Lowell Factory Girls of the 19th Century

Lowell Factory Girls of the 19th Century

During the first half of the 1800s, girls and young women from throughout New
England were recruited to process cotton for textile mills in Lowell,
Massachusetts. The majority female workforce was unusual for contemporary
factories. Their unique work culture came to national attention when the women
organized for workers’ rights.

The mill town was named for businessman Francis Cabot Lowell. In 1814, he
formed the Boston Manufacturing Company and constructed a textile mill along
the Charles River. Lowell passed away while the town was still small, and his
associates named their new town in his memory. The remaining business
partners expanded Lowell from a one-mill town to a busy 32-mill city. Within 20
years, they employed nearly 8,000 people.

The Boston Manufacturing Company carefully recruited young female workers.
This could be difficult since the women would be leaving their hometowns and
families, and factory laborers traditionally had low social status. The company
wanted to overcome this prejudice about factory culture. Therefore, they offered
relatively high wages and promised that boarding houses would have strict rules
(e.g., curfews and restrictions on male visitors). The factory owners also
promised “cultural activities”, including concerts, lectures, and the creation of a
group magazine. Many families sent their daughters to earn wages for their sons’

Despite the terms of recruitment, many workers were displeased with their work
and housing in Lowell. One despondently wrote, “In vain I do try to soar in fancy
and imagination above the dull reality around me, but beyond the roof of the
factory I cannot rise.” The women’s workday began at 5 a.m. and ended at 7
p.m.; they averaged 73 hours of work per week! Factory ventilation was poor,
with cloth particles perpetually suspended in the air, and the noise of factory
machines was considered “frightful and infernal”.

The women’s dormitories tended to be cramped. Up to six people would share a
room. One worker described her quarters as “a small, comfortless, half-ventilated
apartment containing some half a dozen occupants”. The cultural activities
advertised by recruiters were few and far between; the women seldom
experienced the world beyond their dorms and machine rooms.

The close quarters fostered resentment, but they also helped the women build a
strong community for labor organizing. This started in 1834 when the mill
directors proposed a 15% cut in wages because of the economic depression.
The women met with each other and organized a response: they immediately
withdrew their savings, causing trouble for local banks. This tactic failed, but mill
owners learned that despite preconceptions of what “feminine” people would do,
the Lowell women were determined to stand up for their rights as workers.  With
time, their collective actions would have more practical effects.

Two years later, the directors proposed a rent increase at the boarding houses.
The female employees formed the Factory Girls’ Association and organized a
strike, complete with a protest song that addressed American liberty:

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!

About 1,500 women participated in the strike, and this seriously impacted the
factory’s volume of production. The women persisted for weeks, and the mill
directors eventually rescinded their proposed rent hike.

In 1845, the Lowell women were inspired by the Ten Hours Movement in
England, which shortened factory workers’ hours. They formed the Lowell
Female Labor Reform Association. One of their first steps was to send petitions –
signed by thousands of workers – to Massachusetts lawmakers demanding an
end to their twelve-hour workdays. By 1847 they had reduced their hours by 30
minutes, and by 1853 they’d reduced the workday by a full hour.

In the long run, however, the Board of Directors won out. As the 1850s continued
with economic hardship, the factories turned to hiring Irish immigrant whom they
expected would be less likely to agitate for their rights. Still, the original Lowell
women were instrumental to the development of New England industry and labor
rights in the United States.

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