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"A Second Peep at Factory Life"

By Josephine L. Baker

Article from the Lowell Offering

Published in Vol. V: 97-100, 1845

In the 1820s the textile mills in Lowell, Massachusetts, began operating successfully using a workforce made up largely of young, unmarried women. For these daughters of northern farmers and laborers, the factory life was temporary and they would only labor for a few years before returning to their homes to marry and raise families. It was not an accepted practice for young women to work for wages in factories at that time, but the growth of industrialization was changing social standards. From their writings, it is apparent that the Lowell "mill girls," as they called themselves, were taking full advantage of the opportunities offered them through their employment in the factories. During their free time they sought to educate and improve themselves, and they often wrote about their lives, including their experiences in the mills. In later years, when the mill girls began to protest against poor working conditions, they learned to organize, speak in public, and challenge bosses.

Many of the Lowell workers were eager to experience independence for the first, and perhaps the only, time in their lives. They worked up to fourteen hours a day, and yet it was

Title page of an 1840 issue of the Lowell Offering.
Title page of an 1840 issue of the Lowell Offering. (Courtesy of Rotch Visual Collections, M.I.T.)
common for the young mill operators to spend their evening hours participating in reading groups, attending night school, going to lectures, or just reading on their own. One popular reading group was sponsored by the First Universalist Church in Lowell, where the young women met and read to each other from their own writings. Impressed with the large quantity of literary material the women produced, the pastor of the church, Abel C. Thomas (1807–1880), organized the Lowell Offering in 1840. The first publication was simply a pamphlet, which included a collection of essays, letters, and poetry written by the mill girls. As more volumes were published, the Offering quickly grew into a monthly magazine, written and edited by the mill girls.

In 1841 Reverend Thomas moved to another congregation. At the time, the Offering was sold for around 6 cents per issue, but the price was not enough to cover the publishing costs, and the mill owners began to subsidize it (assist by providing money for operation), although it was still edited and written by the women mill workers. In October 1842 Harriet Farley (1817–1907) became the editor. She was joined in 1843 by coeditor Harriet F. Curtis (1813–1889).

The articles in the magazine covered a variety of subjects from astronomy to religion to housekeeping. Most, though, were about factory work and life in the industrial town. The young women were well aware that a lot of attention was focused on them, since as working women in the United States they represented an extreme departure from the normal female role in society. They frequently wrote articles attempting to argue or prove that they were thoughtful, capable, and intelligent. Since factory work was considered lowly, the mill girls also wanted to show that their work was not without honor, and they struggled to present the self-sacrifice and discipline necessary to work in the factories.

During the five years the Offering was published, conditions at the Lowell mills became worse. The managers cut wages and increased workloads, and the women became unhappy. Sarah Bagley wrote in a July 3, 1845, article in the weekly workers' newspaper Voice of Industry:

One would suppose [based on the low wages of workers] that the Lowell mills were filled with farmers' daughters who could live without labor and who go there merely as a resort for health and recreation, instead of a large portion of poverty's daughters whose fathers do not possess one foot of land, but work day by day for the bread that feeds their families. Indeed, many of the operatives are foreigners free to work there according to the mandates of heartless power, or to go to the poor house, beg, or do worse.

However, while some of the articles in the Offering reflected the growing dissatisfaction with working conditions, the magazine did not publish articles that were directly critical of the management. Some believed this was due to Farley, the editor. Bagley, who also wrote for the Offering, called Farley "the mouthpiece of the corporations" (as quoted by Philip S. Foner in The Factory Girls). In a very public dispute, Bagley claimed that Farley had refused to publish articles about the declining working conditions of the laborers. Farley claimed this was not true. Others clearly felt dissatisfaction with the Offering, as it quickly lost its readership and ceased publication by December 1845.

Things to remember while reading "A Second Peep at Factory Life":

  • The author of the article below, Josephine L. Baker, wrote as if she were speaking to a visitor to whom she was giving a tour of the textile factory. In the piece, she describes factory life and some of the machinery used by the laborers, and then openly and honestly discusses working conditions at the factory. The article was written in the last year of publication of the Lowell Offering, when frustration among workers was running high.
  • During its five years of publication, seventy young women wrote articles for the Lowell Offering. Although this is a large number, there is no way to know if these contributors were representative of the Lowell mill girls as a whole. Whether there was censorship by the mill owners and the editor is also unknown.
  • English novelist Charles Dickens (1812–1870) paid a visit to the Lowell mills while traveling in the United States. He describes the mills and the workers in his American Notes and Pictures from Italy (1874). Dickens read all four hundred pages of the published volumes of the Lowell Offering, and commented: "Of the merits of the Lowell Offering as a literary production, I will only observe, putting entirely out of sight the fact of the articles having been written by these girls after the arduous [difficult to accomplish] labours of the day, that it will compare advantageously [favorably] with a great many English Annuals." Dickens continued, "It is pleasant to find that many of its Tales are of the Mills and of those who work in them; that they inculcate [show] habits of self-denial and contentment, and teach good doctrines of enlarged benevolence. A strong feeling for the beauties of nature, as displayed in the solitudes the writers have left at home, breathes through its pages like wholesome village air."
English novelist Charles Dickens was impressed by the writings of the Lowell mill girls.
English novelist Charles Dickens was impressed by the writings of the Lowell mill girls. (AP/Wide World Photos Reproduced by permission.)

"A Second Peep at Factory Life"

There is an old saying, that "When we are with the Romans, we must do as the Romans do." And now, kind friend, as we are about to renew our walk, I beg that you will give heed to it, and do as factory girls do. After this preliminary, we will proceed to the factory.

There is the "counting-room," a long, low, brick building, and opposite is the "store-house," built of the same material, after the same model. Between them, swings the ponderous gate that shuts the mills in from the world without. But, stop; we must get "a pass," ere we go through, or "the watchman will be after us." Having obtained this, we will stop on the slight elevation by the gate, and view the mills. The one to the left rears high its huge sides of brick and mortar, and the belfry, towering far above the rest, stands out in bold relief against the rosy sky. The almost innumerable windows glitter, like gems, in the morning sunlight. It is six and a half stories high, and, like the fabled monster of old, who guarded the sacred waters of Mars, it seems to guard its less aspiring sister to the right; that is five and a half stories high, and to it is attached the repair-shop. If you please, we will pass to the larger factory,—but be careful, or you will get lost in the mud, for this yard is not laid out in such beautiful order, as some of the factory yards are, nor can it be.

We will just look into the first room. It is used for cleaning cloth. You see the scrubbing and scouring machines are in full operation, and gigging and fulling are going on in full perfection…. In the second room the cloth is "finished," going through the various operations of burling, shearing, brushing, inking, fine-drawing, pressing, and packing for market. This is the pleasantest room on the corporation, and consequently they are never in want of help. The shearing, brushing, pressing and packing is done by males, while the burling, inking, marking and fine-drawing is performed by females. We will pass to the third room, called the "cassimere weavingroom," where all kinds of cloths are woven, from plain to the most exquisite fancy. There are between eighty and ninety looms, and part of the dressing is also done here. The fourth is the "broad weaving-room," and contains between thirty and forty looms; and broad sure enough they are. Just see how lazily the lathe drags backward and forward, and the shuttle—how spitefully it hops from one end of it to the other…. Now if you please we will go up to the next room, where the spinning is done. Here we have spinning jacks or jennies that dance merrily along whizzing and singing, as they spin out their "long yarns," and it seems but pleasure to watch their movements; but it is hard work, and requires good health and much strength. Do not go too near, as we shall find that they do not understand the established rules of etiquette, and might unceremoniously knock us over. We must not stop here longer, for it is twelve o'clock, and we have the "carding-room" to visit before dinner. There are between twenty and thirty sets of cards located closely together, and I beg of you to be careful as we go amongst them, or you will get caught in the machinery…. And—but the bell rings

Now look out—not for the engine—but for the rush to the stairway. O mercy! what a crowd. I do not wonder you gasp for breath; but, keep up courage; we shall soon be on terra firma again. Now, safely landed, I hope to be excused for taking you into such a crowd. Really, it would not be fair to let you see the factory girls and machinery for nothing. I shall be obliged to hurry you, as it is some way to the boarding-house, and we have but thirty minutes from the time the bell begins to ring till it is done ringing again; and then all are required to be at their work. There is a group of girls yonder, going our way; let us overtake them, and hear what they are talking about. Something unpleasant I dare say, from their earnest gestures and clouded brows.

"Well, I do think it is too bad," exclaims one.

"So do I," says another. "This cutting down wages is not what they cry it up to be. I wonder how they'd like to work as hard as we do, digging and drudging day after day, from morning till night, and then, every two or three years, have their wages reduced. I rather guess it wouldn't set very well."

"And, besides this, who ever heard, of such a thing as their being raised again," says the first speaker. "I confess that I never did, so long as I've worked in the mill, and that's been these ten years."

"Well, it is real provoking any how," returned the other, "for my part I should think they had made a clean sweep this time. I wonder what they'll do next."

"Listeners never hear any good of themselves" is a trite saying, and, for fear it may prove true in our case, we will leave this busy group, and get some dinner. There is an open door inviting us to enter. We will do so. You can hang your bonnet and shawl on one of those hooks, that extend the length of the entry for that purpose, or you can lay them on the banisters, as some do. Please walk into the dining room. Here are two large square tables, covered with checked clothes and loaded down with smoking viands, the odor of which is very inviting. But we will not stop here; there is the long table in the front room, at which ten or fifteen can be comfortably seated. You may place yourself at the head. Now do not be bashful or wait to be helped, but comply with the oft-made request, "help yourself" to whatever you like best; for you have but a few minutes allotted you to spend at the table. The reason why, is because you are a rational, intelligent, thinking being, and ought to know enough to swallow your food whole; whereas a horse or an ox, or any other dumb beast knows no better than to spend an hour in the useless process of mastication. The bell rings again, and the girls are hurrying to the mills; you, I suppose, have seen enough of them for one day, so we will walk up stairs and have a tete-a-tete.

You ask, if there are so many things objectionable, why we work in the mill. Well, simply for this reason,—every situation in life, has its trials which must be borne. and factory life has no more than any other. There are many things we do not like; many occurrences that send the warm blood mantling to the cheek when they must be borne in silence, and many harsh words and acts that are not called for. There are objections also to the number of hours we work, to the length of time allotted to our meals, and to the low wages allowed for labor; objections that must and will be answered; for the time has come when something, besides the clothing and feeding of the body is to be thought of; when the mind is to be clothed and fed; and this cannot be as it should be, with the present system of labor. Who, let me ask, can find that pleasure in life which they should, when it is spent in this way. Without time for the laborer's own work, and the improvement of the mind, save the few evening hours; and even then if the mind is enriched and stored with useful knowledge, it must be at the expense of health. And the feeling too, that comes over us (there is no use in denying it) when we hear the bell calling us away from repose that tired nature loudly claims—the feeling, that we are obliged to go. And these few hours, of which we have spoken, are far too short, three at the most at the close of day. Surely, methinks, every heart that lays claim to humanity will feel 'tis not enough. But this, we hope will, ere long, be done away with, and labor made what it should be; pleasant and inviting to every son and daughter of the human family.

There is a brighter side to this picture, over which we would not willingly pass without notice, and an answer to the question, why we work here? The time we do have is our own. The money we earn comes promptly; more so than in any other situation; and our work, though laborious, is the same from day to day; we know what it is, and when finished we feel perfectly free, till it is time to commence it again.

Besides this, there are many pleasant associations connected with factory life, that are not to be found elsewhere.

There are lectures, evening schools and libraries, to which all may have access. The one thing needful here, is the time to improve them as we ought.

There is a class, of whom I would speak, that work in the mills, and will while they continue in operation. Namely, the many who have no home, and who come here to seek, in this busy, bustling "City of Spindles," a competency that shall enable them in after life, to live without being a burden to society,—the many who toil on, without a murmur, for the support of an aged mother or orphaned brother and sister. For the sake of them, we earnestly hope labor may be reformed; that the miserable, selfish spirit of competition, now in our midst, may be thrust from us and consigned to eternal oblivion.

J. L. B.

What happened next …

In 1846 Irish immigrants who had fled their native country due to a terrible famine (extreme shortage of food) arrived in large numbers in Lowell and the surrounding cities. They were very poor and willing to work for low wages. By 1860 they made up about one-half of Lowell's mill workers. Immigrants from other countries made up most of the rest of the workforce.

Amelia Bloomer, publisher of The Lily, wearing bloomers.
Amelia Bloomer, publisher of The Lily, wearing "bloomers." (© Bettmann/Corbis.)

In 1844 Sarah Bagley, hoping to improve the mill environment, helped found the Lowell Female Reform Association (LFRA). She spoke before the Massachusetts legislature and claimed that new requirements forcing mill workers to oversee more machines were endangering their physical health because of the tremendous and continuous stress it placed upon the worker and the increased likelihood of accidents. As a result the legislature conducted an investigation into worker health and safety, but no action was taken to improve conditions. The LFRA then formed a partnership with a labor organization known as the New England Workingmen's Association. In 1845 Bagley became the editor of the organization's weekly newspaper, The Voice of Industry, and began her major campaign, the Ten Hours Movement, which was an attempt to limit the workday to ten hours. For the next couple of years, she was known as one of the most forceful writers and speakers for this cause. In 1848 she disappeared from historical records, but she is remembered as the first woman trade union leader.

Did you know …

  • The Lowell Offering was the first of several periodicals produced and written by women for women readers in the United States during the nineteenth century. Amelia Bloomer (1818–1894) published the successful magazine The Lily from 1849 to 1856 to promote temperance (abstinence from drinking alcohol) and women's dress reform. From 1853 to 1855, Paulina Wright Davis (1813–1876) published Una, the first U.S. women's rights newspaper. In 1868 women's rights advocates Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815–1902) and Susan B. Anthony (1820–1906) founded The Revolution, a feminist weekly newspaper that also covered many other political topics. The Woman's Era, published from 1894 to 1903, was the first newspaper created by and for African American women.

Consider the following …

  • The author of the article "A Second Peep at Factory Life" presents her description of the cotton mill in a very unusual way. What effect does she achieve by writing as if talking directly to an interested visitor to the factory? Whydoyou thinkshe chosetowrite in that way?
  • Do you think the narrator of the article is happy with her work at the mill? Do you think she is proud of her work? Finally, do you think she intends to continue working there? Explain.

For More Information


Dickens, Charles. American Notes and Pictures from Italy. London: Chapman and Hall, 1874.

Eisler, Barbara, ed. The Lowell Offering: Writings by New England Mill Women, 1840–1845. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott, 1977.

Foner, Philip S., ed. The Factory Girls. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1977.

Selden, Bernice. The Mill Girls: Lucy Larcom, Harriet Hanson Robinson, Sarah G. Bagley. New York: Atheneum, 1983.


Baker, Josephine L. "A Second Peep at Factory Life." From Lowell Offering, vol. V (1845): 97-100. This article can also be found online at (accessed on July 6, 2005).

"Mind Among the Spindles: The Lowell Offering." Cobblestone, March 2001.

Web Sites

"The Mill Girls." The National Park Service. (accessed on July 6, 2005).