"Characteristics of the Early Factory Girls"
Boston capitalists, making use of the new canal system, began
building textile mills in Lowell, Massachusetts, in the early
nineteenth century, they recruited young women from rural New
England as their labor force. They assumed these "girls"
would be docile and easily managed. Instead, the young women in the
Lowell mills formed reading circles, organized to demand their rights
as laborers and as women, and agitated for better workplace
conditions. They printed leaflets and published their own newspaper,
the 'Lowell Offering.' Here Harriet Hanson Robinson, who
started work in the mills when she was only ten, recounts a "turn
out," or strike, of the Lowell women, and describes the
conditions of women factory workers in the 1830s.
—Introduction from Zinn and Arnove's Voices of a People's History of the United States
I look back into the factory life of fifty or sixty years ago, I do
not see what is called "a class" of young men and women
going to and from their daily work, like so many ants that cannot be
distinguished one from another; I see them as individuals, with
personalities of their own. This one has about her the atmosphere of
her early home. That one is impelled by a strong and noble purpose.
The other,—what she is, has been an influence for good to me
and to all womankind.
they were a class of factory operatives, and were spoken of (as the
same class is spoken of now) as a set of persons who earned
their daily bread, whose condition was fixed, and who must continue
to spin and to weave to the end of their natural existence. Nothing
but this was expected of them, and they were not supposed to be
capable of social or mental improvement. That they could be educated
and developed into something more than work-people, was an idea that
had not yet entered the public mind. So little does one class of
persons really know about the thoughts and aspirations of another! It
was the good fortune of these early mill-girls to teach the people of
that time that this sort of labor is not degrading; that the
operative is not only "capable of virtue," but also capable
the time the Lowell cotton-mills were started, the factory girl was
the lowest among women. In England, and in France particularly, great
injustice had been done to her real character; she was represented as
subjected to influences that could not fail to destroy her purity and
self-respect. In the eyes of her overseer she was but a brute, slave,
to be beaten, pinched, and pushed about.
was to overcome this prejudice that such high wages had been offered
to women that they might be induced to become mill-girls, in spice of
the opprobrium that still clung to this "degrading occupation."
At first only a few came; for, though tempted by the high wages to be
regularly paid in "cash," there were many who still
preferred to go on working at some more genteel employment at
seventy-five cents a week and their board.
in a short time the prejudice against the factory labor wore away,
and the Lowell mills became filled with blooming and energetic New
England women. They were naturally intelligent, had mother-wit, and
fell easily into the ways of their new life. They soon began to
associate with those who formed the community in which they had come
to live, and were invited to their houses. They went to the same
church, and sometimes married into some of the best families. Or if
they returned to their secluded homes again, instead of being looked
down upon as "factory girls" by the squire's or lawyer's
family, they were more often welcomed as coming from the metropolis,
bringing new fashions, new books, and new ideas with them.
1831 Lowell was little more than a factory village. Several
corporations were started, and the cotton-mills belonging to them
were building. Help was in great demand; and the stories were told
all over the country of the new factory town, and the high wages that
were offered to all classes of work-people,—stories that
reached the ears of mechanics' and farmers' sons, and gave new life
to lonely and dependent women in distant towns and farmhouses. Into
this Yankee El Dorado, these needy people began to pour by the
various modes of travel known to those slow old days. The stage-coach
and the canal-boat came every day, always filled with the new
recruits for this army of useful people. The mechanic and machinist
came, each with his home-made chest of tools, and oftentimes
his wife and little ones. The widow came with her little flock of
scanty housekeeping goods to open a boarding-house or variety store,
and so provided a home for her fatherless children. Many farmers'
daughters came to earn money to complete their wedding outfit, or buy
the bride's share of housekeeping articles.
with past histories came, to hide their griefs and their identity,
and to earn an honest living in the "sweat of their brow."
Single young men came, full of hope and life, to get money for an
education, or to lift the mortgage from the home-farm. Troops of
young girls came by stages and baggage-wagons, men often being
employed to go to other States and to Canada, to collect them at so
much a head, and deliver them to the factories....
country girls had queer names, which added to the singularity of
their appearance. Samantha, Triphena, Plumy, Kezia, Aseneth, Elgardy,
Leafy, Ruhamah, Lovey, Almaretta, Sarepta, and Flotilla were among
dialect was also very peculiar. On the broken English and Scotch of
their ancestors was ingrafted the nasal Yankee twang; so that many of
them, when they had just come down, spoke a language almost
unintelligible. But the severe discipline and ridicule which met them
was as good as a school education, and they were soon taught the
"city way of speaking." ...
of the first strikes of the cotton-factory operatives that ever took
place in this country was that in Lowell, in October, 1836. When it
was announced that wages were to be cut down, great indignation was
felt, and it was decided to strike, en masse. This was done. The
mills were shut down, and the girls went in procession from their
several corporations to the "grove" on Chapel Hill, and
listened to "incendiary" speeches from early labor
of the girls stood on a pump, and gave vent to the feelings of her
companions in a neat speech, declaring that it was their duty to
resist all attempts at cutting down the wages. This was the first
time a woman had spoken in public in Lowell, and the event caused
surprise and consternation among her audience.
down the wages was not their only grievance, nor the only cause of
this strike. Hitherto the corporations had paid twenty-five cents a
week towards the board of each operative, and now it was their
purpose to have the girls pay the sum; and this, in addition to the
cut in wages, would make a difference of at least one dollar a week.
It was estimated that as many as twelve or fifteen hundred girls
turned out, and walked in procession through the streets....
own recollection of this first strike (or "turn out" as it
was called) is very vivid. I worked in a lower room, where I had
heard the proposed strike fully, if not vehemently, discussed; I had
been an ardent listener to what was said against this attempt at
"oppression" on the part of the corporation, and naturally
I took sides with the strikers. When the day came on which the girls
were to turn out, those in the upper rooms started first, and so many
of them left that our mill was at once shut down. Then, when the
girls in my room stood irresolute, uncertain what to do, asking each
other, "Would you?" or "Shall we turn out?" and
not one of them having the courage to lead off, I, who began
to think they would not go out, after all their talk, became
impatient, and started on ahead, saying, with childish bravado, "I
don't care what you do, I am going to turn out, whether any one else
does or not;" and I marched out, and was followed by the others.
I looked back at the long line that followed me, I was more proud
than I have ever been at any success I may have achieved.
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