Excerpts from Loom and Spindle: or, Life among the Early Mill Girls
By Harriet Hanson Robinson
Originally published by T. Y. Cromwell in 1898
Revised edition published by Hawaii Press Pacific, 1976
During the early nineteenth century, the country's first factories were being established in New England. In 1814 Francis Cabot Lowell (1775–1817) built the first complete cotton factory—with both spinning and weaving processes in one building—in Waltham, Massachusetts. By 1823, after Lowell's death, his business associates had built larger mills in Lowell, along the Merrimack River. The mills used power looms that required workers with quick hands for smooth operation. The mill workforces were made up mainly of young women, many from the farms of New England. Bright, eager, and willing to work for less money than men, the "Lowell girls," as they came to be called, filled the mill owners' needs and became the first industrial workforce in the United States.
Mill work was appealing to many young women. The biggest attraction was that it paid more than women could make elsewhere. In the Lowell mills in the 1830s women earned $2.40 to $3.20 a week plus room and board. This amount was one-half to one-third the wages paid to men for similar work, but it was still more than double the money a woman would receive working as a domestic servant or seamstress. Some
Since most Americans in the early 1900s believed that women should be at home caring for their families, mill owners sought to make the practice of hiring women acceptable to the laborers' families and to the general public. To achieve this they attempted to create a respectable environment for the young women. They were housed in company-owned boardinghouses, where their safety and daily behavior could be
One of the Lowell girls who recorded the experienceinher memoirs was author and activist Harriet Hanson Robinson (1825–1911). She was born Harriet Hanson on August 2, 1825, in Boston, Massachusetts. In 1831, when she was only six years old, her father died, and her mother was faced with the difficult task of feeding and caring for four young children alone. Harriet's mother set up a small shop to sell food, candy, and firewood, but supporting her family was difficult and they lived in poverty. In 1832 Hanson and her children moved twenty miles north of Boston to the booming mill town of Lowell, Massachusetts, where she began managing a boarding-house for female mill workers.
In Lowell, Robinson helped her mother manage the boardinghouse, which was home to forty workers. When she was ten years old, she went to work in the mills to help pay the family's expenses. She worked from 1834 to 1848, during the early days of the cotton factories when mill owners were still experimenting with management methods. Francis Lowell had hoped to design a factory system that treated its workers well, and he regarded the laborers in his mills as his responsibility, both during and after work hours.
Robinson's experiences as a mill worker are vividly depicted in a book called Loom and Spindle: or, Life among the Early Mill Girls, published in 1898. She presented a positive view of the opportunities for women offered by the mills. According to Robinson, many women took advantage of their independence to educate themselves and came away from the experience more confident and self-assured than when they had started. To many historians, Robinson's picture of life in the mills during this time is unusually optimistic. Indeed, Robinson's situation was more favorable than most. She lived with her own family—many girls had to leave home and travel far away to work in the mills—and she held a skilled but relatively easy job that allowed time for reading. By the late 1830s, however, things were already changing, as Robinson confirms in her memoirs.
Things to remember while reading the excerpts from Loom and Spindle: or, Life among the Early Mill Girls:
- By 1831 women made up almost forty thousand of the fifty-eight thousand factory workers in the textile industry. This figure includes a high percentage of young girls, but the exact numbers and ages of the girls were not recorded.
- Working conditions were tough at the Lowell mill. Work routines were strict, with twelve- to fourteen-hour days that started very early in the morning. Factory bells announced times for leaving and entering the plant, and the employees were fined if they were late. Because cotton thread breaks more easily in dry air, overseers sealed windows shut and sprayed water in the air to keep the moisture in the air high. Along with being hot and humid, the moisture often caused lung ailments.
- Many women mill workers spent a great deal of their free time educating themselves. After a long day of work, they often read or met in study groups, and they attended lectures and church meetings over the weekends. Like Robinson, many of the young women wrote memoirs, letters, and stories about their experiences, documenting their years of independence.
- By the mid-1830s increased competition was driving textile prices down. In 1834, in order to lower their expenses, the Lowell mill owners cut their workers' wages by 25 percent. The workers responded by staging a strike and organizing a labor union called the Factory Girls Association. Two years later mill owners increased boardinghouse rates and again cut wages. The Lowell workers organized another strike in 1836. Neither of these efforts succeeded in changing the mill owners' policies.
Excerpt from Loom and Spindle: or, Life among the Early Mill Girls
Child-life in the Cotton Mills
I had been to school constantly until I was about ten years of age, when my mother, feeling obliged to have help in her work besides what I could give, and also needing the money which I could earn, allowed me, at my urgent request (for I wanted to earn money like the other little girls), to go to work in the mill. I worked first in the spinning-room as a "doffer." The doffers were the very youngest girls, whose work it was to doff, or take off, the full bobbins, and replace them with the empty ones.
I can see myself now, racing down the alley, between the spinning-frames, carrying in front of me a bobbin-box bigger than I was. These mites had to be very swift in their movements, so as not to keep the spinning-frames stopped long, and they worked only about fifteen minutes in every hour. The rest of the time was their own, and when the overseer was kind they were allowed to read, knit, or even to go outside the mill-yard to play….
When not doffing, we were often allowed to go home, for a time, and thus we were able to help our mothers in their housework. We were paid two dollars a week; and how proud I was when my turn came to stand up on the bobbin-box, and write my name in the paymaster's book, and how indignant I was when he asked me if I could "write." "Of course I can," said I, and he smiled as he looked down on me.
The working-hours of all the girls extended from five o'clock in the morning until seven in the evening, with one-half hour for breakfast and for dinner. Even the doffers were forced to be on duty nearly fourteen hours a day, and this was the greatest hardship in the lives of these children. For it was not until 1842 that the hours of labor for children under twelve years of age were limited to ten per day; but the "ten-hour law" itself was not passed 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….
The Lowell Mill Girls Go on Strike, 1836
One of the first strikes of cotton-factory operatives that ever took place in this country was that in Lowell, in October, 1836. When it was announced that the wages were to be cut down, great indignation was felt, and it was decided to strike, en masse. This was done. The mills were shut down, and the girls went in procession from their several corporations to the "grove" on Chapel Hill, and listened to "incendiary" speeches from 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.
Cutting down the wages was not their only grievance, nor the only cause of this strike. Hitherto the corporations had paid twenty-five cents a week towards the board of each operative, and now it was their purpose to have the girls pay the sum; and this, in addition to the cut in the wages, would make a difference of at least one dollar a week. It was estimated that as many as twelve or fifteen hundred girls turned out, and walked in procession through the streets. They had neither flags nor music, but sang songs, a favorite (but rather inappropriate) one being a parody on "I won't be a nun."
Oh! isn't it a pity, such a pretty girl as I
Should be sent to the factory to pine away and die?
Oh! I cannot be a slave,
I will not be a slave,
For I'm so fond of liberty
That I cannot be a slave.
My own recollection of this first strike (or "turn out" as it was called) is very vivid. I worked in a lower room, where I had heard the proposed strike fully, if not vehemently, discussed; I had been an ardent listener to what was said against this attempt at "oppression" on the part of the corporation, and naturally I took sides with the strikers. When the day came on which the girls were to turn out, those in the upper rooms started first, and so many of them left that our mill was at once shut down. Then, when the girls in my room stood irresolute, uncertain what to do, asking each other, "Would you?" or "Shall we turn out?" and not one of them having the courage to lead off, I, who began to think they would not go out, after all their talk, became impatient, and started on ahead, saying, with childish bravado, "I don't care what you do, I am going to turn out, whether any one else does or not"; and I marched out, and was followed by the others.
As I looked back at the long line that followed me, I was more proud than I have ever been since at any success I may have achieved, and more proud than I shall ever be again until my own beloved State gives to its women citizens the right of suffrage.
The agent of the corporation where I then worked took some small revenges on the supposed ringleaders; on the principle of sending the weaker to the wall, my mother was turned away from her boarding-house, that functionary saying, "Mrs. Hanson, you could not prevent the older girls from turning out, but your daughter is a child, and her you could control."
It is hardly necessary to say that so far as results were concerned this strike did no good. The dissatisfaction of the operatives subsided, or burned itself out, and though the authorities did not accede. to their demands, the majority returned to their work, and the corporation went on cutting down the wages.
And after a time, as the wages became more and more reduced, the best portion of the girls left and went to their homes, or to the other employments that were fast opening to women, until there were very few of the old guard left; and thus the status of the factory population of New England gradually became what we know it to be today.
What happened next …
In 1848 Robinson married journalist William Stevens Robinson (1818–1876), a strong supporter of the antislavery movement. They had several children and Robinson worked in the home as a housewife. After her husband's death, Robinson became active in the women's suffrage movement. She was the first woman to appear before the Select Committee on Woman Suffrage in Congress, and she argued the case for suffrage before the legislature of Massachusetts. In 1881 Robinson published the book Massachusetts in the Woman Suffrage Movement. She died in 1911, nine years before American women received the right to vote through the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
By the 1850s the number of native-born American women working in the textile mills had greatly decreased. Working conditions had grown worse and wages had been reduced. The mill managers no longer wanted to hire young women from the farms of New England since they had proved themselves likely to protest unfair work conditions. As a result, the supervised boardinghouse system was dropped.
By the mid- to late 1800s, mill girls were almost entirely replaced by Irish, Italian, and Portuguese immigrants who were willing to work for lower wages. Housing in mill towns like Lowell, Lawrence, and Holyoke, Massachusetts, became hard to find, and terrible overcrowding occurred as more immigrants arrived in search of jobs. Cramped conditions, improper air circulation, and unclean surroundings caused outbreaks of contagious diseases. One out of every three spinners (those who operated spinning machines), many under the age of twenty-five, died before completing ten years in the factory. Mill work had changed a great deal since the days when Robinson was employed at Lowell.
Did you know …
- Women have been responsible for making cloth and clothing in many cultures throughout the ages. In England the word "spinster" came into use sometime in the thirteenth century and referred to any woman who spun wool for a living. Since unmarried women were more likely to have to work for a living, and the most common work for women was spinning, over the centuries the term "spinster" also became a word meaning any unmarried woman. It is not surprising that in the United States textile manufacturing was the first industry to have a large female workforce, since for so long women had been associated with the art of making cloth.
- Other industries with large numbers of women in their workforces in the early nineteenth century included ready-made clothing, fur, hat, shoe, umbrella, button, glove, and furniture manufacturing.
Consider the following …
- Some writers describing the Lowell mill girls focused on the opportunities that were granted them by the textile mills: independence, education, deep bonds of friendship among the workers, a safe place to live, and supervision over their daily lives. The young women in the early days of the Lowell mills distinguished themselves as writers and artists, and many left the mills with far greater knowledge of the world than when they arrived. On the other hand, critics also stressed the overly strict attitude of the mill owners and their exploitation (taking unfair advantage of for their own gain) of the factory workers. What do you think—did the mills present young women with good opportunities, abuse them, or a little of both?
- When she wrote about her days as a Lowell girl, do you think Harriet Hanson Robinson looked back on it as a good experience? What clues are there in the excerpt about how she felt about those days?
For More Information
Dublin, Thomas. Women at Work: The Transformation of Work and Community in Lowell, Massachusetts, 1826–1860. New York: Columbia University Press, 1979.
Foner, Philip S., ed. The Factory Girls. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1977.
Robinson, Harriet Hanson. Loom and Spindle: or, Life among the Early Mill Girls. Rev. ed. Kailua: Hawaii Press Pacific, 1976.
Selden, Bernice. The Mill Girls: Lucy Larcom, Harriet Hanson Robinson, Sarah G. Bagley. New York: Atheneum, 1983.
Cummings, Patricia L. "The Mill Girls of Spindle City." Quilter's Muse. (accessed on July 6, 2005).
"The Mill Girls." The National Park Service. http://www.nps.gov/lowe/loweweb/Lowell_History/Millgirls.htm (accessed on July 6, 2005).