Written by Kevin Jennings
In June of 1810, Francis Cabot Lowell traveled from his home of Massachusetts to Great Britain. Lowell was the son of a politician who used his inheritance to become a leader of mercantile trade and expand his wealth. The reason for the trip was allegedly to visit family as Lowell was now in poor health, but he had other ideas in mind as well.
Despite being politically independent, the United States was still heavily dependent on imported goods from Europe. To become truly independent, Lowell realized he was going to need to bring the industrial revolution back home. He became fascinated by the textile industry and the massive power looms that he saw in Scotland and Northwestern England. The power looms were massive spinning and weaving machines operated by either steam or water power. An industrial manufacturing process that would utilize the vast fields of cotton grown in the southern United States seemed like the perfect fit.
There was only one problem: no one would sell him a power loom or drawings from which he could make one. Lowell’s solution was to repeatedly visit the factories, carefully studying the machines in secret and committing them to memory. When the War of 1812 broke out it was time for him to head back home. The boat and all his family’s personal belongings were examined to ensure no contraband was being smuggled, but the stolen plans were still in Lowell’s head, not yet having been written down.
In 1814, Lowell received financial backing to establish the Boston Manufacturing Company, with the help of his three brothers-in-law. He hired noted machinist Paul Moody to help him recreate the power looms from his memory, including making some improvements upon the design, and in 1815 they were awarded a patent on the machines.
The first mill was built in Waltham along the Charles River. Samuel Slater had already begun the American Industrial Revolution in Rhode Island by building the first textile mill in the country, but Lowell had a different plan in mind. What he envisioned was an all female staff of workers, aged 15-35, and it was supposed to be great.
Lowell didn’t want the workers to become a permanent lower class. Instead, his plan was to offer them food and lodging, payment for their work, and continued education. He believed that no woman should work at the factory for more than three years, and that the money and education they received would help afford them even better job opportunities when they left. Lowell did still expect the women to be committed to Puritan ideals and work ethic, but he wanted his factories to be a bridge to a better life. The factories also took the very novel approach of only advertising their jobs to young adults, normally those who already had at least some level of education, rather than taking in a workforce of children.
This was Lowell’s official plan as he described it, and to many women of the era it seemed like a dream come true. Young women either lived with their fathers or their husbands, and didn’t have a whole lot of say in anything. They would likely spend the day doing farm work, as well as cooking and cleaning, jobs for which their male guardians would not pay them. The factories were offering them something different. It was a promise of money, education, and freedom. With an average salary of about $3 per week ($76 today), the factories paid far better than other jobs that were available for women.
Whether Lowell intended to be true to his word or not, we’ll never know. He died in 1817, less than three years after his first mill opened. It is unclear whether what actually happened was the result of seemingly well intentioned but misguided ideas, or if changes were made after his death by nefarious business partners.
The Harsh Reality
In 1821, four years after Lowell’s death, his business associates were looking to expand. Their factory had already exhausted the power they could draw from the Charles River, so they moved north to the more powerful Merrimack River and built their factories in the town that would be named after the company’s founder. Lowell quickly became the center of America’s industrial revolution on the back of the famous Lowell Mills.
The fact the city of Lowell is also the origin of the term “wage slave” should give a good indication of how things were going to go for the mill girls. They were offer high wages as enticement to come work at the mills, but there were obviously a few catches. The first was that room and board were taken out of their pay, an amount ranging from $0.75-$1.25. This still likely left them with more money than they would make at other jobs, but they would later find out this rent was also subject to change.
Though they did have a place to stay, these boarding houses were extremely overcrowded. Every bed would be shared by two girls, and rooms would have two to three beds each. Even by the standards of the day, this was needlessly cramped.
Another issue was that factory girls were considered to be of extremely low social standing, an opinion that didn’t actually reflect on the girls but was instead a holdover from factories in France and England. Still, this could harm their future prospects both for employment and marriage.
Of course, the real catch was the work. The mill girls may have been earning money, but at what cost? An average day at the Lowell Mills began at 5 am and ended at 7 pm. They worked Monday through Friday, with a half day on Saturday. That’s a 77 hour work week, and the work was equally parts dangerous and monotonous.
The large power looms presented numerous dangers to the workers. Hair could get caught in the machines which could be yanked out or worse. Even more common were issues with the flying shuttle. Thread would be placed inside the shuttle then pulled out the eye. The shuttle would then be quickly thrown and caught by the operator, back and forth through the loom. These flying shuttles moved at extremely high speeds, and if a shuttle were to fly off a machine, for example by the loom jamming, there was a serious risk of injury.
Though the aerodynamic shuttles could make for dangerous projectiles, that was the least of the concerns for the mill girls. In order to get the thread from inside the shuttle out through the eye, girls would have to perform the “kiss of death”. They would place their lips on the end of the shuttle and suck the thread through, as it was the fastest way to accomplish the task.
This was bad for a couple of reasons. The first was that the girls were inhaling small fibers in the process. This problem was exacerbated by the fact that, even though it could get extremely hot in the factories, the windows were never opened as the change in temperature or humidity could adversely affect the thread. The result was the air inside the factories was full of cotton particles that the girls would breathe in, all of this damaging their lungs and causing shortness of breath and fatigue.
But there was a much bigger concern. The mill girls were dying of tuberculosis, or consumption as it was called at the time, at a dramatically higher rate than the general population. Because shuttles would often get moved around, a single girl with tuberculosis performing the kiss of death could infect an entire factory. We’d like to say that this problem was solved because this was around the beginning of the shift towards germ theory, but it was not. Even though the problem was identified and the girls were given metal hooks that they were instructed to use instead of sucking the thread through the eye, these new rules were ignored. The hooks took much longer to use, and there were quotas to meet.
After all, the girls may have been promised money and independence, but that wasn’t really the case. They theoretically could quit at any time or choose who they wanted to work for, but there weren’t a lot of options. The jobs were also popular, with many girls writing to family members to come and join them, so there were often more potential workers than there were jobs. To hold onto one of those jobs, a factory worker would need to remain productive. That also meant there were no sick days. Missing a single day of work could be grounds for firing, as was missing work due to an injury obtained during the course of the job.
Because of this, even though we know that tuberculosis was more common among the mill girls than it was among the general population, we don’t really know the mortality rate of these jobs. Contemporary sources site that it would be impossible to know as once a girl was sick or used up, she would be sent back to her family to die. Despite the fact that the factories were supposedly paying well, even progressives of the day noted how close it was to slavery. It may have been better pay than was generally available to women, but it was not adequate for the hours they worked or for how dangerous the work was. Not only that, but the girls were constantly reminded how many people were lining up to take their jobs, forcing them to work 14 hour days through injury and illness.
There was one idea from Lowell’s original vision that remained, and that was the emphasis on furthering education. Girls were encouraged to buy books and hold reading groups, like a modern day book club. They were also offered the opportunity to attend lectures by prominent figures, such as Ralph Waldo Emerson or John Quincy Adams. Cynically, it could be viewed that the emphasis on purchasing books was to ensure that the girls wouldn’t have any money so that they would be forced to stay at the factory and keep working longer. However, the girls had what was called a “circulating library”, where all books were shared among everyone in the boarding house. They would also write their own stories and poetry, though these writing supplies also ate into their savings.
Of course, all of this education was only to take place after already working a 14 hour shift. This structure was not conducive to education, with the girls often writing that they would fall asleep in lectures despite an intense desire to learn, or simply not have the energy to engage in deep thought. Still, many persevered through this.
They set up discussion circles, where they could engage in intellectual discourse. What sort of topics would a group of already educated women who came to these jobs seeking independence and further education only to be exploited for their labour discuss? Thanks to existing journals from some of these meetings, we know the answer to that.
The girls would discuss topics such as, “Why should we be polite?”, “How far should we, as women, conform to the customs of society?”, “Should ladies interest ourselves in politics?”, “Is marriage essential?”, and “Does God exist?”
The 1830s saw a period of economic depression, and the factory owners decided that these women had had it too good for too long. In February of 1834, the Board of Directors of the Lowell Mills announced a 15% wage reduction to go into effect on March 1. This wasn’t going to stand, so the mill girls took all their money out the banks causing a run on the local banks, then they went on strike.
Unfortunately, the strike was over within days with everyone either returning to work at a lower wage or being replaced. Two years later, further economic troubles cause the Board of Directors to propose an increase in the rent the girls would pay. This time, things were different. About 1,500 factory workers went on strike, roughly double that of the previous strike. More importantly, this time the community was behind the mill girls, seeing the rent hike as a violation of their written contract. The strike went on for weeks before the Board of Directors finally relented.
In 1840, with the help of the First Universalist Church, the Lowell girls started publishing a monthly paper by and for the factory workers called the Lowell Offering. In 1845, 12 operatives would form the Lowell Female Labor Reform Association, the nation’s first union of female workers. Among those operatives was Sarah Bagley, a prominent labor reformer.
Though the oppressive treatment and subsequent backlash of the mill girls played a major role in advancing policies surrounding both women in the workplace and factory workers in general, in the short term it would prove futile.
Francis Lowell’s dream of the factories being a stepping stone for a better life would prove true for some women, as many used their money and education to travel west to become teachers, librarians, and social workers. That is, the ones who didn’t die, commit suicide, or simply lose their jobs for being too sick to work. Unfortunately, in the 1840s, the mills had new managers whose only interest was profits.
These new factory managers thought the local mill girls were more trouble than they were worth. Instead, they turned to Irish immigrants who had fled to Massachusetts to escape the Irish Potato Famine. They were willing to work longer hours for less money, and would force their children to work as well.
Though children as young as ten had worked in the Lowell Mills previously, this was not the norm and it was generally the younger sister of a girl who already worked there and encouraged her sister to come join her. The average age of a mill girl had been 24 before the shift to the Irish workers.
Lowell’s dream for the mills was never fully realized, and with the new emphasis on immigrant and child labour, longer hours, and lower pay, the mills became everything Lowell had claimed he didn’t want them to be. They exploited the lower class and forced them to be reliant on the mill for survival. This cycle would perpetuate for decades until the majority of textile manufacturing in the United States would relocate to the south to avoid uppity labor unions.