THE MYTH OF THE MILL GIRLS
Each morning across New England, wherever flowing water was channeled into power, the factory bells tolled. And six mornings a week, the “Belles of New England” walked through the streets to the mills, talking, sometimes singing. The Mill Girls became a fixture in America’s brightest pictures of itself.
O sing me a song of the Factory Girl
So merry and glad and free —
The bloom on her cheeks, of health it speaks! —
O a happy creature is she!
But with time, a different picture emerged. The picture rarely appears in high school history, yet it tells of young women sparking the fight that continues to this day — the fight for a living wage.
Writing of Mill Girls and their strikes, historian Philip Foner observed, “The strikers’ courage and imagination,together with their collective spirit, inspired others to act, and even when they were not successful, they succeeded in raising serious questions about woman’s so-called ‘place’.”
The hiring of Mill Girls was driven not by capitalism but by compassion. Francis Cabot Lowell had toured England’s “dark satanic mills.” He had seen children working 12-hour days, workers living in hovels, hungry, desperate, ground into submission. Lowell had a better idea.
Why not recruit farm girls? Lodge them in boarding houses? Hire older women as “keepers” to keep the “factory queens” moral and upright? Enrich them with lectures and discussion groups? When word got out, the plan was widely praised. Poet John Greenleaf Whittier eulogized “Acres of girlhood... The young, the graceful... Who shall count your vocation as otherwise than noble and ennobling?”
At first, the girls fit the myth. Glad to be free of the farm, they earned enough — $2 a week — to buy clothes, save a little, and send money home. “The thought that I am living on no one is a happy one, indeed,” a New Hampshire girl wrote.
But the Iron Law of wages soon shackled them and the free market's “invisible hand” slapped them down. As more mills and more mill towns increased competition, pay was cut, hours increased. And then there were the mills themselves.
— Power looms screaming. Listen.
— Windows nailed shut to keep cotton moist, filling rooms with lint and airborne diseases. Look.
— Bosses who could fire a girl for, as Foner wrote, “levity, hysteria, impudence, or simply not being liked.”
The girls responded with spirit and charm. They pinned poetry to looms, put flowers in weaving rooms, tacked math problems on walls. “I defied the machine to make me its slave,” Lucy Larcom wrote. “Its incessant discords could not drown out the music of my thoughts if I would let them fly high enough.”
But as looms were speeded, the girls found themselves stretched as thin as the cotton they spun. In May 1824, when mill owners in Pawtucket, Rhode Island lengthened the work week, 100 girls walked out. New England was shocked. This first “turnout” lasted just a week, with the girls settling for only one extra hour in their workday, but it was a start.
In 1828, the strikes began in earnest. For the next dozen years, hordes of girls, up to 800 in some towns, walked off the job protesting pay cuts, conditions, and 12-hour workdays. In Dover, New Hampshire, striking girls formed a half-mile line and marched behind a band. In Lowell, the girls met in secret, then walked out as one, going from mill to mill to gather more strikers. In 1834, America’s first female union, the Factory Girls Association, began collecting dues, forming strike funds, sticking together.
Suddenly the pretty picture of pretty mill girls had a stark frame. Factory Girls Association president Sarah Bagley asked, “Is anyone such a fool as to suppose that out of six thousand factory girls in Lowell, sixty would be there if they could help it?” And girls were singing:
Oh! Isn’t it a pity that such a pretty girl as I
Should be sent to the factory to pine away and die?
The fight for a 10-hour day had begun. By the time it was won — in 1874 — the myth of the Mill Girls was fixed in American history. But the girls themselves had gone home. Home where, as one wrote, “I shall not be obliged to rise so early in the morning, nor be dragged about by the factory bell, nor confined in a close noisy room from morning to night, just as though we were so many living machines.”
Economics provided another reason. The exponential growth of mill towns made it impossible to find enough farm girls. By 1850, Irish immigrants were doing the work the girls had pioneered. And America’s Labor Movement -- "the folks that brought you the weekend" -- was taking root, its seeds sown by the Belles of New England. Have a productive Labor Day!