used many of the new machines developed in England during the preceding fifty years to mechanize the spinning process. (The British jealously guarded against the export of those machines or plans for them, but Almy and Brown found a young immigrant from England named Samuel Slater. Slater had stored away the details of the new devices in an incredible memory and come to the United States precisely in the hope of finding sponsors like Almy and Brown. He built their first plant “by heart” and made his fortune and theirs as planned. [See “Father of Our Factory System,” AMERICAN HERITAGE, April, 1958.])

Almy and Brown had their new machinery tended by the children of families whom they induced to settle in the factory neighborhood, and they paid their workers, sometimes, in store orders for Almy and Brown merchandise. Thus high-mindedly did they plant the seeds of the company town and child labor in New England soil. With the coming of the cotton gin in 1793, and with years of wartime high prices, they prospered, and even had a few imitators. Yet for all these, “industry” in any real economic sense remained all but nonexistent in the United States. The real breakthrough came in 1812, and one of the many forces behind it was, as so often, a hunch in a gifted man’s mind.

The man was Francis Cabot Lowell, member of a family which was to crowd the American hall of fame with merchants, ministers, legislators, judges, poets, soldiers, and educators. In 1812, this particular Lowell was visiting England for his health, and, like so many Yankees apparently “resting,” was deep in meditation. His mind ranged over a number of diverse facts. One was that the impending war would severely shake the Lowell family importing business. Another was that “yarn factories” were not a bad substitute investment. A third was that fresh inventions in the field of power looms had opened up still newer profit opportunities in dothmaking. In Great Britain, weaving factories were at last keeping pace with the healthy output of spinning factories. Francis Lowell, thirty-six years old in1812, synthesized these facts into a da/zling American vision. Why not put spinning and weaving machines under one roof? Why not have southern cotton delivered at one end of a factory, while from the other end bales of finished yard goods emerged to find a ready market, swept clean of British competitors by war? Power would come from New England streamlets; capital from Boston’s countinghouse aristocracy. Machinery? That was a little harder, but not impossible. Lowell, an amateur mathematician and scientist, visited the factories of unsuspecting British business contacts, and gave himself a quick course in the intricate process of machine weaving, which saw cotton fibers fluffed, combed, rolled, twisted, stretched, toughened, and cross-laced, moving from winding to winding and machine to machine in a complex and brilliantly-timed ballet of rollers, spindles, and flyers. Returning home to Boston, he took Paul Moody, a talented Massachusetts mechanic, into his confidence. The two of them perspired over drawings, imported a few devices, copied, redesigned, invented where they had to—and had their factory set up in Waltham, near Boston, by 1815. Meanwhile, Lowell’s brother-in-law, Patrick Tracy Jackson, had helped to round up the initial capital, and its donors had been incorporated in 1813 as the Boston Manufacturing Company.

Power, capital, machinery—all were ready. Mut what of labor? The more complex weaving machinery could not be run by children, and yet the cotton factory did not demand the skill and strength of grown men for most of its jobs. Obviously women workers were the answer. New England indeed had what was then called a “fund” of “female labor” in the daughters of its rural folk. But what of that supposed indissoluble bond of union between “manufactures” on the one hand, and “vice and poverty” on the other? Would Yankee farmers send their daughters into the factories to become part of a permanent force of degraded wage workers? Clearly not! Then how would the Boston Manufacturing Company recuit its labor? The answer was an invention as intriguing as any new mechanical gadget for mass-producing cloth. One of Patrick Jackson’s biographers explained it, years later.

By the erection of boarding-houses at the expense and under the control of the factory: putting at the head of them matrons of tried character, and allowing no boarders to be received except the female operatives of the mill: by stringent regulations for the government of these houses: by all these precautions, they gained the confidence of the rural population who were now no longer afraid to trust their daughters in a manufacturing town. A supply was thus obtained of respectable girls: and these, from pride of character as well as principle, have taken especial care to exclude all others.

It was soon found that an apprenticeship in a factory entailed no degradation of character, and was no impediment to a reputable connection in marriage. A factory-girl was no longer condemned to pursue that vocation for her Iife: she would retire, in her turn, to assume the higher and more appropriate responsibilities of her sex; and it soon came to be considered that a few years in a mill was an honorable mode of securing a dower. The business could thus be conducted without any permanent manufacturing population. The operatives no longer form a separate caste, pursuing a sedentary employment, from parent to child, in the heated rooms of a factory; but are recruited, in a circulating current, from the healthy and virtuous population of the country.

In a circulating current! There was the trick. The fathers of Waltham had not invented the notion of an employer’s personal responsibility for the physical and moral welfare of the worker. That was a legacy from indentured labor, apprenticeship—even slavery. But the new factory owners had built a new structure on that foundation. If they brought young girls to the factory for a brief period between maturing and marrying, and if they boarded them under safeguards approved by church, family, and all the gods of respectability, then a rotating labor force would escape the ills of industrial decay. It was simple country logic. Standing water stank; a running stream or a spring-fed pond stayed pure and clear.

So the experiment was tried at Waltham. Not much is known about early working conditions, but from a business viewpoint, success was enormous. The owners played a shrewd game from the start. They concentrated on plain and simple fabrics, marketed through a single firm, and they successfully lobbied, in 1816, for a certain measure of tariff protection. Francis Lowell died prematurely in 1817. He did not live to see another twenty years of dividends rarely falling below ten per cent, even while the price to the consumer dropped from twenty-one to six cents a yard. He did not need to; even by 1817, his kind of textile factory, mass-producing cheap, utilitarian goods, had won a clear decision over the dying system of decentralized craft production. By 1821, the leaders of the Boston Manufacturing Company were looking for new worlds to conquer, hunting for a site for a new factory, to turn out printed calicoes.

They found their spot in December of 1821, in a peaceable little farm community called East Chelmsford, some twenty-five miles from Boston. It was at the junction of the Concord and Merrimack rivers—a quiet place, where men could still fish tranquilly for salmon and alewives in their season. A no-longer-used canal around a fall in the Merrimack was quickly bought by the promoters of the new factory. It gave them water power and an iron grip on any future millbuilding in the area. A new corporation, the Merrimack Manufacturing Company, was created—but its owners were predominantly the Waltham founders. For years they remained a well-knit group, holding tightly to patents and controlling blocks of stock, and admitting outsiders only when they could pass inspection—and pay!

But if the ownership elite did not grow swiftly, the enterprise did. The Merrimack factory was up in December of 1823. Within three years more, little East Chelmsford, with its scattered farmhouses, gristmills, store, and tavern, was ready for incorporation as a village. Its leading businessmen, landowners, and citizens—the mill owners, naturally—renamed it Lowell. And Lowell mushroomed, geysered, exploded. Two new mills went up in 1828, another in 1830, three more in 1831, still another in 1835. The population of 200 in 1820 jumped to 6,477 in 1830, and 17,633 in 1836. A bank appeared, then another, then a hotel, a library, two schoolhouses, and Episcopalian, Baptist, Congregational, Universalist, and Unitarian churches. In 1835 the Boston and Lowell Railroad—one of the country’s earliest—was opened in a flourish of band music and spread-eagle oratory. By 1845 Lowell, population over 30,000, had become a modern factory town in less time than it took small boys who once had fished undisturbed in the Concord to reach the ripe age of thirty.

Lowell was more than a success. It was a showpiece. Its population consisted mostly of factory girls living in the company boardinghouses. From 1823 to about 1845, it seemed to show that the fond hopes of those who planned a rotating and virtuous labor force might be realized. Foreign tourists—Michel Chevalier of France, Harriet Martineau and Charles Dickens of England—and famous Americans like Andrew Jackson, Henry Clay, and David Crockett visited it to wonder and admire. The focus of attention was the band of New England country girls who had turned themselves into mill hands. They had done so for a number of reasons, among them to show, as one of their number put it, that “it is the laborer’s privilege to ennoble his work by the aim with which he undertakes it, and by the enthusiasm and faithfulness he puts into it.”

What kind of girls were they? Precisely as planned, they were farm girls, and not only did they come off the farms as expected, they went back to them according to prediction. In 1845 the author of a small book on Lowell inquired of several mill owners to learn whence came their “hands,” and how long they stayed. In one factory employing 173 workers, 21 were from Massachusetts, 45 from Maine, 55 from New Hampshire, 52 from Vermont. Only five had worked more than ten years, and 114 of them—nearly two-thirds of the total force—had been there for less than four. Even allowing for some shifting from mill to mill, the turnover in Lowell’s population was brisk.

The New England farmer’s daughter was anything but a peasant. She might be classed technically as an “unskilled” laborer, but that was only so far as factory production was concerned. She could grow fruits and vegetables, and put them into pies and preserves of breathtaking quality. She could cook for one man or for twenty at harvest time. She could knit, sew, embroider, and sometimes spin and weave. She could keep a two-story frame house spotless, raise small animals and baby brothers and sisters, and nurse sick aunts and grannies as occasion demanded. She could make such varied household products as cheese, brooms, candles, and soap. Independence came as naturally to her as to her brothers, who at seventeen and eighteen were working their own fields or commanding fishing smacks, trading schooners, and whalers. She had the equivalent of a grade-school education, often kept her father’s books if he was a small businessman on the side, and took as naturally as she breathed to reading or to attending two-hour lectures and sermons.

One of these girls, Lucy Larcom, who later became a well-known poet and editor of a children’s magazine, recalled her childhood in the port town of Newburyport. She remembered leisure hours spent in devouring Aesop, Bunyan, Gulliver’s Travels, The Vicar of Wakefield, and Arabian Nights. The stories in them were no more wonderful than those that she got from retired seamen, who brought home gorgeously colored tropical parrots to squawk from perches in New England parlors, and who spoke to friends (addressed as “shipmate”) about voyages to Calcutta and Hong Kong as casually as they might refer to a pony ride to the next village. Lucy knew the local farmers, too, who tramped into her father’s store in thick boots and coarse trousers, smelling of hay, dung, and honest sweat. When her widowed mother moved to Lowell to run one of the boardinghouses, Lucy, aged eleven, was prepared for hard work and for leisure rigorously spent in self-improvement.

In the mills there was work in plenty. From April to October, operations began about 5 A.M. and ran until close to 7:30 in the evening, with half-hour interruptions for breakfast at 7 A.M. and dinner at 12:30 in the afternoon. In the shorter months, breakfast was served before daylight, and the working day was finished under lamps. Six days of eleven to thirteen hours’ actual work made a long week, but not necessarily a prohibitive one to girls used to being up with the rooster and rarely idle until the sewing basket was set aside for nine o’clock bedtime. (The American factory schedule, in fact, copied farmer’s hours—up at dawn to feed stock before breakfast, home for dinner in hottest daytime, late supper after barnyard chores.)

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:

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 1830s and 1840’s—phrenology, mesmerism, Grahamism, Fourierism. One boardinghouse even contained a Mormon Bible!

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.

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.

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.

While the labor force thus changed, so did the nature of the owning group. The new ownership was well represented by a man like Amos Lawrence, ancestor of many pious churchmen, whose name was bestowed on a new mill town on the Merrimack, built up in the 1840’s. Lawrence was a nonsmoker and nondrinker who demanded the same abstinence of his male employees. Plagued with stomach trouble, he dined briefly and frugally on watery gruel, and he was not a man to listen sympathetically to complaints that a worker’s salary did not buy an adequate diet. Reproached by some critics with his great wealth, he is said to have snarled: “There is one thing you may as well understand; I know how to make money, and you cannot prevent it.” There was something hard here that made the older, paternalistic, nationalistic outlook of the founders of Waltham seem archaic. The difference between Lawrence and Lowell, the towns, was something like the difference between Lawrence and Lowell, the men.

In addition, as stockholding in the corporations finally became a little more widespread, the personal link between owner and worker was snapped. The original Boston promoters had been drawn from the same Yankee stock as the mill hands. But the difference between a Boston attorney with a few shares of Suffolk Manufacturing Company in his safe, and Bridget Doyle at her spinning frame, was more than one of money. It was a gap between ways of life and understanding. Moreover, as some stock passed into the hands of guardians and estate administrators, company treasurers were at last able to invoke piously the interests of widows and orphans, as they maintained dividends while slashing wages and stretching out tasks.

Through the 1850’s the labor scene darkened as industry spread through the nation. Prices rose in response to gold strikes and industrial booms, but wages remained at ancient levels. Factory workers struck more frequently—and were more frequently replaced by immigrant strikebreakers. Some leaders, despairing of direct action by labor, turned to state legislatures and petitioned for laws restricting the hours of labor and the employment of women and children. Some small gains were made in legislative cutting of the work burden of children under twelve, but most “ten-hour” legislation proposed in New England in the fifties died in the state capitals. The slogans of progress which had justified the beginnings of Waltham and Lowell now rang out to justify a status quo maintained at the price of increasing bitterness.

So it was that in 1860 something more than a single defectively built factory lay in ruins in Lawrence. In all New England there was evidence that the United States was going to have to find another way toward justice for labor—was going to have to walk the long road through decades of violence, organization, degradation, cruelty, bitterness, and protest, before the light would dawn again. The short cut to Utopia had run into a dead end, and Lowell was not, as it turned out, the harbinger of a perfect, harmonious, and just industrial society, in which a “circulating current” of laborers gained bread, education, and stature at the machines. It was not the only Utopian experiment of the Jacksonian era to fail. Like the others, it remains in American history as a memory, the surviving token of a lost innocence that believed in the impossible, and for a few short hours in a simpler time, seemed to make it work.

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