“In those days there was no need of advocating the doctrine of the proper relation between employer and employed. Help was too valuable to be ill treated.”
The middle of the first half of the nineteenth century saw the boom of the cotton industry in New England, spurring the creation of vast mill buildings in towns such as Manchester, New Hampshire; Biddeford, Maine; and Lawrence and Lowell, Massachusetts. The mills created hundreds of jobs, particularly for young women for whom employment options were severely limited. Harriet H. Robinson wrote a memoir entitled Loom and Spindle; or, Life among the Early Mill Girls (1898), an indispensable piece for research into the women and girls who worked within the mills; the second piece below is an excerpt of that book and was likely written in 1836. The first excerpt below comes from Robinson’s essay “Early Factory Labor in New England,” published in an 1883 Massachusetts Bureau of Statistics of Labor report. Robinson herself was a Lowell mill girl who began her career at a young age. As she grew, so too did the industry, but unfortunately, the changes that came were not for the better. Robinson and those like her found themselves working harder for fewer wages and, as a result, tried push for reform. Her memoirs provide a frank narrative of her plight and that of other mill girls and description of all those who chose not to back down.
This excerpt of Harriet H. Robinson’s writing, while providing historical background initially, is an impassioned attempt to show how it came to pass that she and others within the mills decided to “turn out,” or strike. Simply put, the mill owners were taking advantage of them, lowering wages and increasing work for higher profits. As Robinson states aptly, “Help was too valuable to be ill-treated”; the girls and women employed by the mills exerted themselves day in and day out, starting at dawn and ending fourteen hours later, with two breaks in between for meals. Initially, as she mentions, the cost of bed and board ($1.50) was partially subsidized by the employer; this certainly would have been an excellent incentive for those thinking of factory work. However, this fee eventually became payable by the employee alone, along with an overall reduction in wages, and of course, this change in compensation did not come with a reduction of expected output.
Many historians, as well as contemporaries, utilized a comparison of the mill workers with their cotton “counterparts” in the South: the slaves. Robinson, in fact, recounts a song sung during turnouts that included the repeated line, “I will not be a slave.” Slave owners treated their human property however they saw fit, but the mill workers were not considered property; they were help. They were employees who therefore should have been treated properly. It is vital to remember that, at this stage of American history, in the 1830s and 1840s, the country had not yet been inundated with the influx of immigrants from eastern and southern Europe. Harriet H. Robinson was working, predominantly, in the years preceding the first wave of Irish immigration, which was spurred by the famine in Ireland during the late 1840s. For the most part, the employee pool in her time was made up of native-born Anglo-American women. In her memoir, Robinson writes, “Before 1840, the foreign element in the factory population was almost an unknown quantity” (Loom 12).The mill workers were proud of their work, proud to help earn their livelihood and that of their families, and were not prepared to be basely treated, especially considering the amount of labor they provided at the rate of pay offered and hours endured.
Harriet Jane Hanson Robinson was born on February 8, 1825, in Boston, Massachusetts, to William and Harriet Browne Hanson. Robinson, one of four children, lost her father in 1831. As recounted in her book, an affluent neighbor offered to adopt her, thereby easing, if only slightly, the family’s financial obligations, a proposal her mother refused, preferring to keep all the children with her. Her mother was soon helped by friends of her late husband who assisted her in the opening of a small shop, where she sold confectionary and other small goods, but it did not garner a healthy income for the family.
In Loom and Spindle, Robinson writes that the family’s move to Lowell had been suggested and facilitated by her widowed maternal aunt, who worked there as a boardinghouse matron. It was there, at the age of ten, that Robinson started working in a Lowell mill, the Tremont Corporation, as a doffer, changing out empty bobbins for full ones in the spinning room. While she doffed, her mother kept a boardinghouse for young men, and it was during this time that young Robinson, a future suffragist, took to joining them in games such as checkers, which helped inspire her belief in the equality of the sexes.
While still in her mid-teens, Robinson added to her role as a mill girl by becoming a writer for the Lowell Offering, a magazine for the workers; topics included childhood stories, their work and experience in the mills, and poems. As historian William Moran relates in his book Belles of New England: The Women of the Textile Mills and the Families whose Wealth They Wove, the magazine’s initial bright start began to wane within a few years, receiving criticism that writers were too sympathetic to the mill owners and that the publication voiced the workers’ concerns too little. The Lowell Offering ended in 1845.
Robinson’s rich life, as a mill girl and writer, eventually included that of wife, mother of four, abolitionist, and suffragist, fighting valiantly for equality for women. She died at the age of eighty-six, on December 22, 1911, in Malden, Massachusetts, a suburb close to the city of her birth.
The wide, towering red brick buildings in Lowell, Massachusetts, are silent now. While some house historical societies, offices, museums, and apartments, the rest, like those in other former mill cities throughout New England, stand as hushed reminders to an era of bustle and noise, back when the buildings reverberated with the din of heavy machinery and the voices of hundreds of workers. Lowell began as an ideal planned city, combining the mill buildings and company boardinghouses with plenty of greenery; the location of the city was strategic, as the mill could operate by harnessing the waterpower of the nearby Merrimack River.
This system of mills was inspired by those functioning within Great Britain, such as in Manchester, England, in the early nineteenth century. These were viewed by Francis Cabot Lowell and one of his associates, Nathan Appleton. While Lowell and Appleton admired the mills and their place within the English textile industry, they were shocked and astounded by the treatment of the workers therein. They were determined to bring the English mill idea to New England, but with a completely different ethos for dealing with their employees. Their employees would be cared for and without the stigma attached to the factory girls of England. Robinson devotes time to this phase in the history of the Lowell mills: “‘The Lowell factory system’ went into operation, a practice which included the then new idea, that corporations should have souls, and should exercise a paternal influence over the lives of their operatives” (Loom 7). Clearly, what Lowell and Appleton saw had an effect, and they were determined not to follow England’s example. As Robinson notes in the first excerpt above,
The factory girl was the lowest among the employments of women. . . . [In Europe] great injustice had been done to her real character. She was represented as subjected to influences that must destroy her purity and self-respect. In the eyes of her overseer she was but a brute, a slave, to be beaten, pinched and pushed about. (“Early” 381)
Lowell and his initial counterparts sought to make their operatives’ position one of esteem, an employ of which to be proud. The paternal influence remarked upon earlier in Loom and Spindle was to be incorporated into the mills and boardinghouses; the corporations would help their help. Sandra Adickes, in her work “Mind among the Spindles,” relates that careful attention was paid to the boardinghouses; they were installed with “resident chaperones” who upheld the girls’ “standards of moral conduct” and enforced “mandatory Sunday church attendance” (280). Robinson’s memoir verifies this part of boardinghouse living: “The mill-girls went regularly to meeting and ‘Sabbath school;’ and every Sunday the streets of Lowell were alive with neatly dressed young women, going or returning therefrom” (Loom 79). The houses themselves, as remembered by Robinson, were homey and attractive and even admired by such illustrious persons as English author Charles Dickens; she quotes him as saying, “‘There is a piano in a great many of the boarding-houses, and nearly all the young ladies subscribe to circulating libraries’” (90). Given his reputation for wanting better working and living conditions for the working man, woman, and child, the Lowell mills could not have wished for a better endorsement.
The first generation of this workforce was predominantly from New England and was relatively young. Robinson states that the average worker was in her mid-teens to mid-twenties, but it was not unusual for a younger girl to be found among the other workers. Historian Thomas Dublin, in his article “Women, Work, and Protest,” reveals the following statistics for Lowell’s Hamilton Company around the time of Robinson’s introduction to mill work: “more than 85 per cent of those employed in July 1836 were women and that over 96 percent were native-born” (106). Robinson was among the youngest workers, the doffers, when her mill career began. In “Early Factory Labor,” Robinson writes of what a girl could expect in such a position: “The very young girls were called ‘doffers.’ They ‘doffed,’ or took off, the full bobbins from the spinning-frames, and replaced them with empty ones. These mites worked about fifteen minutes every hour and the rest of the time was their own. When the overseer was kind they were allowed to read, knit, or go outside the mill-yard to play” (382). Despite working a quarter of every hour, the doffers were still required to be “on duty” for the full day; this was continued until a law was passed in Massachusetts in 1842 attempting to limit a child’s working hours. Of course, it is really left to history as to how faithfully this law was regularly enforced by a company desperate for profits or by a family desperate for income. The workforce did contain men, but as documented in “The Family and Industrial Discipline in Ante-Bellum New England” by Barbara Tucker, this segment of employees consisted of higher-paying skilled or managerial positions such as overseer. Dublin notes that while the mill girls worked primarily in the weaving and spinning rooms, male employees typically served in other roles such as pickers, carders, or mechanics.
To many of the girls making their way through the factory gates every morning, their position held much promise and pride, both to them and their families in many ways. William Moran quotes Ann Swett Appleton, a mill worker from New Hampshire, as having written, “The thought that I am living on no one is a happy one, indeed” (4). Despite the fourteen-hour days for six days out of the week, mill work could be seen as liberating as compared to domestic service. Historian Sandra Adickes writes that the work in a factory garnered higher pay when compared with other employment opportunities for women. Live-in work in domestic service, depending on the employer, included the requirement to be “on-call” at any or all hours.
The average age of the mill girls is intriguing; they were young and still under the typical marital age, allowing ample time to settle down. Young workers, in general, did not seek to make their positions within the mill lifelong endeavors; this is a topic a number of historians have touched upon, as does Robinson herself. The motives bringing in the workers were varied but not attached with indefinite participation. Some, as mentioned in the excerpt above, labored to finance a brother’s education; Robinson terms this “the most prevailing incentive” (“Early” 387). Mortgages for the family home or farm were another motivation for their earnings. Sarah G. Bagley, another mill worker, writer, and suffragist like Robinson, used her wages to put a down payment on a piece of land for her family in 1840. Bagley’s ability to do this, as outlined by Helena Wright in her article “Sarah G. Bagley: A Biographical Note,” demonstrates that the earning power of female workers like Bagley was “not as insignificant as has been generally supposed of many mill women” (406–7). Others sought to earn their dowry before marriage.
Even if they did not seek to labor for their brother’s education or to secure payment for their family’s home, some early mill girls saved to fund their own education or to save money before marrying. These early mill girls, like Ann Swett Appleton, Sarah G. Bagley, and Harriet Robinson, saw their position as operatives as temporary, not a lifelong occupation. Their time within the vast buildings, before they moved on to higher education, marriage, or perhaps another vocation, served to heightened their own self-importance, as well as providing for themselves. Were it not for these opportunities, many of these girls would have been left “to become a burden on the charity of some relative,” as Robinson notes (“Early” 388).
The idyllic vision of the mills and their operatives did not last long, and soon changes were brought that faded the luster from Lowell and its sister cities. Years passed, and overproduction led to a fall in the price allotted to the finished product. This then led to wage cuts and an increase in expected output. Robinson points out that this instigated the first strike, as related above, in October 1836. Despite her young age of eleven, she, too, took part, later recalling, “As I looked back at the long line that followed me, I was more proud than I have ever been since at any success I may have achieved, and more proud than I shall ever be again until my own beloved State gives to its women citizens the right of suffrage” (Loom 85). Although this initial strike was not successful, it did not stop the mill workers from taking action again and again. Historian Thomas Dublin cites further attempts between the years 1834 and 1848, both to maintain pay and to demand more reasonable hours.
Although wishing to recapture a better income was, indeed, a fundamental part of turning out, Dublin stresses something more formed a part of the drive to strike, a feeling alluded to by Robinson in the excerpt. He writes that “the wage cuts undermined the sense of dignity and social equality which was an important element in their Yankee heritage” and that such cuts were considered “an attack on their economic independence” (Dublin 108). This again brings to mind the refrain of the song sung by strikers in which they declare they will not be slaves. The mill operatives were not going to labor fourteen hours a day for a pittance of a wage. Earning their own income freed their families from having to support them and freed charities from offering them assistance, not to mention the added incentive of helping a brother through school or purchasing the family home, as Sarah G. Bagley did. These women knew they deserved better than how the mills chose to treat them, having strayed from the original vision held by Francis Cabot Lowell, Nathan Appleton, and their associates.
Although she mentions it only briefly, Robinson does allude to the dire consequences the mill girls faced for striking. Robinson calls the actions of the company agent against the strike’s organizers “some small revenges,” yet goes on to say that her mother “was turned away from her boarding-house” for not having prevented her from participating in the strike (Loom 85). Recalling what Robinson relates earlier in her memoir, this suggests that her mother, who was struggling to support four children on her own, lost her best employment. As William Moran notes in The Belles of New England, terminating striking workers was not uncommon, and later on, the corporations “blacklisted” known agitators, preventing them from gaining employment at other mills in the city. It is obvious from her own account that Robinson was not one of those unfortunates who were blacklisted, as she says elsewhere in her memoir that she continued her factory work into her twenties, when she received an “honorable discharge” and married (73).
As the years brought more wage reductions and consequently more strikes, the young women of New England moved away from mill work, their places taken by different waves of immigrants: first the Irish and French Canadians, before the boats brought those from eastern and southern Europe. “Thus,” as Robinson notes, “the status of the factory population of New England gradually became what we know it to be to-day” (Loom 85).
Throughout Robinson’s essay “Early Factory Labor in New England,” and even more so within the length of her book, Loom and Spindle, there reads inherent pride in the work performed in the mills. The early days of the mills helped to promote this feeling. Moran writes that Maine’s Bates Mills boasted that “their bedspreads were ‘Loomed to be Heirloomed’” (6). The New England mills produced materials that were made into the uniforms worn by Civil War soldiers, as well as those serving in the World Wars. It is no wonder these women held such pride in their participation within the industry.
This pride played into their distress at the changes wrought within the mills. Earning their own income and thereby able to contribute to their families or to gain their independence, allowed these women to recognize a new and dynamic level of self-worth. In legal terms, as recalled by Robinson, a woman “was a ward, an appendage, a relict.” Mill employment had shown these young women a glimpse of more freedom within their restricted lives. The lowered wages and increased production degraded them, setting the stage for the later women’s and labor movements and for the corporations’ replacement of the increasingly dissatisfied mill girls with foreign immigrant laborers, whom they could exploit more readily.
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