WOMEN, WORK, AND PROTEST IN THE EARLY LOWELL MILLS: "THE
OPPRESSING HAND OF AVARICE WOULD ENSLAVE US"
by Thomas Dublin
Labor History 16 (1975): 99-116.
Carfax Publishing Limited
PO BOx 25
Abingdon Oxfordshire OX14 3UE
In the years before 1850 the textile mills of Lowell, Massachusetts
were a celebrated economic and cultural institution. Foreign
visitors invariably included them on their American tours. Interest
was prompted by the massive scale of these mills, the astonishing
productivity of the power-driven machinery, and the fact that
women comprised most of the workforce. Visitors were struck by
the newness of both mills and city as well as by the culture of
the female operatives. The scene stood in sharp contrast to the
gloomy mill towns of the English industrial revolution.
Lowell was, in fact, an impressive accomplishment. In 1820 there
had been no city at all--only a dozen family farms along the Merrimack
River in East Chelmsford. In 1821, however, a group of Boston
capitalists purchased land and water rights along the river and
a nearby canal, and began to build a major textile manufacturing
center. Opening two years later, the first factory employed Yankee
women recruited from the nearby countryside. Additional mills
were constructed until, by 1840, ten textile corporations with
thirty-two mills valued at more then ten million dollars lined
the banks of the river and nearby canals. (1) Adjacent to the
mills were rows of company boarding houses and tenements which
accommodated most of the 8,000 factory operatives.
As Lowell expanded and became the nation's largest textile manufacturing
center, the experiences of women operatives changed as well.
The increasing number of firms in Lowell and in other mill towns
brought the pressure of competition. Overproduction became a
problem and the prices of finished cloth decreased. The high
profits of the early years declined and so, too, did conditions
for the mill operatives. Wages were reduced and the pace of work
within the mills was stepped up. Women operatives did not accept
these changes without protest. In 1834 and 1836 they went on
strike to protest wage cuts, and between 1843 and 1848 they mounted
petition campaigns aimed at reducing the hours of labor in the
These labor protests in early Lowell contribute to our understanding
of the response of workers to the growth of industrial capitalism
in the first half of the 19th century. They indicate the
importance of values and attitudes dating back to an earlier period
and also the transformation of these values in a new setting.
The major factor in the rise of a new consciousness among operatives
in Lowell was the development of a close-knit community among
women working in the mills. The structure of work and the nature
of housing contributed to the growth of this community. The existence
of community among woman, in turn, was an important element in
the repeated labor protests of the period.
The organization of this paper derives from the logic of the above
argument. It will examine the basis of community in the experiences
of women operatives and then the contribution that the community
of women made to the labor protests in these years as well as
the nature of the new consciousness expressed by these protests.
The preconditions for the labor unrest in Lowell before 1850
may be found in the study of the daily worklife of its operatives.
In their everyday, relatively conflict-free lives, mill women
created the mutual bonds which made possible united action in
times of crisis. The existence of a tight-knit community among
them was the most important element in determining the collective,
as opposed to individual, nature of this response.
Before examining the basis of community among women operatives
in early Lowell, it may be helpful to indicate in what sense "community"
is being used. The women are considered a "community"
because of the development of bonds of mutual dependence among
them. In this period they came to depend upon one another and
upon the larger group of operatives in very important ways. Their
experiences were not simply similar or parallel to one another,
but were inextricably intertwined. Furthermore, they were conscious
of the existence of community, expressing it very clearly in their
writings and in labor protests. "Community" for them
had objective and subjective dimensions and both were important
in their experience of women in the mills.
The mutual dependence among women in early Lowell was rooted in
the structure of mill work itself. Newcomers to the mills were
particularly dependent on their fellow operatives, but even experienced
hands relied on one another for considerable support.
New operatives generally found their first experiences difficult,
even harrowing, though they may have already done considerable
hand-spinning and weaving in their own homes. The initiation
of one of them is described in fiction in the Lowell Offering:
The next morning she went to the Mill; and at first the sight of so many bands, and wheels, and springs in constant motion, was very frightful. She felt afraid to touch the loom, and she was almost sure she could never learn to weave...the shuttle flew out, and made a new bump on her head; and the first time she tried to spring the lathe, she broke out a quarter of the treads. (2)
While other accounts present a somewhat less difficult picture,
most indicate that women only became proficient and felt satisfaction
in their work after several months in the mills. (3)
The textile corporations made provisions to ease the adjustment
of new operatives. Newcomers were not immediately expected to
fit into the mill's regular work routine. They were at first
assigned work as sparehands and were paid a daily wage independent
of the quantity of work they turned out. As a sparehand, the
newcomer worked with an experienced hand who instructed her in
the intricacies of the job. The sparehand spelled her partner
for short stretches of time, and occasionally took the place of
an absentee. One woman described the learning process in a letter
reprinted in the Offering:
Well I went into the mill, and was put to learn with a very patient girl. ... You cannot think how odd everything seems ... They set me threading shuttles, and tying weaver's knots, and such things, and now I have improved so that I can take care of one loom. I could take care of two if only I had eyes in the back part of my head ... (4)
After the passage of some weeks or months, when she could handle
the normal complement of machinery--two looms for weavers during
the 1830s--and when a regular operative departed, leaving an opening,
the sparehand moved into a regular job.
Through this system of job training, the textile corporations
contributed to the development of community among female operatives.
During the most difficult period in an operative's career, the
first months in the mill, she relied upon other women workers
for training and support. And for every sparehand whose adjustment
to mill work was aided in this process, there was an experienced
operative whose work was also affected. Women were relating to
one another during the work process and not simply tending their
machinery. Given the high rate of turnover in the mill workforce,
a large proportion of women operatives worked in pairs. At the
Hamilton Company in July 1836, for example, more than a fifth
of all females on the Company payroll were sparehands. (5) Consequently,
over forty percent of the females employed there in this month
worked with one another. Nor was this interaction surreptitious,
carried out only when the overseer looked elsewhere; rather it
was formally organized and sanctioned by the textile corporations
In addition to the integration of sparehands, informal sharing
of work often went on among regular operatives. A woman would
occasionally take off a half or full day from work either to enjoy
a brief vacation or to recover from illness, and fellow operatives
would each take an extra loom or side of spindles so that she
might continue to earn wages during her absence. (6) Women were
generally paid on a piece rate basis, their wages being determined
by the total output of the machinery they tended during the payroll
period. With friends helping out during her absence, making sure
that her looms kept running, an operative could earn almost a
full wage even though she was not physically present. Such informal
work-sharing was another way in which mutual dependence developed
among women operatives during their working hours.
Living conditions also contributed to the development of community
among female operatives. Most women working in the Lowell mills
of these years were housed in company boardinghouses. In July
1836, for example, more than 73 percent of females employed by
the Hamilton Company resided in company housing adjacent to the
mills. (7) Almost three-fourths of them, therefore, lived and
worked with each other. Furthermore, the work schedule was such
that women had little opportunity to interact with those not living
in company dwellings. They worked, in these years, an average
of 73 hours a week. Their work day ended at 7:00 or 7:30 pm,
and in the hours between supper and the 10:00 pm curfew imposed by
management on residents of company boardinghouses, there was little
time to spend with friends living "off the corporation."
Women in the boardinghouses lived in close quarters, a factor
that also played a role in the growth of community. A typical
boarding house accommodated 25 young women, generally
crowded four to eight in a bedroom. (8) There was little possibility
of privacy within the dwelling, and pressure to conform to group
standards was very strong (as will be discussed below). The community
of operatives which developed in the mills, it follows, carried
over into life at home as well.
The boardinghouse became a central institution in the lives of
Lowell's female operatives in these years, but it was particularly
important in the initial integration of newcomers into urban industrial
life. Upon first leaving her rural home for work in Lowell, a
woman entered a setting very different from anything she had previously
known. One operative, writing in the Offering, described
the feelings of a fictional character:
"... the first entrance into a factory boarding house seemed
something dreadful. The room looked strange and comfortless,
and the women cold and heartless; and when she sat down to the
supper table, where among more than twenty girls, all but one
were strangers, she could not eat a mouthfull." (9)
In the boardinghouse, the newcomer took the first steps in the
process which transformed her from an "outsider" into
an accepted member of the community of women operatives.
Recruitment of newcomers into the mills and their initial hiring
were mediated through the boardinghouse system. Women generally
did not travel to Lowell for the first time entirely on their
own. They usually came because they knew someone--an older sister,
cousin, or friend--who had already worked in Lowell. (10) The
scene described above was a lonely one--but the newcomer did know
at least one boarder among the twenty seated around the supper
table. The Hamilton Company Register Books indicated that numerous
pairs of operatives, having the same surname and coming from the
same town in northern New England, lived in the same boardinghouses. (11) If the newcomer was not accompanied by a friend
or relative, she was usually directed to "Number 20, Hamilton
Company," or to a similar address of one of the other corporations
where her acquaintance lived. Her first contact with fellow operatives
generally came in the boardinghouses and not in the mills. Given
the personal nature of recruitment in this period, therefore,
newcomers usually had the company and support of a friend or relative
in their first adjustment to Lowell.
Like recruitment, the initial hiring was a personal process.
Once settled in the boardinghouse a newcomer had to find a job.
She would generally go to the mills with her friend or with the
boardinghouse keeper who would introduce her to an overseer in
one of the rooms. If he had an opening, she might start work
immediately. More likely, the overseer would know of an opening
elsewhere in the mill, or would suggest that something would probably
develop within a few days. In one story in the Offering,
a newcomer worked on some quilts for her house keeper, thereby
earning her board while she waited for a job opening. (12)
Upon entering the boardinghouse, the newcomer came under pressure
to conform with the standards of the community of operatives.
Stories in the Offering indicate that newcomers at first stood
out from the group in terms of their speech and dress. Over time,
they dropped the peculiar "twang" in their speech which
so amused experienced hands. Similarly, they purchased clothing
more in keeping with urban than rural styles. It was an unusual
and strongwilled individual who could work and live among her
fellow operatives and not conform, at least outwardly, to the
customs and values of this larger community. (13)
The boardinghouses were the centers of social life for women
operatives after their long days in the mills. There they ate
their meals, rested, talked, sewed, wrote letters, read books
and magazines. From among fellow workers and boarders they found
friends who accompanied them to shops, to Lyceum lectures, to
church and church-sponsored events. On Sundays or holidays, they
often took walks along the canals or out into the nearby countryside.
The community of women operatives, in sum, developed in a setting
where women worked and lived together, 24 hours a day.
Given the all-pervasiveness of this community, one would expect
it to exert strong pressures on those who did not conform to group
standards. Such appears to have been the case. The community
influenced newcomers to adopt its patterns of speech and dress
as described above. In addition, it enforced an unwritten code
of moral conduct. Henry Miles, a minister in Lowell, described
the way in which the community pressured those who deviated from
accepted moral conduct:
A girl, suspected of immoralities, or serious improprieties, at once loses caste. Her fellow boarders will at once leave the house, if the keeper does not dismiss the offender. In self-protection, therefore, the patron is obliged to put the offender away. Nor will her former companions walk with her, or work with her; till at length, finding herself everywhere talked about, and pointed at, and shunned, she is obliged to relieve her fellow-operatives of a presence which they feel brings disgrace. (14)
The power of the peer group described by Miles may seem extreme,
but there is evidence in the writing of women operatives to corroborate
his account. Such group pressure is illustrated by a story (in
the Offering) in which operatives in a company boardinghouse
begin to harbor suspicions about a fellow boarder, Hannah,
who received repeated evening visits from a man whom she does
not introduce to the other residents. Two boarders declare that
they will leave if she is allowed to remain in the household.
The house keeper finally informed Hannah that she must either
depart or not see the man again. She does not accept the ultimatum,
but is promptly discharged after the overseer is informed, by
one of the boarders, about her conduct. And, only one of Hannah's
former friends continues to remain on cordial terms. (15)
One should not conclude, however, that women always enforced a
moral code agreeable to Lowell's clergy, or to the mill agents
and overseers for that matter. After all, the kind of peer pressure
imposed on Hannah could be brought to bear on women in 1834 and
1836 who on their own would not have protested wage cuts. It
was much harder to go to work when one's roommates were marching
about town, attending rallies, circulating strike petitions.
Similarly, the 10-hour petitions of the 1840s were certainly
aided by the fact of a tight-knit community of operatives living
in a dense neighborhood of boardinghouses. To the extent that
women could not have completely private lives in the boardinghouses,
they probably had to conform to group norms, whether these
involved speech, clothing, relations with men, or attitudes toward
the 10-hour day. Group pressure to conform, so important to
the community of women in early Lowell, played a significant role
in the collective response of women to changing conditions in
In addition to the structure of work and housing in Lowell, a
third factor, the homogeneity of the mill workforce, contributed
to the development of community among female operatives. In this
period the mill workforce was homogeneous in terms of sex, nativity,
and age. Payroll and other records of the Hamilton Company reveal
that more than 85 per cent of those employed in July 1836 were
women and that over 96 percent were native-born. (16) Furthermore,
over 80 percent of the female workforce was between the ages
of 15 and 30 years old; and only 10 percent was under 15 or
over 40. (17)
Workforce homogeneity takes on particular significance in the
context of work structure and the nature of worker housing. These
three factors combined meant that women operatives had little
interaction with men during their daily lives. Men and women
did not perform the same work in the mills, and generally did
not even labor in the same rooms. Men worked in the picking and
initial carding processes, in the repair shop, and on the watchforce,
and filled all supervisory positions in the mills. Women held
all sparehand and regular operative jobs in drawing, speeding,
spinning, weaving, and dressing. A typical room in the mill employed
80 women tending machinery, with two men overseeing the work
and two boys assisting them. Women had little contact with men
other than their supervisors in the course of the working day.
After work, women returned to their boardinghouses, where once
again there were few men. Women, then, worked and lived in a
predominantly female setting.
Ethnically, the workforce was also homogeneous. Immigrants formed
only 3.4 percent of those employed at Hamilton in July 1836.
In addition, they comprised only 3 percent of residents in Hamilton
company housing. (18) The community of women operatives was composed
of women of New England stock drawn from the hill-country farms
surrounding Lowell. Consequently, when experienced hands made
fun of the speech and dress of newcomers, it was understood that
they, too, had been "rusty" or "rustic" upon
first coming to Lowell. This common background was another element
shared by women workers in early Lowell.
The work structure, the workers' housing, and workforce homogeneity
were the major elements that contributed to the growth of community
among Lowell's women operatives. To understand the larger
implications of community, it is necessary to examine the labor
protests of this period. For in these struggles, the new values
and attitudes that developed in the community of women operatives
are most visible.
In February 1834, 800 of Lowell's women operatives "turned-out"
- went on strike - to protest a proposed reduction in their
wages. They marched to numerous mills in an effort to induce
others to join them; and, at an outdoor rally, they petitioned
others to "discontinue their labors until terms of reconciliation
are made." Their petition concluded:
Resolved, That we will not go back into the mills to work unless our wages are continued...as they have been.
Resolved, That none of us will go back, unless they receive us all as one.
Resolved, That if any have not money enough to carry them home, they shall be supplied. (19)
The strike proved to be brief and failed to reverse the proposed
wage reductions. Turning-out on a Friday, the striking women were
paid their back wages on Saturday, and by the middle of the next
week had returned to work or left town. Within a week of the
turn-out, the mills were running near capacity. (20)
This first strike in Lowell is important not because it failed
or succeeded, but simply because it took place. In an era in
which women had to overcome opposition simply to work in the mills,
it is remarkable that they would further overstep the accepted
middle-class bounds of female propriety by participating in a
public protest. The agents of the textile mills certainly considered
the turn-out unfeminine. William Austin, agent of the Lawrence
Company, described the operatives' procession as an "amizonian
[sic] display." He wrote further, in a letter to his company
treasurer in Boston: "This afternoon we have paid off several
of these Amazons & presume that they will leave town on Monday."
(21) The turn-out was particularly offensive to the agents because
of the relationship they thought they had with their operatives.
William Austin probably expressed the feelings of other agents
when he wrote: "...notwithstanding the friendly and disinterested
advice which has been on all proper occassions [sic] communicated
to the girls of the Lawrence mills a spirit of evil omen ... has
prevailed, and overcome the judgment and discretion of too many,
and this morning a general turn-out from most of the rooms has
been the consequence." (22)
Mill agents assumed an attitude of benevolent paternalism toward
their female operatives, and found it particularly disturbing
that the women paid such little heed to their advice. The strikers
were not merely unfeminine, they were ungrateful as well.
Such attitudes not withstanding, women chose to turn-out. They
did so for two principal reasons. First, the wage cuts undermined
the sense of dignity and social equality which was an important
element in their Yankee heritage. Second, these wage cuts were
seen as an attack on their economic independence.
Certainly a prime motive for the strike was outrage at the social
implications of the wage cuts. In a statement of principles accompanying
the petition that was circulated among operatives, women expressed
well the sense of themselves that prompted their protest of these
UNION IS POWER
Our present object is to have union and exertion, and we remain in possession of our unquestionable rights. We circulate this paper wishing to obtain the names of all who imbibe the spirit of our Patriotic Ancestors, who preferred privation to bondage, and parted with all that renders life desirable--and even life itself--to procure independence for their children. The oppressing hand of avarice would enslave us, and to gain their object, they gravely tell us of the pressure of the time, this we are already sensible of, and deplore it. If any are in want of assistance, the Ladies will be compassionate and assist them; but we prefer to have the disposing of our charities in our own hands; and as we are free, we would remain in possession of what kind Providence has bestowed upon us; and remain daughters of freemen still. (23)
At several points in the proclamation the women drew on their
Yankee heritage. Connecting their turn-out with the efforts of
their "Patriotic Ancestors" to secure independence from
England, they interpreted the wage cuts as an effort to "enslave"
them -- to deprive them of the independent status as "daughters
Though very general and rhetorical, the statement of these women
does suggest their sense of self, of their own worth and dignity.
Elsewhere, they expressed the conviction that they were the social
equals of the overseers, indeed of the mill-owners themselves. (24)
The wage cuts, however, struck at this assertion of social equality.
These reductions made it clear that the operatives were subordinate
to their employers, rather than equal partners in a contract binding
on both parties. By turning-out, the women emphatically denied
that they were subordinates; but by returning to work the next
week, they demonstrated that in economic terms they were no match
for their corporate superiors.
In point of fact, these Yankee operatives were subordinate in
early Lowell's social and economic order, but they never consciously
accepted this status. Their refusal to do so became evident whenever
the mill owners attempted to exercise the power they possessed.
This fundamental contradiction between the objective status of
operatives and their consciousness of it was at the root of the
1834 turn-out and of subsequent labor protests in Lowell before
1850. The corporations could build mills, create thousands of
jobs, and recruit women to fill them. Nevertheless, they bought
only the workers' labor power, and then only for as long as these
workers chose to stay. Women could always return to their rural
homes, and they had a sense of their own worth and dignity, factors
limiting the actions of management.
Women operatives viewed the wage cuts as a threat to their economic
independence. This independence had two related dimensions.
First, the women were self-supporting while they worked in the
mills and, consequently, were independent of their families back
home. Second, they were able to save out of their monthly earnings
and could then leave the mills for the old homestead whenever
they so desired. In effect, they were not totally dependent upon
mill work. Their independence was based largely on the high level
of wages in the mills.
They could support themselves and still save enough to return
home periodically. The wage cuts threatened to deny them this
outlet, substituting instead the prospect of total dependence
on mill work. Small wonder, then, there was alarm that "the
oppressing hand of avarice would enslave us." To be forced,
out of economic necessity, to lifelong labor in the mills would
have indeed seemed like slavery. (25) The Yankee operatives spoke
directly to the fear of a dependency based on impoverishment when
offering to assist any women workers who "have not money
enough to carry them home." Wage reductions, however, offered
only the prospect of a future dependence on mill employment.
By striking, the women asserted their actual economic independence
of the mills and their determination to remain "daughters
of freemen still."
While the women's traditional conception of themselves as independent
daughters of freemen played a major role in the turn-out, this
factor acting alone would not necessarily have triggered the 1834
strike. It would have led women as individuals to quit work and
return to their rural homes. But the turn-out was a collective
protest. When it was announced that wage reductions were being
considered, women began to hold meetings in the mills during meal
breaks in order to assess tactical possibilities. Their turn-out
began at one mill when the agent discharged a woman who had presided
at such a meeting. Their procession through the streets passed
by other mills, expressing a conscious effort to enlist as much
support as possible for their cause. At a mass meeting, the women drew up a
resolution which insisted that none be discharged for their participation
in the turn-out. This strike, then, was a collective response
to the proposed wage cuts -- made possible because women had come
to form a "community" of operatives in the mill, rather
than simply a group of individual workers. The existence of such
a tight-knit community turned individual opposition of the wage
cuts into a collective protest.
In October 1836 women again went on strike. This second turn-out
was similar to the first in several respects. Its immediate cause
was also a wage reduction; marches and a large outdoor rally were
organized; again, like the earlier protest, the basic goal was
not achieved; the corporations refused to restore wages; and operatives
either left Lowell or returned to work at the new rates.
Despite these surface similarities between the turn-outs, there
were some real differences. One involved scale: over 1,500 operatives
turned out in 1836, compared to only 800 earlier. (26) Moreover,
the second strike lasted much longer than the first. In 1834
operatives stayed out for only a few days; in 1836 the mills
ran far below capacity for several months. Two weeks after the
second turn-out began, a mill agent reported that only a fifth
of the strikers had returned to work: "The rest manifest
good spunk as they call it." (27) Several days
later he described the impact of the continuing strike on operations
in his mills: "we must be feeble for months to come as probably
not less than 250 of our former scanty supply of help have left
town." (28) These lines read in sharp contrast to the optimistic
reports of agents following the turn-out in February 1834.
Differences between the two turn-outs were not limited to the
increased scale and duration of the later one. Women displayed
a much higher degree of organization in 1836 than earlier. To
coordinate strike activities, they formed a Factory Girls' Association.
According to one historian, membership in the short-lived association
reached 2,500 at its height. (29)
The larger organization among women was reflected in the tactics employed.
Strikers, accordingto one mill agent, were able to halt production to a greater extent
than numbers alone could explain; and, he complained, although
some operatives were willing to work, "it has been impossible
to give employment to many who remained." He attributed
this difficulty to the strikers' "tactics:" - this was in many
instances no doubt the result of calculation and contrivance.
After the original turn-out they [the operatives] would assail
a particular room -- as for instance, all the warpers, or all
the warp spinners, or all the speeder and stretcher girls, and
this would close the mill as effectually as if all the girls in
the mill had left." (30)
Now giving more thought than they had in 1834 to the specific
tactics of the turn-out, the women made a deliberate effort to
shut down the mills in order to win their demands. They attempted
to persuade less committed operatives, concentrating on those
in crucial departments within the mill. Such tactics anticipated
those of skilled mulespinners and loomfixers who went out on strike
in the 1880s and 1890s.
In their organization of a Factory Girl's Association and in their
efforts to shut down the mills, the female operatives revealed
that they had been changed by their industrial experience. Increasingly,
they acted not simply as "daughters of freemen" offended
by the impositions of the textile corporations, but also as industrial
workers intent on improving their position within the mills.
There was a decline in protest among women in the Lowell mills
following these early strike defeats. During the 1837-43 depression,
textile corporations twice reduced wages without evoking a collective
response from operatives. (31) Because of the frequency of production
cutbacks and lay-offs in these years, workers probably accepted
the mill agents' contention that they had to reduce wages or close
entirely. But with the return of prosperity and the expansion
of production in the mid-1840s, there were renewal labor protests
among women. Their actions paralleled those of working men and
reflected fluctuations in the business cycle. Prosperity itself
did not prompt turn-outs, but it evidently facilitated collective
actions by women operatives.
In contrast to the protests of the previous decade, the struggles
now were primarily political. Women did no turn-out in the 1840s;
rather, they mounted annual petition campaigns calling on the
state legislature to limit the hours of labor within the mills.
These campaigns reached their height in 1845 and 1846, when 2,000
and 5,000 operatives respectively signed petitions. Unable to
curb the wage cuts, or the speed-up and stretch-out imposed by
mill owners, operatives sought to mitigate the consequences of
these changes by reducing the length of the working day. Having
been defeated earlier in economic struggles, they now sought to
achieve their new goal through political action. The Ten Hour
Movement, seen in these terms, was a logical outgrowth of the
unsuccessful turn-outs of the previous decade. Like the earlier
struggles, the Ten Hour Movement was an assertion of the dignity
of operatives and an attempt to maintain that dignity under the
changing conditions of industrial capitalism.
The growth of relatively permanent labor organizations and institutions
among women was a distinguishing feature of the Ten Hour Movement
of the 1840s. The Lowell Female Labor Reform Association was
organized in 1845 by women operatives. It became Lowell's leading
organization over the next three years, organizing the city's
female operatives and helping to set up branches in other mill
towns. The Association was affiliated with the New England Workingmen's
Association and sent delegates to its meetings. It acted in concert
with similar male groups, and yet maintained its own autonomy.
Women elected their own officers, held their own meetings, testified
before a state legislative committee, and published a series of
"Factory Tracts" that exposed conditions within the
mills and argued for the 10-hour day.
An important educational and organizing tool of the Lowell Female
Labor Reform Association was the Voice of Industry, a labor
weekly published in Lowell between 1845 and 1848 by the New England
Workingmen's Association. Female operatives were involved in
every aspect of its publication and used the Voice to further
the Ten Hour Movement among women. Their Association owned the
press on which the Voice was printed. Sarah Bagley, the
Association president, was a member of the three-person publishing
committee of the Voice and for a time served as editor.
Other women were employed by the paper as traveling editors.
They wrote articles about the Ten Hour Movement in other mill
towns, in an effort to give 10-hour supporters a sense of the
larger cause of which they were a part. Furthermore, they raised
money for the Voice and increased its circulation by selling
subscriptions to the paper in their travels about New England.
Finally, women used the Voice to appeal directly to their
fellow operatives. They edited a separate "Female Department,"
which published letters and articles by and about women in the
Another aspect of the Ten Hour Movement which distinguished it
from the earlier labor struggle in Lowell was that it involved
both men and women. At the same time that women in Lowell formed
the Female Labor Reform Association, a male mechanics' and laborers'
association was also organized. Both groups worked to secure
the passage of legislation setting ten hours as the length of
the working day. Both groups circulated petitions to this end
and when the legislative committee came to Lowell to hear testimony,
both men and women testified in favor of the 10-hour day. (32)
The two groups, then, worked together, and each made an important
contribution to the movement in Lowell. Women had the numbers,
comprising as they did over 80 percent of the mill workforce.
Men, on the other had, had the votes, and since the Ten Hour
Movement was a political struggle, they played a crucial part.
After the state committee reported unfavorably on the 10-hour
petitions, the Female Labor Reform Association denounced the committee
chairman, a state representative from Lowell, as a corporation
"tool." Working for his defeat at the polls, they did
so successfully and then passed the following post-election resolution:
"Resolved, That the members of this Association tender their
grateful acknowledgments to the voters of Lowell, for consigning
William Schouler to the obscurity he so justly deserves...."
(33) Women took a more prominent part in the Ten Hour Movement
in Lowell than did men, but they obviously remained dependent
on male voters and legislators for the ultimate success of their
Although coordinating their efforts with those of working men,
women operatives organized independently within the Ten Hour Movement.
For instance, in 1845 two important petitions were sent from
Lowell to the state legislature. Almost 90 percent of the
signers of one petition were females, and more than two-thirds
of the signers of the second were males. (34) Clearly the separation
of men and women in their daily lives was reflected in the Ten
Hour petitions of these years.
The way in which the Ten Hour Movement was carried from Lowell
to other mill towns also illustrated the independent organizing
of women within the larger movement. For example, at a spirited
meeting in Manchester, New Hampshire in December 1845 - one
presided over by Lowell operatives - more than a thousand workers,
two-thirds of them women, passed resolutions calling for the 10-hour
day. Later, those in attendance divided along male-female lines,
each meeting separately to set up parallel organizations. Sixty
women joined the Manchester Female Labor Reform Association that
evening, and by the following summer it claimed over 300
members. Female operatives met in company boardinghouses to
involve new women in the movement. In their first year of organizing,
Manchester workers obtained more than 4,000 signatures on 10-hour
petitions. (35) While men and women were both active in the movement,
they worked through separate institutional structures from the
The division of men and women within the Ten Hour Movement also
reflected their separate daily lives in Lowell and in other mill
towns. To repeat, they held different jobs in the mills and had
little contact apart from the formal, structure overseer-operative
relation. Outside the mill, we have noted, women tended to live
in female boardinghouses provided by the corporations and were
isolated from men. Consequently, the experiences of women in
these early mill towns were different from those of men, and
in the course of their daily lives they came to form a close-knit
community. It was logical that women's participation in the
Ten Hour Movement mirrored this basic fact.
The women's Ten Hour Movement, like the earlier turn-outs, was
based in part on the participants' sense of their own worth and
dignity as daughters of freemen. At the same time, however, it also
indicated the growth of a new consciousness. It reflected a mounting
feeling of community among women operatives and a realization
that their interests and those of their employers were not identical,
that they had to rely on themselves and not on corporate benevolence
to achieve a reduction in the hours of labor. One women, in an
open letter to a state legislator, expressed this rejection of
middle-class paternalism: "Bad as is the condition of so
many women, it would be much worse if they had nothing but your
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. (36) Such an attitude, underlying the self-organizing
of women in the 10-hour petition campaigns, was clearly the product
of the industrial experience in Lowell.
Both the early turn-outs and the Ten Hour Movement were, as noted
above, in large measure dependent upon the existence of a close-knit
community of women operatives. Such a community was based on
the work structure, the nature of worker housing, and workforce
homogeneity . Women were drawn together by the initial job training
of newcomers; by the informal work-sharing among experienced hands;
by living in company boardinghouses; by sharing religious, educational,
and social activities in their leisure hours. Working and living
in a new and alien setting, they came to rely upon one another
for friendship and support. Understandably, a community feeling
developed among them.
This evolving community as well as the common cultural traditions
which Yankee women carried into Lowell were major elements that
governed their response to changing mill conditions. The preindustrial
tradition of independence and self-respect made them particularly
sensitive to management labor policies. The sense of community
enabled them to transform their individual opposition to wage
cuts and to the increasing pace of work into public protest.
In these labor struggles women operative expressed a new consciousness
of their rights both as workers and as women. Such a consciousness,
like the community of women itself, was one product of Lowell's
The experiences of Lowell women before 1850 present a fascinating
picture of the contradictory impact of industrial capitalism.
Repeated labor protests reveal that female operatives felt the
demands of mill employment to be oppressive. At the same time,
however, the mills, provided women with work outside of the home
and family, thereby offering them an unprecedented opportunity. That they
came to challenge employer paternalism was a direct consequence
of the increasing opportunities offered them in these years.
The Lowell mills both exploited and liberated women in ways unknown
to the preindustrial political economy.
Footnotes for "Women, Work, and Protest in the Early Lowell Mills"
1 Statistics of Lowell Manufactures, January 1, 1840.
Broadside available in the Manuscripts Division, Baker Library,
Harvard Business School.
2 Lowell Offering, I, 169.
3 Ibid., IV, 145-148, 169-172, 237-240, 257-259.
4 Offering, IV, p. 170.
5 These statistics are drawn from the author's dissertation, "Women
at Work: The Transformation of Work and Community in Lowell, Mass.",
1826-1860 (Columbia Univ., 1975).
6 Harriet Hanson Robinson, Loom and Spindle, Or Life Among
the Early Mill Girls (New York, 1898), 91.
7 "Women at Work," Chapter 4. Statistics are based
on linkage between company payrolls and register books of the
Hamilton Manufacturing Company. The register books were alphabetically
organized volumes in which operatives were signed into and out
of the mills. They gave the nativity and local residence of operatives
as well as additional data. For a detailed discussion of the
linkage methods used, use the appendices of "Women at Work."
8 "Women at Work," Chapter 5. Statistics based on an
analysis of federal manuscript census listings of Hamilton boardinghouses
in 1830 and 1840.
9 Offering, I, 169.
10 Ibid., II, 145-155; I, 2-7, 74-78.
11 Hamilton Manufacturing Company Records, Volume 283,
passim. This volume, along with all the other company
records cited in this article, are located in the Manuscript Division
of Baker Library, Harvard Business School.
12 Offering,IV, 145-148.
13 Ibid., I, 5; IV, 148.
14 Henry A. Miles, Lowell As It Was And As It Is (Lowell,
15 Offering, IV, 14-23. Like so many of the stories in
the Offering, this one has a dramatic reversal at its conclusion.
We learn at the end that Hannah's visitor has been her brother,
whose identity could not be revealed because he was afraid that
the woman he was courting might learn that his sister was an operative.
16 These statistics are based on the linkage of payroll and register
books of the Hamilton Company as were the data on residence presented
above. See Chapter 4 and appendices of "Women at Work."
17 These data are based on an analysis of the age distribution
of females residing in Hamilton Company boardinghouses as recorded
in the Federal Manuscript Censuses of 1830 and 1840. See Chapter
4, "Women at Work."
18 Federal Manuscript Census of Lowell, 1830.
19 Boston Evening Transcript, February 18, 1834.
20 Lawrence Manufacturing Company Records, Correspondence,
Vol. MAB-1, March 4 and March 9, 1834.
21 Ibid., February 15, 1834.
22 Ibid., February 14, 1834.
23 Boston Evening Transcript, February 18, 1834.
24 Harriet Robinson, Loom and Spindle, 72; Offering,
February, 1841, p. 45. For an interesting account of conflict
between an operative and an overseer, see Robinson, 57.
25 The wage cuts, in still another way, might have been seen as
threatening to "enslave." Such decreases would be enacted
by reductions in the piece rates paid women. If women were to
maintain their overall earnings, given the wage cuts, they would
have to speed up their work or accept additional machinery, both
of which would result in making them work harder for the same
pay. Opposition to the speed-up and the stretch-out was strong
during the Ten Hour Movement in the 1840s, and although I have
found no direct evidence, such feeling may have played a part
in the turn-outs of the 1830s as well.
26 Harriet Robinson, p. 83; Boston Evening Transcripts,
October 4 and 6, 1836.
27 Tremont-Suffolk Mills Records, unbound Letters, Volume
FN-1, October 14, 1836.
28 Ibid., October 17, 1836.
29 Hannah Josephson, The Golden Treads: New England's Mill
Girls and Magnates (New York, 1949), 238.
30 Tremont-Suffolk Mills Records, unbound Letters, Volume
FN-1, October 10, 1836.
31 Hamilton Manufacturing Company Records, Volume 670,
Correspondence of Treasurer, March 14, 1840; Lowell Advertiser,
June 6, 1845 gives data on 1842 wage cuts.
32 Massachusetts House Document No. 50, 1845. Quoted in
full in John R. Commons et al. A Documentary History of American
Industrial Society, (Cleveland, 1910), III, 133-151.
33 Voice of Industry, November 28, 1845.
34 Based on author's examination of Ten Hour Petitions at Massachusetts
States Archives, 1845, 1587/8 and 1587/9.
35 Voices of Industry, December 5 and 19, 1845, July 24,
1846, December 4, 1846, January 8, 1847.
36 Voice of Industry, March 13, 1846.