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HER WORLD

'Mill Girls' Were the Grist for a Gritty New England Labor Scene

April 01, 2001|SUSAN SPANO | TIMES TRAVEL WRITER

In 1830, 16-year-old Sarah Hodgdon, a millworker in Lowell, Mass., wrote these sweet lines to her parents back home in New Hampshire:

I wish you well from all my heart,

Although we are so far apart.

If you die there and I die here,

Before one God we shall appear.

She was one of thousands of young women who left farms and families in the New England countryside between 1825 and 1850 to work in the new water-powered mills of Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Maine. By 1855, 9,000 women and 4,000 men produced more than 2 million yards of cotton and woolen cloth each week in the mills of Lowell.

The "mill girls," as they were called, operated carding machines, spinning frames and weaving looms, and in so doing powered America's nascent Industrial Revolution.

Their surprising and edifying stories are woven through displays at the Lowell National Historical Park, about 25 miles northwest of Boston. The park, established in 1978 (with the help of then-Rep. Paul Tsongas, a Lowell native), encompasses myriad sites in the city of 104,000 on the falls of the Merrimack River. Among the park's attractions are 5.6 miles of canals fed by the Merrimack (which visitors can tour by barge in summer), trolleys, vintage turbine machinery, workers' boardinghouses and the Boott Cotton Mills Museum, with a bell tower topped by a golden shuttle.

I happened on the park last fall while traveling among the villages north of Boston, including Concord and Lexington. In places like these, it was not unusual for parents hard-pressed to care for large families on hardscrabble farms to allow their daughters to seek work away from home.

Now these are beautiful New England towns with gourmet restaurants and stylish inns, private schools and antique shops. The thought of young Yankee women, many of them girls of 15, some as old as 30, leaving such bucolic places for dreary factory towns made me sad until I learned a little more about how they fared there.

In Lowell, their lives were regulated by factory bells that called them to the mills at about 5 a.m., where they worked 12 to 14 hours a day, six days a week. The Boott Cotton Mills Museum, at the north end of John Street, has a weave room with about 100 working power looms that gives visitors a sense of the deafeningly noisy work environment (earplugs provided).

Girls without relatives in town were required to live at company-sponsored boardinghouses, such as the one adjacent to Boott Mills that's been restored and opened to park visitors. It has a dining room table set with mid-19th century china, quarters where the girls slept two to a bed, personal mementos and a display on the Lowell Journal, a quarterly dedicated to the literary efforts of the mill girls.

Boardinghouses like this one were overseen by keepers who enforced a curfew, made sure their wards went to church and didn't cavort with men, and reported problem girls to mill supervisors.

The girls of Lowell in the 1830s earned $12 to $14 a month, minus monthly boardinghouse fees of $5, and the town's mills collaborated in blacklisting troublemakers.

To contemporary women, it may seem like something out of Charles Dickens' "Bleak House." But 200 years ago, visitors such as poet John Greenleaf Whittier, French economist Michel Chevalier and Dickens himself found the living and working conditions in Lowell vastly superior to those in such nightmarish industrial cities as Manchester, England.

And the mill girls voted for Lowell with their feet. Working there was "very much a matter of free choice," says Thomas Dublin, a professor of history at the State University of New York at Binghamton and editor of "Farm to Factory: Women's Letters, 1830-1860" (Columbia University Press, 1981).

Though their mill jobs were grueling, the young women were "lured there by wages and opportunities to purchase things they wanted, save money for marriage and help their families," Dublin said in a recent phone interview.

Nor was life as dismal as it might seem. It offered farm girls new friendships and cultural advantages such as evening lectures, concerts and reading groups.

Dublin said most girls returned home from stints in the mills with a nest egg and a heightened sense of themselves. Some, like Sarah Bagley, became reformers, or, like Lucy Larcom, writers, or, like Eliza Adams, women of independent means; she bought a farm in Massachusetts and never married.

But with the influx of immigrants, first from famine-stricken Ireland in the 1840s and 1850s and later from French Canada, Poland and Greece, labor became cheap in Lowell, working conditions worsened and wages decreased.

By the late 19th century, Lowell was like any other dingy brick immigrant factory town in America. But at the park, visitors get a glimpse of a fleeting moment in history when women workers helped drive the Industrial Revolution and even benefited from it.

Lowell National Historical Park, 67 Kirk St., Lowell, MA 01852, telephone (978) 970-5000, Internet www.nps.gov/lowe, offers free walking tours on the mill girls in April and May at 2:30 p.m. Sundays. For reservations, call the main park number (above).

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