Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Mill Girls

While we were touring the Green Mountain Spinnery during our trip to Vermont, I thought a great deal about the history of the textile industry in the United States.

As America began to enter the period of the Industrial Revolution, many young woman between the ages of 15 and 25 moved from farms to work in the textile mill in Lowell, Massachusetts or in mills in other communities. Their families lived by the natural rhythms of the day--rising with the sun and preparing for evening as it set--and by the natural rhythms of the year--from planting to harvest. Now the young women employed by the mill would be subject to factory bells that determined when they awoke and when they worked in their seasonless jobs.

Expecting to work for a few years before marriage, the women who worked at Lowell lived not with families but in mill-owned boarding houses. In order to reassure parents concerned by having their daughters so far from home, the dormitories attempted to make a home away from home complete with cultural events, a newspaper, and strict rules. Most bedrooms held 8 women in a room with 4 double beds. 30 or 40 lived in each boardinghouse.

Lowell's main product was cotton cloth (from patterned weaves to printed patterns, from sheeting to shirting), but from the beginning it also produced woolen cloth, hosiery, and even rugs. From carding to spinning…

…from warping to weaving, young women transformed raw materials into cloth.

Work in the mill was hard. The hours were long (typically 73 hours per week), the chores repetitive, the expectations of bosses unrelenting, and the machinery often dangerous.

In 1844, some of the workers formed the Lowell Female Labor Reform Association to lobby for better pay and better treatment. The LFLRA was the first female union in the country. The organization eventually joined with the New England Workingmen's Association in order to negotiate more powerfully with management. Unfortunately, they were not very successful.

Before the Civil War, factory conditions worsened as the country entered an economic downturn. Hours were longer, pay was lower, and amenities decreased. Farm girls from Massachusetts found better opportunities. The new workers in the mill were Irish immigrant women and men (and later, Portuguese, Polish, and other immigrant workers) who found their efforts to negotiate even less successful. Other changes were also in store: a move from water power to steam--and the gradual removal of textile mills from the northern states to the South.

Although Lowell lost its prominence in the textile industry as the years went by, it continued to attract national attention. When in 1912 the state of Massachusetts passed a law requiring mills to limit working hours to 54 per week, mill administration slashed wages to compensate. Mill workers were united in their anger. A general strike erupted in Lawrence. Protests followed in many other mills including Lowell. This time, mill workers prevailed and they not only did not have their pay reduced but got a raise.


FemiKnitMafia said...

You may know that I live in the Merrimack Valley, so I'm constantly reminded of the mill girls. Next time you're up north, let's spend some time in Lowell. There's an amazing arts scene there.

Mouse said...

What wonderful old photos.. thanks for sharing some history! I love this type of thing..

Kate A. said...

Yes, thank you! This was beautifully written as well as beautifully illustrated! I haven't read about the mill girls since I was a kid, and I enjoyed the reminder very much.

FugueStateKnits said...

Thank you for the very vivid reminder of how much we owe our foremothers! If it weren't for unions, we'd all still be living in hovels, subject to the whims of the wealthy - not that things are much better elsewhere in the world!
Thanks again and please write about your tour of the Vt. Spinnery! I bet that was rather nice!
Joan G in ellicott city (another mill town) MD

Marcy said...

Very nice piece of history. And great images. Thanks!


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