Factories (American History Through Literature)
The idea of factories in literature may sound discordant, even antithetical. Factories, after all, involve mechanization and subdivided tasks performed repetitively by low-skilled and often poorly educated workers. On the other hand, literature, in the romantic sense, enables imaginative flights and an expansiveness of human spirit at odds with the mill's confinement and regimentation. American authors considered classic, such as Nathaniel Hawthorne, Walt Whitman, and Emily Dickinson, apparently agreed, since their writings largely ignore the industrial workplace. A notable exception is Herman Melville's (1819991) short story "The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids" (1855), set in a paper mill.
Literary scholars have likewise given little attention to industrialism, publishing few related critical studies. Although classic authors and scholars have mostly overlooked the factory, other nineteenth-century Americans created a large body of literary writings exploring its meaning. These "humbler" authors tended to derive from social strata closer to the factory experience. They were popular, often working-class writers who may themselves have toiled in the mills. They explored industrialism's human side, employing multiple literary genresovels, short fiction, poetry, and sketcheso respond to the new workplace.
In 1820 the U.S. factory system was just taking hold, having originated within the textile industry, where women and children comprised the majority of workers. Women outnumbered men for several reasons. Because the first factories were spinning mills and spinning had traditionally been women's work, it was natural for them to fill these positions. Also factory work was considered lighter labor, suitable for women and children, who earned lower wages, at a time when men's physical strength was needed on the farms (see Abbott). Well into the mid-nineteenth century, cotton textiles were the predominant factory-made product. In 1850 cotton mills employed 33,150 men and 59,136 women. By 1870 these figures had risen to 42,790 men and 69,637 women. Factories developed in other industries as well by the 1850s, such as the manufacture of paper, iron, and garments. The numbers of all industrial workers rose dramatically from 731,137 men and 225,922 women in 1850 to 2,353,471 men and 353,950 women in 1870.
The literature reflects the dominance of the textile industry and its female workers. Into the later nineteenth century, much more writing about textile mills survives than for other industries, with women authors and characters predominating. The U.S. experience parallels that of Great Britain, where, as Susan Zlotnick argues, female authors played a major role in founding and shaping factory writing. The textile industry enabled, for the first time, the entry of large numbers of women into the public sphere of work. Fictional texts such as Eliza Jane Cate's Lights and Shadows of Factory Life in New England (1843), Ariel I. Cummings's The Factory Girl; or, Gardez la coeur (1847), and Miss J. A. B.'s Mary Bean: The Factory Girl (1850) address many women's issues, including changing gender roles, women's work, and violence against women. Writers tackle such social problems as workers's oppression, class bias, poverty, and child labor. Struggles between
While highbrow writers increasingly eschewed didacticism and sensation, factory literature is often unabashedly moralistic and sensational. Examples include the tractate The Factory Boy; or, The Child of Providence (1839) by "a Lady" and the sensational Over the Brink; or, The Peril of Beauty (1869) by Jasper Colfax. The circumstances of this literature's publication have also contributed to its neglect. Whereas highbrow literature appeared in established publish-ers's journals and monographs, factory writing was often published in such ephemeral formats as broadside ballads, workers's periodicals, Sunday school tracts, and pulp novels. Although more readily available to poor, working people in its time, cheap literature was also less likely to be preserved and hence studied by scholars.
Factory literature is much scarcer for the 1820s and 1830s than for later decades because the factory system and publishing industry were still relatively small. One important early text is Thomas Man's pamphlet poem Picture of a Factory Village (1833). Man attacks the factory system for abandoning American ideals of freedom and equality and inflicting suffering and ignorance upon workers. The speaker characterizes mill employment as "grinding work," resembling slavery. Another poem questioning factory work's similarity to slave labor, "The Factory Girl" (1833), was published anonymously in a Boston labor paper, the New England Artisan and Laboring Man's Repository. The poem belongs to a great tradition of nineteenth-century working-class ballads, many of which were published and preserved in broadsides and labor papersnd probably as many lost. The poem's speaker, a "factory girl," insists that although she must heed the mill's bell, she "cannot be a slave" because she is "so fond of liberty" (9 May 1833). Women workers found this poem inspiring, reciting portions of it during the 1834 and 1836 strikes in Lowell, Massachusetts.
Literature of the textile industry increased greatly in volume in the 1840s. A remarkable feature of this outpouring was the publication of numerous work-ers's periodicals. Early titles, such as the Lowell Offering (Lowell, Massachusetts, 1840845), The Operatives's Magazine (Lowell, 1841842), and the Wampanoag, and Operatives's Journal (Fall River, Massachusetts, 1842), were designed for workers's edification, entertainment, and cultural enrichment and for informing the public about factory life. Some of the later periodicals, such as the Manchester Operative (Lowell and Manchester, New Hampshire, 1844845), the Voice of Industry (Fitchburg, Lowell, and Boston, Massachusetts, 1845848), and the Factory Girl's Album, and Operatives's Advocate (Exeter, New Hampshire, 1846847), emerged from the Ten-Hour movement, which sought to reduce the twelve- to fourteen-hour workday to ten hours (for more titles, see Ranta, pp. 435).
The periodicals offer a rich source for studying the literary treatment of class and industrialism. Often written and edited by workers, they include much short fiction and poetry. The editors and publishers frequently aimed at a female audience and printed many writings both by and for women. Such female-dominated magazines as the Lowell Offering are noteworthy for early and searching feminist speculation. The periodicals's representations of industrial work and workers anticipate later-nineteenth-century realist and naturalist writings.
Toward 1850 it becomes easier to find literature associated with other industries, such as those producing paper, iron, and garments. Texts related to the paper industry include Theodore Bang's pulp novel The Mysteries of Papermill Village (1845). An example of the city-mysteries fiction popular at the time, the text does not represent mill work but instead satirizes the community's foibles, for example, intemperance, gossip, and greed. Such texts (another is Fun in a Factory Village, published anonymously in Worcester, Massachusetts, in 1847), with their focus on street life and vernacular and their raucous humor, furnish rare glimpses into nineteenth-century working-class culture. Two studies that examine the dime novels that developed from such pulp literature are Michael Denning's Mechanic Accents: Dime Novels and Working-Class Culture in America and J. Randolph Cox's Dime Novel Companion: A Source Book.
In his story representing female paper-mill workers, "The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids" (1855), Herman Melville addressed women's industrial work, utilizing tropes appearing earlier in factory-girl literature. The liveliness of mill women's culture, however, as seen in the factory periodicals and other writings, is entirely lacking in Melville's representation of silent, suffering workers. Viewing the women as the slaves of the machines, the narrator remarks, "The girls did not so much seem accessory wheels to the general machinery as mere cogs to the wheels" (p. 328). Scholars, including Elizabeth Renker and Elizabeth Freeman, have also noted the antifeminism of Melville's story (see Renker, chap. 3; Freeman). Nonetheless, Melville's critique of the factory system resonates with some labor-paper writings, such as those appearing in the Voice of Industry. An article signed by Juliana (probably Huldah J. Stone) expresses scorn for "the Cotton Lords of Lowell" who regard factory women as "there [sic] living machinery." The narrator asks whether some mill women have "been so long accustomed to watching machinery that they have actually become dwarfs in intellectnd lost to all sense of their own God-like powers of mind" (Juliana).
Paper-mill workers also appeared in Protestant evangelical tractate literature (small, cheap books issued abundantly by such bodies as the American Sunday-School Union and often intended for young and working-class readers). Anonymously published, The Mill-Girls (1862) tells of two young sisters's religious conversion. Laura and Helen Jones, age thirteen and nine, work as ragpickers in Tompkin's paper mill, employment the narrator describes as "one of the most unpleasant and unhealthy tasks that can be well imagined" (p. 6). As in other such texts, the characters begin to prosper once they embrace evangelical Christianity. While religion is presented as the solution to workers's problems, tracts are often quite critical of capitalists for neglecting workers's physical and spiritual needs.
Rebecca Harding Davis (1831910) represented the iron industry in her pioneering realist and naturalist novella Life in the Iron Mills (1861). In depicting the destruction of Hugh Wolfe, an artistic iron-mill worker, Davis contributed to the tradition of women's factory writing. The garment industry also received literary treatment when sweatshops developed after the sewing machine's introduction in 1846. An anonymously published novel, Mabel Ross, the Sewing-Girl (1866), chronicles the hardships of Chicago seam-stresses. For meager pay, the women alternate stitching at home with toiling in "workrooms" at rows of sewing machines. The text includes scenes of an unsuccessful strike at one such establishment.
The texts mentioned above represent only a few of the hundreds published before 1870. These examples point to the importance of factory literature's opportunities for working-class and female expression. Although this little-known writing possesses special characteristics, it certainly influenced other American literature as well as women's roles and writing. In their treatment of industrial work and such social problems as poverty and violence, factory writers introduced new subjects and techniques that were developed by later realist and naturalist authors, such as Stephen Crane and Theodore Dreiser.
See also Childhood; Dime Novels; Labor; Life in the Iron Mills; Lowell Offering; Progress; Reform; Slavery; Technology; Urbanization
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Judith A. Ranta