During the first half of the 1800s, girls and young women from throughout New England were recruited to process cotton for textile mills in Lowell, Massachusetts. The majority female workforce was unusual for contemporary factories. Their unique work culture came to national attention when the women organized for workers’ rights.
The mill town was named for businessman Francis Cabot Lowell. In 1814, he formed the Boston Manufacturing Company and constructed a textile mill along the Charles River. Lowell passed away while the town was still small, and his associates named their new town in his memory. The remaining business partners expanded Lowell from a one-mill town to a busy 32-mill city. Within 20 years, they employed nearly 8,000 people.
The Boston Manufacturing Company carefully recruited young female workers. This could be difficult since the women would be leaving their hometowns and families, and factory laborers traditionally had low social status. The company wanted to overcome this prejudice about factory culture. Therefore, they offered relatively high wages and promised that boarding houses would have strict rules (e.g., curfews and restrictions on male visitors). The factory owners also promised “cultural activities”, including concerts, lectures, and the creation of a group magazine. Many families sent their daughters to earn wages for their sons’ education.
Despite the terms of recruitment, many workers were displeased with their work and housing in Lowell. One despondently wrote, “In vain I do try to soar in fancy and imagination above the dull reality around me, but beyond the roof of the factory I cannot rise.” The women’s workday began at 5 a.m. and ended at 7 p.m.; they averaged 73 hours of work per week! Factory ventilation was poor, with cloth particles perpetually suspended in the air, and the noise of factory machines was considered “frightful and infernal”.
The women’s dormitories tended to be cramped. Up to six people would share a room. One worker described her quarters as “a small, comfortless, half-ventilated apartment containing some half a dozen occupants”. The cultural activities advertised by recruiters were few and far between; the women seldom experienced the world beyond their dorms and machine rooms.
The close quarters fostered resentment, but they also helped the women build a strong community for labor organizing. This started in 1834 when the mill directors proposed a 15% cut in wages because of the economic depression. The women met with each other and organized a response: they immediately withdrew their savings, causing trouble for local banks. This tactic failed, but mill owners learned that despite preconceptions of what “feminine” people would do, the Lowell women were determined to stand up for their rights as workers. With time, their collective actions would have more practical effects.
Two years later, the directors proposed a rent increase at the boarding houses. The female employees formed the Factory Girls’ Association and organized a strike, complete with a protest song that addressed American liberty:
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!
About 1,500 women participated in the strike, and this seriously impacted the factory’s volume of production. The women persisted for weeks, and the mill directors eventually rescinded their proposed rent hike.
In 1845, the Lowell women were inspired by the Ten Hours Movement in England, which shortened factory workers’ hours. They formed the Lowell Female Labor Reform Association. One of their first steps was to send petitions – signed by thousands of workers – to Massachusetts lawmakers demanding an end to their twelve-hour workdays. By 1847 they had reduced their hours by 30 minutes, and by 1853 they’d reduced the workday by a full hour.
In the long run, however, the Board of Directors won out. As the 1850s continued with economic hardship, the factories turned to hiring Irish immigrant whom they expected would be less likely to agitate for their rights. Still, the original Lowell women were instrumental to the development of New England industry and labor rights in the United States.