By Bernard Trubowitz
Thirty-seven miles northwest of Boston lies a city well known as a symbol of America’s entry into the industrial revolution, labor politics, post-industrial collapse and twenty-first century rebirth. But the city of Lowell stands out as a testbed not only for new technologies such as efficient water turbines; Lowell was the site of an ambitious and oft highly romanticized social and industrial experiment: the running of a modern, planned industrial city using women fresh from the farms of New England. These were the famous Lowell mill girls.
The choice to use Yankee women as labor was possible in part because of the city’s status as a planned community. Carved out of East Chelmsford in 1826 at a bend and drop in the Merrimack River, Lowell offered a chance to plan a new sort of industrial community in a still mostly agrarian nation. In an era when the steam engine was only beginning to be applied to factory work, the thirty-foot drop in the river and infrastructure such as the Middlesex Canal offered inexhaustible power to run water wheels (and later turbines). Investors looking to the success of the Slater mill in the Blackstone Valley of Rhode Island or the failure of mills along the tidal Charles River due to poorer water flow saw an opportunity to plan an entire city devoted to the efficient (and more importantly, profitable) production of cloth. But the new power looms wouldn’t run themselves, and the image of England’s struggles with rapid industrial expansion and the growth of dirty, crime and poverty-ridden cities dominated by “dark, satanic mills” provided impetus to build Lowell as a model city that could be “livable” for its citizens, and the character of those citizens would be used to further this goal.
In sourcing factory labor for their enterprise, the “Boston Associates,” wealthy men with names synonymous of Boston’s elite such as Appleton, Cabot, Jackson, Lowell, and Lawrence, turned to the daughters of rural farmers. The image of the Yankee farm girl, a young woman aged 15-35 of hard working, clean morality, lent gentility and a softer feminine overtone to the industrial city, while they could seemingly offer these women and their families opportunities unheard of in the countryside. Good wages, a safe and morally protected lodging in a boarding house overseen by an older matron, opportunities to expand their minds with libraries and lectures, wide streets and tree-lined parks promised wholesome recreation, shops offering a far greater selection than any county store, and banks to encourage thrift and savings for a post-factory life. There would be no lifetime of drudgery; these young women would work a few years before returning home with savings to aid their impoverished families or to serve as a dowry for these now more marriageable women, “improved” as they were by their experience. Lowell’s city motto declared that “Art is the handmaid of human good;” art in the form of technology and beauty would be created (and enjoyed) by these “handmaids of human good.” Advertising for female workers seemed to promise everything and offer no downsides.
It is true that the Lowell mill girls enjoyed the opportunities promised them by the Boston Associates. The women seemed to flourish, founding periodicals such as the famed Lowell Offering in 1840 and impressing visitors from across the globe with their propriety and appetite for knowledge from Charles Dickens to Michel Chevalier, the latter a French economist who declared “This then is not Manchester… Lowell, with its steeple-crowned factories, resembles a Spanish town with its convents, but with this difference, that in Lowell, you meet with no rags nor Madonnas, and that the nuns in Lowell, instead of working sacred hearts, spin and weave cotton.” Lowell was a center of industry besides cloth, such as the famed Lowell Machine Shop, and when in 1830 the Boston and Lowell Railroad established one of the nation’s first railways it soon brought with it new technologies such as the telegraph; Lowell’s young women appeared to break barriers as they embraced these new technologies, such as when Sarah G. Bagley (of Lowell Offering fame) became the first woman in the country to work a telegraph key on the Boston-New York line. But all was not well; Bagley began writing of her unhappiness upon learning she earned three-quarters of what her male counterparts earned, and her turn to labor politics, women’s rights, and abolitionism signaled that all was not as rosy as Lowell’s boosters advertised.
Wages of $11-$14 per month may have been far more than could be earned on the farm, but the mills claimed portions of this wage through fees such as $5 monthly for room and board. Kirk Boott, perhaps the most involved of anyone in the day-to-day affairs of the city’s mills and a major force in the construction of the planned city, founded St. Anne’s church in 1825 as part of the promise of religion and morality made to the fathers encouraged to send their daughters to Lowell but initially charged the women for their mandatory seats; further, while he (and thus the church he founded) was Episcopal, many of the mill girls belonged to other sects, and until they left to establish other congregations they found themselves unrepresented in religion. The mills ran on a strict time table dictated by bells, with the timing of waking, factory gates opening, factory work commencing, and even eating identically aligned by all of the mills in the city. Work schedules started as early and ran as late as daylight made possible, especially in the summer months, and oil (and later gas and electric) lights extended work far enough into darkness that even women formerly used to the pre-dawn work of the farm complained of its “unnaturalness;” a fourteen-hour day might begin work (let alone waking) at 4:30 am and run past 7:00 pm. As one woman wrote in the Offering, “Up before day, at the clang of the bell – and out of the mill by the clang of the bell – into the mill, and at work, to the obedience of that ding-dong of the bell – just as though we were so many living machines.” Those whom were late to work might find themselves locked out at the gate, and at the very least find their pay docked accordingly, and even with the introduction of the ten-hour day in 1874 many mills flagrantly ignored the law.
With belt shafting, whirling gears, and the missile-like flight of the shuttle loom, the mills were dangerous places to work. Operating numerous machines packed in tight rows at once (at a savings per machine for the owners), mill girls experienced frightful injuries; anything caught in the machines was crushed and the leather belts which ran the looms from ceiling power shafts were known to catch hair, tossing the women up and ripping at their scalps. With windows kept sealed to preserve the humidity needed to keep the cotton threads from breaking and cotton dust filling the air, “brown lung” plagued their breathing. There was also the fear of major calamities, particularly after the collapse and fire of the Pemberton Mill in Lawrence in 1860.
As women, moreover, they were subject to workplace harassment as well as injury; while failure to follow the strict printed regulations could lead to docked pay or expulsion from a boardinghouse for the women, there were no repercussion of any kind for male overseers who assaulted a young girl. Reliant entirely upon the corporations for lodging, food, and work, the women had little recourse for complaint, and in the social spheres of the day the woman who was unfortunate enough to become pregnant out of marriage faced social stigmatism as “loose,” both in the city and upon returning home. Indeed, the few discussions during the period on the subject were unclear as to who was actually the aggressor or instigator of such behavior. As a result, “older” women in their twenties often took younger workers under their wings to watch out for and protect them.
Run like a tightly-sprung watch, the city was maximized for profit, and during any economic downturn the women could expect reduced wages or to be let go. Attempts at labor organization and striking, as early as 1834; while a few “bold” women managed to encourage 800 others to march out, all were back at work within several days. Blacklisting, control of wages and lodging, and access to plentiful cheap labor stacked the deck in the mill owner’s favor. In a city that had grown from 2,500 in 1826 to 33,000 in 1850, the demographics began to shift. As fewer women began answering the calls to work in Lowell, the benefits of employing them were outweighed in favor of cheaper immigrant labor. While a few Irish, for example, had been employed in digging the canals and building the factories, few initially found work in part due to heavy prejudice. But with rising female activism and heavy economic downturn, particularly in the 1850s and later 1860s when nearly all the cotton mills of the city underestimated the duration of the Civil War and saw huge losses in part from the severing of connections to the slave-operated cotton plantations which supplied them (the Middlesex Woolen Mills being an exception). Massive waves of French-Canadian, Irish, Greek, and Polish immigration displaced the Yankee women, working for lower wages while seeming to offer the promise of defused labor organization due to their varied ethnic backgrounds, and by 1860 Yankee workers were earning less than they had in 1836 despite huge increases in production. Neighboring cities such as Lawrence were built without the emphasis on parks, recreation, and worker livelihood, and advances in steam engines disconnected mills from New England’s rivers entirely, signaling a shift to the south in favor of even cheaper work and laxer regulation. Long before the decline of Lowell as an industrial center started after WWI, the “Lowell Miracle” ended.
Today, concerns over workplace safety, wage inequality, and quality of life for workers remain as critical as they did over a hundred years ago. The Lowell mill girl experiment offers a chance to see how attempts to create a utopian industrial society were made, and the challenges to maintain it. Whether seen through more romantic lenses or though the harsher realities of America’s industrial era, these “handmaids of human good” left an important legacy.
Bernard Rosenthal Trubowitz began working in the museum field as a teenager, from volunteer work at small sites to five years with the Student Conservation Association and National Park Service. He has worked at numerous historic sites in the Boston area, including the Old North Church and the Metropolitan Waterworks Museum, and currently works as an educator at the USS Constitution Museum. He specializes in the study of the Industrial Revolution, both the physical mechanization and the associated economic growth and social changes. He has been involved with the Lawrence, MA “Bread & Roses” labor history festival and the Lawrence History Center. As a student at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell, he majored in History, with a minor in Work, Labor, and Society. Through the university he produced a research video used as part of an educational program with the Lawrence Public Library and local high schools, and his research on the Essex County Jail Records was published in the New England Journal of History. At Lowell he earned numerous academic awards and membership to several national honor societies. Bernard enjoys working at several sites as a costumed period interpreter and working with historic steam and early electrical equipment.
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