Mill Workers


Americans were uneasy about factory work. Jefferson's political philosophy stressed the virtues of agriculture. Democracy, he argued, could only thrive in a society of small, independent producers.

Jeffersonians saw industrialization as a danger. It would result in a large class of dependent employees--men who would always be controlled by their wealthy bosses. Looking at England, Jeffersonian Democracts worried about the rise of a large, poverty stricken class of unskilled workers.

Workers too feared industrialization--artisans rightly saw it as a threat to their independence and their standard of living.The Jeffersonian tradition strongly opposed industrialization.

But even Jefferson loved to tinker with machines. Eagerness for industry characterized the Hamiltonian tradition. Hamilton had no illusions about the virtues of agriculture, and proposed setting the US on an industrial course. The Hamiltonian, Whig tradition encouraged industry.

The tension between these two philosophies meant that industrial development had to be "tamed"--made to seem less threatening.

Schools were a primary weapon in the campaign to to make industry more acceptable. You should have a copy of McGuffey's Third Eclectic Reader. Read it carefully. What lessons is it teaching children? What sort of world is it preparing them for? The frontier? The city? Farm life? Compare the lessons in McGuffey's reader to this poster specifying the work rules at the Lowell Mills

Historian Stephen Lubar describes the Lowell Mills in these passages from his book Engines of Change


    The mills of Lowell, Massachusetts, attracted the most attention, for they were on a new scale, larger and more industrial than anything Americans had seen before. Americans applied an English metaphor: Lowell was the "Manchester of America." Lowell was a new industrial city, built from scratch by a group of Boston capitalists who have come to be called the Boston Associates. These men had earlier invested in the Boston Manufacturing Company, a textile mill Francis Cabot Lowell had founded in 1814 in Waltham, Massachusetts, about ten miles west of Boston. That mill was the first large-scale textile mill in America. It went beyond earlier American mills by including power- loom weaving as well as spinning. The mills at Lowell developed and extended the ideas experimented with at Waltham. In their size, corporate structure., and urban setting, these large textile mills set the style for much subsequent American industrial development...

    A mill was, in a way, one vast machine, connected by the complicated system of shafts and belts. If it was to work properly, all the spinners and weavers and carders and dressers had to be in place when it was started and work until it was stopped. The great cost of the machines meant that the mills had to be kept running, even when the market for their product was weak. That often meant cuts in the workers'pay. And most important, the machines' steady motion insisted on a machine-like pace for the workers. The managers set the speed of the machines, and the machines set the pace of work.

    The mills of Lowell employed a new industrial work force. Not families, as in the mills of England and southern New England, but rather young women labored there. The 1820s were hard times for the farmers of New Hampshire and Massachusetts and Maine: the opening of the Erie Canal was bringing in cheaper goods from the West, and the West was luring their sons off the poor soil of the area. Their daughters, looking for work outside the home-some to earn money for their families, some to earn money for themselves--were attracted to Lowell.

There were other reasons the mills employed women. First, women were traditionally employed in home textile work. Second, women were not expected to suport families and so could be paid less. Third, in this period women were never expected to be independent, equal citizens--they could not vote, after all--and so unlike male artisans, they had no independance to lose when they became factory hands. Lubar continues:

    When these young women arrived at Lowell they found housing in the long rows of boardinghouses that surrounded the mills. Here respectable boardinghouse keepers, paid by the Lowell corporations, ensured the morality of the factory experience, reporting any misconduct to the agents of the corporations. Their guidance was supplemented by a code of moral rules in the mills themselves; girls were fired for offenses ranging from hysteria to insubordination and could be blacklisted and kept from working at other mills. Most mill girls stayed in Lowell only a few years before marrying or returning to their families' farms.

    The mill girls of Lowell became famous for their attainments in literature and the arts. One group published The Lowell Offering, a literary magazine that was everywhere cited as an example of the elevated moral attainments of a truly American industrial work force.

    Why did the proprietors of the Lowell mills spend the extra money to establish a paternalistic regime there? There is no easy answer. Some of them took seriously the warnings about the evils of factory work. Some feared that they would not be able to attract workers to do the hard labor the mills required without the amenities they offered, or feared that the parents of the mill girls would not allow them to work at the mills otherwise. Some may have feared American reactions to Lowell if it adopted the English factory model, widely despised in this country.

    Whatever the reasons, the paternalism of the Boston Associates, though widely admired, was not without its tarnish. The first strike of women factory workers in this country occurred at the Boston Manufacturing Company in 1821. When the company cut wages, a mechanic at the mill wrote in a letter "The girls as one revolted, and the work stopped for two days in consequence. At Lowell there were similar strikes when management cut pay or sped up the work. The mill girls appealed to American democratic ideals in their strikes. They struck for "liberty" against the "oppressing hand of avarice that doth enslave us."' They published labor newspapers and circulated petitions for shorter hours.

The 1820s and 1830s have been called Lowell's Golden Age: the time of New England mill girls, relatively unpressured working conditions, closely supervised boardinghouses, and The Lowell Offering. The 1840s saw a " speed up" and "stretch out" in the mills, with the machines run faster and each worker given more machines to tend, to make up for falling profits. The Yankee mill girls began to leave, replaced by Irish immigrants with no better options. The Civil War meant the end of Lowell as an industrial experiment, for the owners, thinking the war would last only months, mistakenly sold off their cotton to make a quick profit. When the mills reopened after the war, the "Lowell experiment" was over: the Yankee work force was gone, replaced with immigrant workers. Lower wages and sped-up machinery indicated a search only for profit, not for a moral workplace.

The women who worked at Lowell worked extremely long hours. They were typically sixteen to twenty five, but might be as young as ten years old. Farm life, especially for unwed daughters, was very tough as well--the work never stopped, and for many young women the social life in the "dormitories" was preferable to the isolation of rural life. Harriet Robinson worked in the Lowell Mills and in this excerpt recalls what the work was like.


back

Back