This broadside outlines rules for workers employed by the Boott Cotton Mills in Lowell, Massachusetts. Included are requirements for operatives to live in company boarding houses and to regularly attend church services. This broadside is signed "Mary M. Hixon, #3 Upper Weaving, Aug. 22, 1866" on the verso.
Lowell Mills and the "Mill Girls"
In 1820, the town of East Chelmsford, Massachusetts, was a sleepy farming hamlet of 200 people. Just thirty years later, the renamed city of Lowell was home to thirty-two textile mills and a population that had grown to 33,000. Lowell had become a model textile manufacturing center in just three decades with a workforce that was roughly three-quarters female. Francis Cabot Lowell's successful creation of a power loom in 1813 created the machinery that fueled Lowell's expansion, while the city's ideal location on the Merrimack River supplied the water power needed to run the factories. The Middlesex Canal provided easy transport to Boston and beyond. By 1823, when the Merrimack Manufacturing Company opened its first mill on the shores of the Merrimack, all that was needed for success was a steady, reliable workforce. For this, mill owners and investors--led by men like Abbott Lawrence, John Amory Lowell, and Nathan Appleton--turned to New England's young women: accustomed to hard work and textile production in the home, educated, and serious-minded. Agents of the textile corporations ranged rural villages throughout New England, attracting young women to work in the mills with offers of high wages; once established, the mill girls themselves often recruited friends and relatives to come to Lowell and work alongside them.
Owners of the mills, paternalistic and exhibiting a Yankee belief in "doing good and doing well," knew that the only way to convince protective fathers, brothers, and uncles to let their female relatives leave the safety of home was to provide good wages and a way of protecting them from the "evils" of the city. To this end, corporations established their own boardinghouses, supervised by women of good standing, where unmarried textile workers were required to live. The mill girls were subject to curfews and required to attend church, and signed contracts to that effect. High standards of behavior were expected. In exchange, work in the mills provided good wages--from $1.85 to $3.00 per week--the highest in the country for women (although men working in the same mills were generally paid at least two times the salaries of women).
For girls arriving from rural areas, life in Lowell also offered a glimpse of big-city life and opportunities for self-improvement unavailable at home. Despite working an average of 73 hours per week, young women working in the Lowell mills availed themselves of circulating libraries, evening classes, lecture series, and literary and self-improvement clubs. Between 1840 and 1845, a literary magazine called the Lowell Offering published writings by the mill girls, edited and produced by their fellow workers.
The End of the Mill Girl Era
With the shortage of raw material for cotton manufacture during the Civil War resulting in the closing of nine manufactories in Lowell alone, the "mill girls" left Lowell in droves during the Civil War. The end of their era, however, actually predated the war; beginning in about 1845, immigrants displaced by the Irish Potato Famine began flocking to Lowell in search of work. Willing to work for even lower wages (and to have their children work in the factories as well), they began to supplant Lowell's women workers. Successive waves of immigrants from other countries would take their place at the bottom of the mill hierarchy in turn. Over the years, working conditions in the mills deteriorated and wages decreased. Although the end of the war saw a temporary return of the mill girls to Lowell as factories rehired experienced hands to restart their factories, never again would young American women form the majority of the textile workforce.
Labor History Events at the MHS in March
Join us in March for two evening events focusing on Massachusetts' rich labor history.
On Wednesday 14 March 2012, at 6 p.m., Jack Larkin will present a talk on his book Where We Worked: A Celebration of America's Workers and the Nations They Built.
On Tuesday evening, 20 March 2012, a panel of labor historians will discuss the 1912 Bread and Roses Strike in Lawrence's textile mills.
For more information on these programs and how to attend, view our events calendar.
For Further Reading
Dublin, Thomas. Women at Work: the Transformation of Work and Community in Lowell, Massachusetts, 1826-1860. New York: Columbia University Press, 1979.
Eisler, Benita, ed. The Lowell Offering: Writings by New England Mill Women (1840-1845). Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1977.
Gordon, Wendy M. Mill Girls and Strangers: Single Women's Independent Migration in England, Scotland and the United States, 1850-1881 Albany: State University of New York Press, 2002.
Robinson, Harriet H. Early Factory Labor in New England (Boston: Wright & Potter, 1889)
----. Loom and Spindle, or Life Among the Early Mill Girls. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1898.
Boott Mills and one of its boardinghouses can still be visited today at the Lowell National Historical Park.
The Massachusetts Historical Society holds papers related to several of the pioneers in textile manufacturing including the Francis Cabot Lowell papers; Appleton Family Papers; Patrick Tracy Jackson Papers; and Amos Lawrence Papers.
The University of Massachusetts Center for Lowell History's website contains a wealth of information about the mill girls, including letters, primary source documents, photographs, and selections from the Lowell Offering.