H105, American History I

Harriet Robinson, autobiography (1831-1836).

Chapter 4, The Characteristics of the Early Factory Girls.


At the time the Lowell cotton-mills were started, the factory girl was the lowest among women.  In England, and in France particularly, great injustice had been done to her real character; she was represented as subjected to influences that could not fail to destroy her purity and self-respect.  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 mill-girls, in spite of the opprobrium that still clung to this “degrading occupation.”  At first only a few came; for, though tempted by the high wages to be regularly paid in “cash,” there were many who still preferred to go on working at some more genteel employment at seventy-five cents a week and their board.

But in a short time the prejudice against factory labor wore away, and the Lowell mills became filled with blooming and energetic New England women.  They were naturally intelligent, had mother-wit, and fell easily into the ways of their new life.  They soon began to associate with those who formed the community in which they had come to live, and were invited to their houses.  They went to the same church, and sometimes married into some of the best families.  Or if they returned to their secluded homes again, instead of being looked down upon as “factory girls” by the squire’s or the lawyer’s family, they were more often welcomed as coming from the metropolis, bringing new fashions, new books, and new ideas with them.

In 1831 Lowell was little more than a factory village.  Several 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 town, and the high wages that were offered to all classes of work-people, – stories that reached the ears of mechanics’ and farmers’ sons, and gave new life to lonely and dependent women in distant towns and farm houses.  Into this Yankee El Dorado, these needy people began to pour by the various modes of travel known to those slow old days.  The stage-coach and the canal-boat came every day, always filled with new recruits for this army of useful people.  The mechanic and machinist came, each with his home-made chest of tools, and oftentimes his wife and little ones.  The widow came with her little flock and her scanty housekeeping goods to open a boarding-house or variety store, and so provided a home for her fatherless children.  Many farmers’ daughters came to earn money to complete their wedding outfit, or buy the bride’s share of housekeeping articles.


It must be remembered that at this date woman had no property rights. A widow could be left without her share of her husband’s (or the family) property, a legal “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 supposed 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 money-spender.  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 re-marry, 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.

In almost every New England home could be found one or more of these women, sometimes welcome, more often unwelcome, and leading joyless, and in many instances unsatisfactory, lives.  The cotton-factory was a great opening to these lonely and dependent women.  From a condition approaching pauperism they were at once placed above want; they could earn money, and spend it as they pleased; and could gratify their tastes and desires without restraint, and without rendering an account to anybody.  At last they had found a place in the universe; they were no longer obliged to finish out their faded lives mere burdens to male relatives.  Even the time of these women was their own, on Sundays and in the evening after the day’s work was done.  For the first time in this country woman’s labor had a money value.  She had become not only an earner and a producer, but also a spender of money, a recognized factor in the political economy of her time.  And thus a long upward step in our material civilization was taken; woman had begun to earn and hold her own money, and through its aid had learned to think and to act for herself.


It may be added here, that the majority of the mill-girls made just as good use of their money, so newly earned, and of whose value they had hitherto known so little.  They were necessarily industrious.  They were also frugal and saving.  It was their custom on the first day of every month, after paying their board-bill ($1.25 a week), to put their wages in the savings-bank.  There the money stayed, on interest, until they withdrew it, to carry home or to use for a special purpose.  It is easy to see how much good this sum would do in a rural community where money, as a means of exchange, had been scarce.  Into the barren homes many of them had left it went like a quiet stream, carrying with it beauty and refreshment.  The mortgage was lifted from the homestead; the farmhouse was painted; the barn rebuilt; modern improvements (including Mrs. Child’s “Frugal Housewife” – the first American cook-book) were introduced into the mother’s kitchen, and books and newspapers began to ornament the sitting-room table.

Some of the mill-girls helped maintain widowed mothers, or drunken, incompetent, or invalid fathers.  Many of them educated the younger children of the family, and young men were sent to college with the money furnished by the untiring industry of their women relatives.

Indeed, the most prevailing incentive to our 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 these provident mill-girls.  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 by their earnings young men who were not sons or relatives.  There are men now living who were helped to an education by the wages of the early mill-girls.


Chapter 5, Characteristics (Continued).

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 to-day.