Examination of 19th Century Life in an American Textile Mill
Author: Craig McKee
School: Robert Frost Middle School
Grade Level: 8th
Time Estimated: 4 days (45 minute periods)
Francis Cabot Lowell and fellow partners Patrick Tracy Jackson and Nathan Appleton, established the Boston Manufacturing Company in Waltham in 1814. Developing the first power loom, Lowell and his Waltham mill quickly became a dominant producer of textiles. The power loom and other machinery combined all the steps in textile production under a single roof. This system of manufacturing quickly replaced the traditional method of relying on family labor producing single items in the house. Young single women flocked to the early mills for higher wages and new opportunities. As business soared, new mills in East Chelmsford (renamed Lowell), and then Chicopee, Manchester, and Lawrence opened up -- ultimately giving Lowell control of a fifth of the countries cotton production by 1850.
Life at the mills was governed by the factory bells. The first bell would ring at 4:30 a.m., called them into the mill at 4:50, rang them out for breakfast and back in, out and in for dinner at noon and 12:30, and quitting time at 7 p.m. Girls came to the mills for numerous reasons: to earn money for their wedding, to meet a spouse, to escape overbearing parents, or to help finance a male relative's education. Most were between 15 and 25, and averaged about three years of employment before leaving the mills for marriage, other opportunities, or to return to their hometowns.
Dissatisfaction with the work environment was a major reason for leaving the mills. The first strike occurred in 1834 over a decrease in wages and an increase in boarding costs. Harriet Hanson Robinson, writing in her autobiography, Loom and Spindle, or Life Among the Early Mill Girls, published in 1898, recalls the failed strike of 1836 over the lowering of wages:
"It is hardly necessary to say that, so far as practical results are concerned, this strike did no good. The corporation would not come to terms. The girls were soon tired of holding out, and they went back to their work at the reduced rate of wages. The ill-success of this early attempt at resistance on the part of the wage element seems to have made a precedent for the issue of many succeeding strikes.
The declining work week compensated somewhat for the quickened pace of work. Still, the mills only reduced their work hours from an average 73 hours a week in the 1830s and 1840s to a 60-hour week by 1874 under steady Pressure from state regulation.
In additional to their duties at the mill, female workers in Lowell adhered to a list of rules outlined in the Lowell handbook. These included, work for at least a year live in a company boardinghouse, attend church on the Sabbath, and cannot be absent from work without the consent of the overseer.
Typically 30 to 40 young women lived together in a boardinghouse. The first floor usually contained kitchen, dining room, and the keeper's quarters, and served as the social center for the young ladies. A visitor to Lowell in 1836 wrote in the daily Harbinger newspaper:
The young women sleep upon an average six in a room, three beds to a room. There is no privacy, no retirement, here. It is almost impossible to read or write alone, as the parlor is full and so many sleep in the same chamber. A young woman remarked to us that if she had a letter to write, she did it on the head of a bandbox, sitting on a trunk, as there was no space for a table.
The boardinghouses began to fade from prominence as Lowell aged, profits fell, and the workforce changed. At first, Lowell firms rarely employed immigrants. After the Civil War, however, more immigrants began working and living at Lowell as the native-born left the mills for other opportunities. By 1900, however, immigrants found their own residence and boardinghouse keepers had to take in non-mill to cover the cost of keeping the boarding houses operational. Finally, many corporations sold the boardinghouses, which were subdivided into tenement apartments for immigrant families or converted to other uses.
Explore the social and economic conditions of Americans during the 19th Century Industrial Revolution by examining primary source documents and reflecting on them.
Unit 8.3: "Geographic and Economic Change Shape the Nation, 1815–1850"
Lesson 4: "Economic Growth, Regional Responses"
Students will examine and analyze eight primary source documents that help elucidate the social and economic conditions of the 19th Century Industrial Revolution. Also, students will complete an organizer to help make meaning out of each source and organize its significance.
- Primary Source Packet
- Primary Source Organizer
- Postcard Assessment
- Additional Resources (Cover of The Lowell Offering and photos of the Lowell textile mill.)
Students will work in small groups of 4-6 members. Each group will complete a "guided tour", visiting various stations around the room and interacting with each of the primary sources. Most of the sources will be written documents that students will analyze.
Students will work on the Postcard Assessment at home.
Students will work in mixed ability groups to help make meaning of the documents. Also, the teacher can employ sentence starters for the post card to help students who struggle with writing.
Students will complete a capture sheet and use that information to construct a postcard that explains the working conditions of life at a textile mill and other important information. On the front of the post cards, students will draw/print a visual. On the reverse, students will include specific information in their postcard to demonstrate understanding.
- Anonymous. "A Week in the Mill." Lowell Offering, Volume V. 1845. Primary Sources: Workshops in American History, Annenberg Media and WGBH Educational Foundation. http://www.learner.org/workshops/primarysources/lowell/docs/week2.html
- This primary source letter is from the Lowell collection and details the week of a typical worker. It sets the tone by saying the days are neither boring and idle or tiresome and endless. But shows how work is long, over the 6 day period, with for some relaxation on the Sabbath and three hours each night after work. The source is a little long to be used in concert with other documents for the students to analyze.
- Harriet Farley. "Letters from Susan." Lowell Offering, Volume IV. 1844. Primary Sources: Workshops in American History, Annenberg Media and WGBH Educational Foundation.http://www.learner.org/workshops/primarysources/lowell/docs/susan.html
- This collection of two letters from "Susan" to her friend describes the people who live at Lowell – from the worker, to the overseers and their wives, and the boarding-housekeepers. The second letter, entitled Fourth Letter, explains more the reasons why women have left home to come and work at Lowell.
- "An Account of a Visitor to Lowell." The Harbinger. November 14, 1836. Source: Syllabus, History 316Z: Workers and Work in America, 1600-Present. Professor Gerald Zahavi.http://www.albany.edu/history/history316/VisitorLowell1836.html
- This newspaper document gives significant details concerning the working and living conditions at the Lowell Mill. Specific notes on why the windows are kept shut, the conditions of the mill, and how individuals live in the boarding houses provide useful information about life at the mill. [Non-excerpted version at: "Female Workers of Lowell," The Harbinger. November 14, 1836. Primary Sources: Workshops in American History, Annenberg Media and WGBH Educational Foundation. http://www.learner.org/workshops/primarysources/lowell/docs/harbinger.html]
- "Factory Rules from the Handbook to Lowell." 1848. Illinois Labor History Society.http://www.kentlaw.edu/ilhs/lowell.html
- This document was created by the mill and details about ten rules the workers need to observe. Included in these are work for at least a year live in a company boardinghouse, attend church on the Sabbath, and cannot be absent from work without the consent of the overseer.
- "Massachusetts Investigation into Labor Conditions: Excerpted from Massachusetts House Document, no. 50, March of 1845." Illinois Labor History Society.http://www.kentlaw.edu/ilhs/lowell.html
- This document includes testimony from nine Lowell Mill workers who petitioned for a reduction in the work day. Included in the testimony are details about working conditions and a chart the shows the average number of hours an individual worked per week over a 12 month period.
- "Boston Transcript reports on the Strike." 1834. College of Staten Island Library.http://www.library.csi.cuny.edu/dept/americanstudies/lavender/lowetext.html#transcript
- This brief newspaper article provides information concerning the 1834 strike at Lowell. It talks about the reason for the strike, the number of workers on strike, and some of the protest methods used by the workers at the mill.
- "Time Table of the Lowell Mills." October 21, 1851. Whole Cloth: Discovering Science and Technology Through American History, The Society for the History of Technology and the National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution.http://invention.smithsonian.org/centerpieces/whole_cloth/u2ei/u2images/act9/time_tbl.html
- This poster from the Lowell mill displays the eleven-hour average work week schedule for the next calendar year. The poster shows winter and summer hours of operation, Saturday hours, and when breakfast and dinner breaks occur. The poster also contains information for the students to make inferences- including dinner at noon, the mention of "speed gates", and the difference between the first and second morning bells.
- Harriet Hanson Robinson. Loom and Spindle; or, Life Among the Early Mill Girls. 1898. Center for Lowell History, University of Massachusetts Lowell Libraries.http://library.uml.edu/clh/All/han.pdf
- This document was written by Harriet Hanson Robinson as she recalls her 16 years working in the Lowell Mill from 1832 until her marriage in 1848. The entire source is about 40 pages long and details her experiences at the mill. This portion of the autobiography relates to the different jobs at the mill, working conditions, wages, and the strike of 1836.