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The Lowell mill girls were young female workers who came to work in industrial corporations in Lowell, Massachusettsduring the Industrial Revolution in the United States. The workers initially recruited by the corporations were daughters of New England farmers, typically between the ages of 15 and During the early period, women came to the mills for various reasons: to help a brother pay for college, for the educational opportunities offered in Lowell, or to earn supplemental income for the family.
Francis Cabot Lowell emphasized the importance of providing housing and a form of education to mirror the boarding schools that were emerging in the 19th century. He also wanted to provide an environment that sharply contrasted the poor conditions of the British Mills notoriously portrayed by Dickens. While their wages were only half of what men were paid, many women were able to attain economic independence for the first time, free from controlling fathers and husbands.
On average, the Lowell mill girls earned between three and four dollars per week. The girls created book clubs and published journals such as the Lowell Offeringwhich provided a literary outlet for the girls with stories about life in the mills.
The demands of factory life enabled these women to challenge gender stereotypes. Over time, adult women would displace child labor, which an increasing of factory owners, such as Lowell, were disinclined to hire. Inafter a of protests and strikes, many operatives came together to form the first union of working women in the United States, the Lowell Female Labor Reform Association.
The Association adopted a newspaper called the Voice of Industryin which workers published sharp critiques of the new industrialism. The Voice stood in sharp contrast to other literary magazines published by female operatives. Unlike the earlier Rhode Island Systemwhere only carding and spinning were done in a factory while the weaving was often put out to neighboring farms to be done by hand, the Waltham mill was the first integrated mill in the United States, transforming raw cotton into cotton cloth in one building.
InFrancis Cabot Lowell's business associates, looking to expand the Waltham textile operations, purchased land around the Pawtucket Falls on the Merrimack River in East Chelmsford. Incorporated as the Town of Lowell inbythe textile mills employed almost 8, workers — mostly women between the ages of 15 and The "City of Spindles", as Lowell came to be known, quickly became the center of the Industrial Revolution in America.
New, large scale machinery, which had come to dominate the production of cloth bywas being rapidly developed in lockstep with the equally new ways of organizing workers for mass production. Together, these mutually reinforcing technological and social changes produced staggering increases: between andthe of spindles in use went from 2. Most corporations recorded similarly high profits during this period. The social position of the factory girls had been degraded considerably in France and England.
In her autobiography, Harriet Hanson Robinson who worked in the Lowell mills from to suggests that "It was to overcome this prejudice that such high wages had been offered to women that they might be induced to become mill girls, in spite of the opprobrium that still clung to this degrading occupation The Lowell System combined large-scale mechanization with an attempt to improve the stature of its female workforce and workers.
A few girls who came with their mothers or older sisters were as young as ten years old, some were middle-aged, but the average age was about They were paired with more experienced women, who trained them in the ways of the factory.
Conditions in the Lowell mills were severe by modern American standards. Employees worked from am until pm, for an average 73 hours per week. The noise of the machines was described by one worker as "something frightful and infernal", and although the rooms were hot, windows were often kept closed during the summer so that conditions for thread work remained optimal.
The air, meanwhile, was filled with particles of thread and cloth. Charles Dickenswho visited inremarked favorably on the conditions: "I cannot recall or separate one young face that gave me a painful impression; not one young girl whom, assuming it to be a matter of necessity that she should gain her daily bread by the labour of her hands, I would have removed from those works if I had had the power. The investors or factory owners built hundreds of boarding houses near the mills, where textile workers lived year-round. A curfew of pm was common, and men were generally not allowed inside.
About 26 women lived in each boarding house, with up to six sharing a bedroom. The houses were often run by widows who kept a close eye on the workers and made church attendance mandatory for all of the girls. Trips away from the boarding house were uncommon; the Lowell girls worked and ate together. However, half-days and short paid vacations were possible due to the nature of the piece-work; one girl would work the machines of another in addition to her own such that no wages would be lost.
These close quarters fostered community as well as resentment. Newcomers were mentored by older women in areas such as dress, speech, behavior, and the general ways of the community. The women became very close with one another due to the extensive time they spent together both during work and after work when they would engage in cultural activities, such as music and literature. Workers often recruited their friends or relatives to the factories, creating a familial atmosphere among many of the rank and file.
The Handbook to Lowell noted that the company would "not employ anyone who is habitually absent from public worship on the Sabbath, or known to be guilty of immorality". As for many young women, the allure of Lowell was in the opportunities afforded for further study and learning. Most had already completed some measure of formal education and were resolutely bent on self-improvement. Upon their arrival, they found a vibrant, lively working-class intellectual culture: workers read voraciously in Lowell's city library and reading rooms and subscribed to the large, informal "circulating libraries" which trafficked in novels.
Many even pursued literary composition. Defying factory rules, operatives would affix verses to their spinning frames, "to train their memories", and pin-up mathematical problems in the rooms where they worked. In the evenings, many enrolled in courses offered by the mills and attended public lectures at the Lyceum, a theatre built at company expense offering 25 lectures per season for 25 cents.
The Voice of Industry is alive with notices for upcoming lectures, courses, and meetings on topics ranging from astronomy to music. The corporations happily publicized the efforts of these "literary mill girls", boasting that they were the "most superior class of factory operative", impressing foreign visitors.
But this masked the bitter opposition of many workers to the 12—14 hours of exhausting, monotonous work, which they saw was corrosive to their desire to learn. As one operative asked in the Voice"who, after thirteen hours of steady application to monotonous work, can sit down and apply her mind to deep and long-continued thought?
I am sure few possessed a more ardent desire for knowledge than I did, but such was the effect of the long hour system, that my chief delight was, after the evening meal, to place my aching feet in an easy position, and read a novel. As the magazine grew in popularity, women contributed poems, ball, essays, and fiction — often using their characters to report on conditions and situations in their lives.
The "Offering"s contents were by turns serious and farcical. The initial effort of the investors and managers to recruit female textile workers brought generous wages for the time three to five dollars per weekbut with the economic depression of the early s, the Board of Directors proposed a reduction in wages. This, in turn, led to organized "turn-outs" or strikes.
After a series of meetings, the female textile workers organized a "turn-out" or strike. The women involved in "turn-out" immediately withdrew their savings, causing "a run" on two local banks. The strike failed and within days the protesters had all returned to work at reduced pay or left town, but the "turn-out" or strike was an indication of the determination among the Lowell female textile workers to take labor action.
This dismayed the agents of the factories, who portrayed the turnout as a betrayal of femininity. William Austin, agent of the Lawrence Manufacturing Company, wrote to his Board of Directors, "notwithstanding the friendly and disinterested advice which has been on all proper occassions [ sic ] communicated to the girls of the Lawrence mills a spirit of evil omen Again, in response to severe economic depression and the high costs of living, in Januarythe Board of Directors of Lowell's textile mills absorbed an increase in the textile workers' rent to help in the crisis faced by the company boarding housekeepers.
As the economic calamity continued in Octoberthe Directors proposed an additional rent hike to be paid by the textile workers living in the company boarding houses. Harriet Hanson Robinsonan eleven-year-old doffer at the time of the strike, recalled in her memoirs: "One 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. This "turn-out" or strike attracted over 1, workers — nearly twice the two years ly - causing Lowell's textile mills to run far below capacity.
The proposed rent hike was seen as a violation of the written contract between the employers and the employees. The "turn-out" persisted for weeks and eventually, the Board of Directors of Lowell's textile mills rescinded the rent hike. Although the "turn-out" was a success, the weakness of the system was evident and worsened further in the Panic of The sense of community that arose from working and living together contributed directly to the energy and growth of the first union of women workers, the Lowell Female Labor Reform Association.
Started by 12 operatives in Januaryits membership grew to within six months and continued to expand rapidly. The Association was run completely by the women themselves: they elected their own officers and held their own meetings; they helped organize the city's female workers and set up branches in other mill towns. They organized fairs, parties, and social gatherings. Unlike many middle-class women activists, the operatives found considerable support from working-class men who welcomed them into their reform organizations and advocated for their treatment as equals.
One of its first actions was to send petitions ed by thousands of textile workers to the Massachusetts General Court demanding a ten-hour workday. In response, the Massachusetts Legislature established a committee chaired by William Schouler, Representative from Lowell, to investigate and hold public hearings, during which workers testified about conditions in the factories and the physical demands of their twelve-hour days.
These were the first investigations into labor conditions by a governmental body in the United States. The impact of working men [Democrats] and working women [non-voting] was very limited. The next year Schouler was re-elected to the State Legislature. The Lowell female textile workers continued to petition the Massachusetts Legislature and legislative committee hearings became an annual event.
Although the initial push for a ten-hour workday was unsuccessful, the LFLRA continued to grow, affiliating with the New England Workingmen's Association and publishing articles in that organization's Voice of Industrya pro-labor newspaper. The FLRA's organizing efforts spilled over into other nearby towns.
Lowell textile workers continued to petition and pressure for improved working conditions,  and inthe Lowell corporations reduced the workday to eleven hours. The New England textile industry was rapidly expanding in the s and s.
Unable to recruit enough Yankee women to fill all the new jobs, to supplement the workforce textile managers turned to survivors of the Great Irish Famine who had recently immigrated to the United States in large s. During the Civil Warmany of Lowell's cotton mills closed, unable to acquire bales of raw cotton from the South.
After the war, the textile mills reopened, recruiting French Canadian men and women. Although large s of Irish and French Canadian immigrants moved to Lowell to work in the textile mills, Yankee women still dominated the workforce until the mids.
The Lowell girls' organizing efforts were notable not only for the "unfeminine" participation of women, but also for the political framework used to appeal to the public. Framing their struggle for shorter workdays and better pay as a matter of rights and personal dignity, they sought to place themselves in the larger context of the American Revolution. During the "turn-out" or strike — they warned that "the oppressing hand of avarice would enslave us,"  the women included a poem which read:.
Let oppression shrug her shoulders, And a haughty tyrant frown, And little upstart Ignorance, In mockery look down. The most striking example of this political overtone can be found in a series of tracts published by the Female Labor Reform Association entitled Factory Tracts.
In the first of these, subtitled "Factory Life As It Is", the author proclaims "that our rights cannot be trampled upon with impunity; that we WILL not longer submit to that arbitrary power which has for the last ten years been so abundantly exercised over us. This conceptualization of labor activity as philosophically linked with the American project in democracy has been instrumental for other labor organizing campaigns, as noted frequently by MIT professor and social critic Noam Chomsky who has cited this extended quote from the Lowell mill girls on the topic of wage slavery :.
When you sell your product, you retain your person. But when you sell your labour, you sell yourself, losing the rights of free men and becoming vassals of mammoth establishments of a monied aristocracy that threatens annihilation to anyone who questions their right to enslave and oppress. Those who work in the mills ought to own them, not have the status of machines ruled by private despots who are entrenching monarchic principles on democratic soil as they drive downwards freedom and rights, civilization, health, morals and intellectuality in the new commercial feudalism.
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