NB: The Lowell Mill Girls did not actually brandish bobbins as they marched for change. I was just trying to imagine a way to metaphorically depict their protest, since they didn’t carry signs. Harriet Hanson Robinson is represented twice here, second from left as an adult, and at the far right, as she might have looked as an 11-year old mill worker (though in the real life Lowell Mill strike, she actually led the ‘turn-out).
The Lowell Mill Girls, 1834 & 1836
At the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in America, in the early 1800s, some Boston businessmen envisioned building a planned industrial community dedicated to textile manufacturing. The area around Pawtucket Falls, about 25 miles northwest of Boston, proved ideal — the falls could provide hydropower to run the mill machinery — and Lowell, Massachusetts, was incorporated in 1826.
The mill owners recruited girls and women from nearby farms to work in the mills; there were few other opportunities for women to earn wages in that time and place. Moreover, the mill owners designed Lowell as the first “company town” — the mill girls lived in boardinghouses owned by the mills, and the companies sponsored libraries, concerts, music lessons, part-time schooling, lectures by authors such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Edgar Allan Poe and other activities for their workers.
Even though the hours were long–at one mill, 4:50AM – 7PM with short breaks for meals, six days a week — the wages were good, even after the women paid for their room and board. And despite the mill’s overwhelming presence in their everyday lives, for most of the women, this was the first opportunity they’d ever had for some semblance of independence–and, mostly away from men.
However, in 1834, faced with increased competition and economic instability on a national level, the mills tried to reduce costs via a 15% pay cut. New management at the mills created more stringent rules, inside and outside of work: “Drinking, swearing, and staying out after 10 p.m. were all firing offenses. So were failure to attend church or simply being ‘a devil in petticoats’ (the official grounds for the 1830 dismissal of one Elizabeth Wilson). Sleeping two to a bed in a boardinghouse relieved little stress.”
The mill girls had had enough; they walked off the job — in what we now call a strike, then termed a ‘turn-out.’ (One mill owner referred to their action as “Amazonian.”) But the women were not well-organized, and went back to work within a week.
Two years later, faced with more economic instability, the mills tried to lower wages and make the women pay their own rent at the company-owned boardinghouses. (Some sources suggest the mills also raised the rent at the same time.) The Lowell Mill Girls walked off the job again.
As a child, Harriet Hanson Robinson worked at a mill as a”bobbin doffer” –she replaced full bobbins of spun thread with empty ones — and years later, in her memoir Loom and Spindle, she recalled the 1836 mill strike:
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.
Although Harriet Hanson Robinson gives a factually accurate account of events, the outcome of the 1836 Lowell mill strike was not quite as bleak as she describes. For one thing, the mill owners did back down from raising rents at the boardinghouses.
Also, the mill girls were much more organized for their second strike; the number of participants doubled– to 1,500–as compared to the 1834 strike, and the sympathies of the citizens of Lowell were much more with the striking workers.
Perhaps most importantly, although the immediate goals of the Lowell mill strikes were not entirely achieved, the women who participated in them were inspired to find additional means to effect change. They published newspapers featuring writing by women, to counteract the falsely positive narratives put out by the textile companies. In 1845, they formed the Lowell Female Labor Reform Association, a political organization designed to lobby elected representatives. Harriet Hanson Robinson and her daughter founded the National Woman Suffrage Association of Massachusetts, part of an effort nationwide to promote giving women the right to vote; Harriet Hanson Robinson was the first woman to testify to the Congressional Select Committee on Woman Suffrage.
So, if in the short term, the Lowell mill girls failed, their efforts sowed the seeds for future social change.
An 1845 letter by Ellen Munroe appearing in The Voice of Industry — a newspaper for workers then published by the Lowell Female Labor Reform Association — serves as a tribute to the Lowell mill girls, and could very well serve today as a salute to those trying to change the way things are:
Bad as is the condition of so many women, it would be much worse if they had nothing but [men’s] boasted protection to rely upon; but they have at last learnt the lesson, which a bitter experience teaches, that not to those who style themselves their ‘natural protectors,’ are they to look for the needful help, but to the strong and resolute of their own sex. May all good fortune attend those resolute ones, and the noble cause in which they are engaged. ‘She devils’ as some of them have been elegantly termed by certain persons, calling themselves men; let them not fear such epithets, nor shrink from the path they have chosen. It is, indeed, a theory one, but they are breaking the way; they shall make it smoother for those who come after them, and generations yet unborn shall live to bless them for their courage and perseverance.
Sources & Notes:
Branson, F. “I Won’t Be A Nun.” Lee & Walker, Philadelphia, monographic, 1873. Notated Music. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/sm1873.01033/.
Kidder, David S. and Noah D. Oppenheim. “Lowell, Massachusetts,” The Intellectual Devotional: American History, New York, NY: Rodale Inc. 2007, p. 60.
Munroe, Ellen. “On ‘Woman’s Weakness,'” letter to the editor of the Boston Bee, March 13, 1845, reprinted later that year in The Voice of Industry.
New England Historical Society(dot)com. “Harriet Hanson Robinson — Lowell Mill Girl.”
Robinson, Harriet Hanson. “The Lowell Mill Girls Go on Strike, 1836,” Loom and Spindle or Life Among the Early Mill Girls (New York, T. Y. Crowell, 1898), pp. 83–86, via History Matters (a project of the American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning of the City University of New York and the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University).
Stewart, Doug. “Proud to Be A Mill Girl.” American Heritage, Spring 2012 | Volume 62, Issue 1.