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A Place in the Universe
The young women who lived in northern New England in the early nineteenth century seemed destined to play a passive role in American history. They spent confining lives on isolated family farms and in tranquil rural villages. They helped with the farm chores or earned their keep as house servants for prosperous neighbors and assumed that eventually they would have a home of their own. That was what society expected of them. Marriage prospects were limited; the most likely candidates were young men who also worked on the farms. So women of purpose felt the shackles of mediocrity give way when the news began spreading in 1814: A cotton mill had just opened on the Charles River in Waltham, Massachusetts, near Boston, and it needed workers—women workers.
Newspapers published stories about the new enterprise, and travelers passing through told of seeing the busy factory. They said the mill provided wonderful benefits for the workers, including comfortable boardinghouses, a library, and evenings of lectures and music. And surely more mills like it would soon be built. The women already working in the Waltham mill wrote back home to rhapsodize about their good fortune. They told of earning cash for the first time in their lives, of being on their own, of being free.
The mill was the creation of Francis Cabot Lowell, a Boston merchant whose decision to become a manufacturer was to affect the lives of millions of people through many generations. After Waltham, and after Lowell’s death, his associates built a new textile city along the Merrimack River in Massachusetts and named it Lowell in his honor. Ten miles north, they built Lawrence. In New Hampshire, they created the mill cities of Manchester and Nashua. In Maine, thousands of looms hummed in factories that sprang up in the farm towns of the Saco River Valley.
Francis Cabot Lowell had conceived of the country’s first complete factory to transform cotton bales into finished cloth. He hired unskilled “operatives” to tend machines that spun thread out of cotton, and skilled weavers to guide the thread through looms, creating finished fabrics. These women were among the first workers of the American Industrial Revolution. They were pioneers in the struggle for women’s equal pay and equal rights in the workplace. They lost many of their battles, but they never surrendered to injustice. They helped give birth to the American labor movement, and they made history.
The Yankee farm women were the first wave of mill workers. At the very time they left the mills in large numbers, in the 1840s, Ireland was devastated by a potato famine, and Irish immigrants came into the mills. At the very time the Irish left the looms for better opportunities in America, Quebec farm families gave up the struggle to subsist on their worn-out land, and French Canadians took up new lives in the New England mill cities. In ensuing decades they were joined by immigrants from Europe who heeded the call of the mill bells. For some people, the jobs offered hope. For others, the work led to ruined health, drudgery, and despair. But with all their travails, the mill workers bequeathed to New England a rich diversity of languages, religions, and cultural traditions that are still evident in hundreds of neighborhoods where their descendants live.
Tourists who travel to New England glimpse with fleeting interest the many mills still standing but now mostly empty. Once, the mills proudly roared with industrial tumult, and the roar was heard in every home, store, schoolhouse, and shop. The factory cacophony proclaimed that there was economic vitality in the town, jobs for the people, and hope for the future. Now the old redbrick buildings with their mute bell towers are crumbling vestiges of a vanished way of life. A few of them contain museums memorializing the roles that the textile workers played in American industry. Some of them house trendy shops, restaurants, condominiums, and small industries, including textile firms. Mostly they are a hulking, gloomy presence standing in silence as if ashamed that they symbolize broken promises. They have no apparent relevance to the people who speed by them on highways, or even to those who live today in their shadows. Yet millions of Americans count someone in their families who in the past century operated screeching machinery in these buildings for twelve to fourteen hours a day, six days a week, until their bodies wore out.
At first, hundreds of young women stood at the looms and other machines that Francis Cabot Lowell built. Then thousands migrated to the new mill cities. Friends and neighbors gathered in village centers to join families in bidding good-bye as stagecoaches carried the women away. Women who could not afford the coach fare mounted the family horse and clung to a father or brother as they rode to the factory doors. The poorest of them packed a bag and walked over the hills and into the valleys of New England to apply for jobs at the factory gates.
The new mill system demanded social adjustments of everyone. There had never been such a structured manufacturing system in the country. There had never been such large numbers of young women living away from their families in American cities. Managers and workers alike had to figure out how to make the textile industry succeed. The first mill women had known hard work on their family farms but had never answered to a formal boss until they took orders from overseers in the mills. Most of the men who became overseers had never before been responsible for so many workers.
When the women began speaking up for themselves on work issues, they shocked the bosses and the public. Women were discouraged from creating a public fuss about anything. People remembered Thomas Jefferson’s statement, made only a few decades earlier, that “the tender breasts of ladies were not formed for political convulsion.” The mill women marched onto the American stage while New England Puritans still subscribed to John Calvin’s sixteenth-century dictum: “Let the woman be satisfied with her state of subjection, and not take it amiss that she is made inferior to the more distinguished sex.”
It was the sons who received the best education or the best trade apprenticeships. It was the sons who inherited the family farm. In the eyes of the law, a woman was not capable of spending her own money in a responsible way—and certainly not someone else’s. Before 1840, a woman could not be the treasurer of her social club unless a male sponsor agreed to assume responsibility for her financial decisions. Women did not have the vote and they could not practice law, medicine, or any other profession. Almost all of them were dependent on men for their inferior existence. Their secondhand status suited Lyman Beecher, a prominent Calvinist clergyman of the time. He endorsed a resolution at a religious conference providing that “in social meetings of men and women for religious worship, females are not to pray.” His daughters shrugged off his primitive view and inspired American women to strive for equality. Isabella Beecher Hooker worked in the suffragist movement, Catharine Beecher pioneered in women’s education, and Harriet Beecher Stowe was the first American woman to achieve world fame as an author. The farm women heading for the new mills paid no heed, either, to those who would deny them a full role in society.
Soon, the mills were dependent on women, who became an important part of the American economy. In turn the women earned great rewards. “The thought that I am living on no one is a happy one, indeed,” Ann Swett Appleton wrote to her sister after getting a job in a New Hampshire mill.
Ann Swett Appleton had fled to the mill from a broken family; her mother was in a mental institution and her father had turned to alcohol. Women worked at her side for their own reasons. Some were unmarried and could no longer abide the charity of relatives, some were runaway wives who used false names to get their jobs so they could vanish in the new industrial cities and start new lives. There were indigent widows who wanted to be something better than a maid or seamstress. A mill worker wrote that among the women who lived in her boardinghouse was one who had fled from a miserly father; he had told her to leave home and fend for herself. Another could no longer tolerate the grim life imposed on her by a strict, religious mother. Another had been abused in several homes where she had worked as a servant.
“The cotton factory was a great opening to these lonely and dependent women,” wrote Harriet Hanson Robinson in Loom and Spindle, her account of life among the mill workers of Lowell in the 1830s. “From a condition approaching pauperism they were at once placed above want; they could earn money, and spend it as they pleased; and could gratify their tastes and desires without restraint, and without rendering an account to anybody. At last they had found a place in the universe; they were no longer obliged to finish out their faded lives mere burdens to male relatives.”
Some who entered the mills acted on noble impulses. Laura Nichols of East Haddam, Connecticut, was a teenager when she went to work in a cotton mill in Moodus, near her home. She yearned for an education, but her parents, with four other children, had come on hard times. Years later she told her own children in a memoir that while sacrificing for her family she had never stopped thinking of the future. “I had no hope of riches,” she wrote, “but felt there was something better within my reach and I must have it or die in the attempt. I began to realize that my future would be largely what I made of it, that my destiny was, as it were, in my own hands.”
In the western Massachusetts town of Adams, Daniel Anthony built a small textile mill soon after the Waltham factory opened, and he, too, hired young women to work for him. Members of his family boarded the workers in their homes and conducted evening classes for them. His eleven-year-old daughter, Susan B. Anthony, admired the skill of a woman weaver and tried to persuade her father to promote the woman to overseer, a job traditionally held by men. The father refused, and Susan became a witness to the secondary role of women in American society.
Most of the men who went into the mills earned more pay than the women. Mechanics arrived with handmade tool chests. Machinists came to keep the looms in working order. Skilled dye workers emigrated from the textile centers of England to create American calico prints. Irish laborers came to build the mills, dams, and canal systems that carried water power to the mill machines. There was work for everyone who wanted a job. A thousand mills rose along the rivers of New England. By 1850, when Laura Nichols went to work in the Moodus mill, there were one hundred thousand mill workers in New England.
Day and night they produced the woven cloth that Americans needed from cradle to grave: fabrics for infant wear, bedspreads and tablecloths, dresses and suits, wedding gowns and formal wear, work clothes for everyone, hospital frocks, and silk linings for caskets.
Mills in the old whaling town of New Bedford turned out Wamsutta sheets and pillowcases. “We Weave the World’s Worsteds,” the Lawrence woolen mills boasted. In Lewiston, Maine, the Bates mills proudly proclaimed that their bedspreads were “Loomed to be Heirloomed.” The Shelton Looms in Connecticut dressed society women in sheer negligees. The mills of Biddeford, Maine, wove “Lady Pepperell” blankets and towels for millions of American homes.
When America went to war, mill workers produced the wool for the blue uniforms that dressed the Union army at Gettysburg and Antietam, the doughboys’ khaki during World War I, and the navy whites and army olive drabs of World War II. When Americans first went west, they loaded their Conestoga wagons and prairie schooners with jeans woven in the mills of Lowell and Lawrence. Pioneer women who made clothes for their families bought bolts of brightly colored calicos at frontier stores, but not without first asking, “Will it wash?” The calicos from New England mills held their colors through many washings. One of Francis Cabot Lowell’s partners, Nathan Appleton, visited mills in Belgium and saw the manufacturing of fine lace. His New England mill workers were soon weaving lace curtains so efficiently that American women could afford a touch of class in their homes. When women peeled off their frumpy cotton hosiery for the last time, the mills wove the silk for more alluring stockings. When Jazz Age revelers threw out their petticoats, the mills produced filmy fabrics, and bold young flappers danced the 1920s away in knee length dresses. Americans could choose from a dazzling variety of garments on the racks of Bonwit Teller in New York, Marshall Field in Chicago, Neiman-Marcus in Dallas, and Filene’s of Boston. Rural customers shopped in small-town clothing stores and from the catalogs of Montgomery Ward and Sears, Roebuck.
In the early days of the industry, clipper ships loaded with New England finished cloth sailed to market ports on the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean. The most recognizable trademarks carried over the Pacific to Shanghai and Singapore were the symbols of American made textiles. The image of a dragon imprinted on cloth signified that it was produced in the Pepperell Mill in Biddeford. An Indian head with three feathers told the world that the cloth was made in Nashua, New Hampshire. American merchant John Cushing wrote in 1830 that in China, “from the Emperor to the laborer,” everyone wore clothing made of cotton produced in New England. Cushing correctly predicted that the American mills would dominate the Asian market. Two decades later a British reporter in India wrote, “American cotton manufacturers are already clothing our own Indian army.” The mills had commercial customers, too, in Africa, Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Mexico, and Turkey. The looms of New England ran faster and faster to meet the demand. The mill women worked faster and harder to keep up. The mill owners made fortunes, even as social critics scorned them for exploiting their workers and abolitionists condemned them for using cotton picked by slaves.
The new industrialism inspired writers and poets. Harriet Farley, who edited a workers’ magazine in the 1840s, wrote of the Lowell mills: “One of the most beautiful sights we have ever witnessed was . . . when all these factories were lighted up for the evening’s labor. The uniform and brilliant illumination, with the lights again gleaming up from the calm Merrimack, the brightness of the city beyond, the clear blue sky above, from which the sparkling stars were sending down their glittering beams into the glassy waters of the river, all combined to form a spectacle, which might almost lead an observer to believe that our hard-working, matter-of-fact city had been transformed into a fairy land.” The poet John Green-leaf Whittier saw Lowell as “a city springing up, like the enchanted palaces of the Arabian tales, as it were in a single night—stretching far and wide its chaos of brick masonry and painted shingles.” Whittier, who lived in nearby Haverhill, was enchanted by the mill women, and his words helped form the public’s favorable opinion of them. “Acres of girlhood, beauty reckoned by the square rod,” he wrote. “The young, the graceful . . . Who shall sneer at your calling? Who shall count your vocation otherwise than noble and ennobling?”
Whittier came to realize that the mills demanded much of the women. Many of the workers became ill and had to return home. Others left with maimed bodies. Some were scalped when their hair was caught up in machinery; some lost arms, hands, and fingers that were mangled by the speeding belts and gears that drove the machines.
Visitors who toured the mills never heard the screams of the injured and did not perceive the darker aspects of the workers’ lives. Davy Crockett visited the Lowell mills in 1834, two years before he was to die at the Alamo. “I went in among the young girls and talked with many of them,” Crockett was quoted as saying. “Not one expressed herself as tired of her employment, or oppressed with work; all talked well, and looked healthy.” Charles Dickens hated the oppression of workers in the English textile mills of his time and also went to Lowell to see for himself: “Out of so large a number of females, many of whom were only then just verging upon womanhood, it may be reasonably supposed that some were delicate and fragile in appearance; no doubt there were. But I solemnly declare, that from all the crowd I saw in the different factories that day, I cannot recall or separate one young face that gave me a painful impression; not one young girl whom, assuming it to be a matter of necessity that she should gain her daily bread by the labour of her hands, I would have removed from those works if I had the power.”
Most of the women worked long enough to save money to help pay off the mortgage on the family farm. Some put their brothers through Harvard and Yale and Amherst. Some put aside money for their weddings. Some started new lives on the expanding Western frontier. Some walked out of the mills and into the schools of higher education that were the first to admit women. When Mary Lyon, the founder of Mount Holyoke College, opened the doors of her “female seminary” in South Hadley, Massachusetts, in 1837, she announced, “It is for this class principally, who are the bone and sinew and the glory of our nation that we have engaged in this undertaking.”
Laura Nichols held fast to her goal of leaving the mill in Connecticut to seek a better life. When she had managed to save fifty dollars she said good-bye to her family, took a parting glance at the beautiful old homes in East Haddam on the Connecticut River, and headed for Mary Lyon’s school. “Steamboat to Hartford, railroad to Springfield . . . and stage to South Hadley was the way of travel,” she wrote in her family memoir. “It was the first time I had ever been beyond Hartford. Can you imagine my emotion when the Seminary first dawned upon my view: a moment of joyous transport was that.” She graduated from Mount Holyoke with the Class of 1854. Like countless other mill women, she became a teacher. Eventually, as Laura Nichols Bridgman, she and her minister husband went to Africa as missionaries.
It is unlikely that her overseer missed Laura Nichols when she left the mill. Plenty of other women, starting their own lives, would have been eager to replace her because history was on the side of the mill owners. There would always be replacements—people from the unyielding farmland of Ireland and Quebec, from the butchery of European wars, from the despair of mountain villages in Greece and Hungary, from the political repression and religious persecution of Poland and Russia, from the smoky textile cities of Germany and Belgium, from the islands of poverty in Portugal, from the misty highlands of Scotland, and from the sun-soaked hills of Italy and Lebanon. The immigrants came to do the hard work that was expected of them. They endured the bigotry of native New Englanders and struggled to save their cultural heritage. When their children ached with hunger, they struck for fair wages and humane working conditions, even as their priests tried to discourage them from challenging authority. Early in the twentieth century, they finally revolted against the mill owners’ barbaric exploitation and turned for help to radical labor agitators. When they did that, police and company goons stood in their path, and National Guard machine guns took aim at them. But immigrants kept seeking jobs in the mills because they yearned to live in America. Factory gates from Maine to Connecticut continued to swing open in the predawn darkness to welcome their labor. After World War II, the mill owners coveted bigger profits in the South. They relinquished responsibility for the New England communities so dependent on them and closed the mill gates forever in the faces of their workèrs.
Excerpted from The Belles of New England by William Moran Copyright © 2004 by William Moran. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted January 21, 2013