Modern History Sourcebook:
Lowell Mill Girls
In her autobiography, Harriet Hanson Robinson, the wife of
a newspaper editor, provided an account of her earlier life as
female factory worker (from the age of ten in 1834 to 1848) in
the textile Mills of Lowell, Massachusetts. Her account explains
some of the family dynamics involved, and lets us see the women
as active participants in their own lives - for instance in their
strike of 1836.
In what follows, I shall confine myself to a description of factory
life in Lowell, Massachusetts, from 1832 to 1848, since, with
that phase of Early Factory Labor in New England, I am the most
familiar-because I was a part of it.
In 1832, Lowell was little more than a factory village. Five "corporations"
were started, and the cotton mills belonging to them were building.
Help was in great demand and stories were told all over the country
of the new factory place, and the high wages that were offered
to all classes of workpeople; stories that reached the ears
of mechanics' and farmers' sons and glave new life to lonely and
dependent women in distant towns and farmhouses .... Troops
of young girls came from different parts of New England, and from
Canada, and men were employed to collect them at so much a head,
and deliver them at the factories.
. . .
At the time the Lowell cotton mills were started the caste of
the factory girl was the lowest among the employments of women.
In England and in France, particularly, great injustice had been
done to her real character. She was represented as subjected to
influences that must destroy her purity and selfrespect.
In the eyes of her overseer she was but a brute, a slave, to be
beaten, pinched and pushed about. It was to overcome this prejudice
that such high wages had been offered to women that they might
be induced to become millgirls, in spite of the opprobrium
that still clung to this degrading occupation....
The early millgirls were of different ages. Some were not
over ten years old; a few were in middle life, but the majority
were between the ages of sixteen and twentyfive. The very
young girls were called "doffers." They "doffed,"
or took off, the full bobbins from the spinningframes, 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 millyard to play. They were paid two dollars a week.
The working hours of all the girls extended from five o'clock
in the morning until seven in the evening, with one halfhour
each, for breakfast and dinner. Even the doffers were forced to
be on duty nearly fourteen hours a day. This was the greatest
hardship in the lives of these children. Several years later a
tenhour law was passed, but not until long after some of
these little doffers were old enough to appear before the legislative
committee on the subject, and plead, by their presence, for a
reduction of the hours of labor.
Those of the millgirls who had homes generally worked from
eight to ten months in the year; the rest of the time was spent
with parents or friends. A few taught school during the summer
months. Their life in the factory was made pleasant to them. 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 illtreated....
. . .
The most prevailing incentive to labor was to secure the means
of education for some male member of the family. To make
a gentleman of a brother or a son, to give him a college
education, was the dominant thought in the minds of a great many
of the better class of millgirls. I have known more than
one to give every cent of her wages, month after month, to her
brother, that he might get the education necessary to enter some
profession. I have known a mother to work years in this way for
her boy. I have known women to educate young men by their earnings,
who were not sons or relatives. There are many men now living
who were helped to an education by the wages of the early millgirls.
It is well to digress here a little, and speak of the influence
the possession of money had on the characters of some of these
women. We can hardly realize what a change the cotton factory
made in the status of the working women. Hitherto woman had always
been a money saving rather than a money earning, member
of the community. Her labor could command but small return. If
she worked out as servant, or "help," her wages were
from 50 cents to $1 .00 a week; or, if she went from house to
house by the day to spin and weave, or do tailoress work, she
could get but 75 cents a week and her meals. As teacher, her services
were not in demand, and the arts, the professions, and even the
trades and industries, were nearly all closed to her.
As late as 1840 there were only seven vocations outside the home
into which the women of New England had entered. At this time
woman had no property rights. A widow could be left without her
share of her husband's (or the family) property, an " incumbrance"
to his estate. A father could make his will without reference
to his daughter's share of the inheritance. He usually left her
a home on the farm as long as she remained single. A woman was
not sup posed to be capable of spending her own, or of using other
people's money. In Massachusetts, before 1840, a woman could not,
legally, be treasurer of her own sewing society, unless some man
were responsible for her. The law took no cognizance of woman
as a moneyspender. She was a ward, an appendage, a relict.
Thus it happened that if a woman did not choose to marry, or,
when left a widow, to remarry, she had no choice but to
enter one of the few employments open to her, or to become a burden
on the charity of some relative.
. . .
One of the first strikes that ever took place in this country
was in Lowell in 1836. When it was announced that the wages were
to be cut down, great indignation was felt, and it was decided
to strike or "turn out" en masse. This was done. The
mills were shut down, and the girls went from their several corporations
in procession to the grove on Chapel Hill, and listened to incendiary
speeches from some early labor reformers.
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
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
illsuccess 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.
Harriet H. Robinson, "Early Factory Labor in New England,"
in Massachusetts Bureau of Statistics of Labor, Fourteenth
Annual Report (Boston: Wright & Potter, 1883), pp. 38082,
This text is part of the Internet Modern History Sourcebook.
The Sourcebook is a collection of public domain and copy-permitted
texts for introductory level classes in modern European and World
Unless otherwise indicated the specific electronic form of the
document is copyright. Permission is granted for electronic copying,
distribution in print form for educational purposes and personal
use. If you do reduplicate the document, indicate the source.
No permission is granted for commercial use of the Sourcebook.
(c)Paul Halsall Aug 1997