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This Day in Labor History: February 13, 1845

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On February 13, 1845, the Lowell Female Labor Reform Association forced the state of Massachusetts to hold hearings on reducing the work day in the state’s textile mills to 10 hours a day. The LFLRA had collected 2000 signatures to put pressure on the textile mill owners and state to improve the conditions in the factories. While the ability to interest state politicians in the conditions of workers was a success of sorts, not only did the workers fail to win, but this is a transitional moment in an industry that would soon replace these women with workers who had access to far less power to protest the conditions of their work, something that continues apparel companies have aimed for ever since.

Samuel Slater brought the first modern factories into the United States in the 1790s. These were largely lauded by most commentators, but they also worried Americans who feared the nation’s nice towns would become the pestilent hellholes of English cities since the Industrial Revolution began there earlier in the 18th century. Some owners were conscious enough about these problems that they created the model town of Lowell, Massachusetts to prove that one could operate a factory using respectable labor. Lowell employers recruited young farm women from around New England to come work in the factories, have a bit of an adventure, and live in a respectable fashion. The closely watched “Lowell Mill Girls” lived in dormitories under the watchful eyes of older women and attended talks by Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and other early 19th century intellectuals. They produced their own magazines, took classes, and in the eyes of the factory owners, prepared themselves nicely for marriage while producing profit for their employer.

The Lowell Offering, December 1845

These women also labored in very unpleasant conditions. The factories were hot and humid, necessary to keep the cotton fibers workable and reduce fires. Enormous glass windows allowed sun to pour in on the hottest days of the year. The machines were shockingly loud in a way that’s difficult to imagine for most modern Americans who do not work in factories. They worked 12 or 14 hour days, six days a week. These were young farm women used to work, so it wasn’t the strenuous nature of the labor that bothered them, but being locked up in that factory tending those machines minute after minute, day after day, month and month. Historians have timed the beginning of working-class Americans seeing the environment as something romantic to these early textile factory workers, for whom nature became something to escape to rather than tame.

Rather quickly, the young women moved from intellectual pursuits during their (limited) free time to political organizing. The women began demanding better conditions in the factories and since they came from respectable families, ignoring them was a challenge for the owners. To make it worse, the companies began reducing wages. In 1836, they went on strike, one of the nation’s first organized walkouts. One of the strikers was Harriet Hanson Robinson. She remembered,

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 1laving 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.

Constitution of the Lowell Factory Girls Association, 1836

They lost but continued fighting. In 1835, Sarah Bagley, age 28, began work in the mills. She quickly became politically aware and started working to reform the conditions. She helped found the Lowell Female Labor Reform Association in 1844 and led the campaign for the hearings, gathering many of the signatures and organizing her fellow workers. When the hearings were held, Bagley testified, “The chief evil, so far as health is concerned, is the shortness of time allowed for meals. The next evil is the length of time employed.” Basically, the owners were trying to turn the women into machines. But in 1846, the Massachusetts legislature voted to reject the workers’ demands, part of a larger move in early 19th century New England to create a pro-corporate legal agenda smoothing the way for the growth of business over the concerns of workers and citizens. However, the owners did agree to reduce the hours to 11 a day in 1853 as pressure continued.

The response of the factory owners to this agitation was to switch the labor force. The potato famine in Ireland meant 780,000 new immigrants to the U.S. from that island in the 1840s alone, with another 914, 000 following in the 1850s. These workers were in no condition to turn down hard industrial labor; the opportunity for that was what was many hope awaited them in the United States. It’s possible that the Lowell experiment never really had much chance of working, given the lack of government-mandated employment standards and an ever more competitive market with factories seeking to undercut each other. But eliminating what we can call a privileged labor class–workers with options and access to political levers–proved incredibly profitable for the textile industry.



Mill complex of the Merrimack Company, Lowell, circa 1850

Thus began the history of the textile industry looking for the most vulnerable and impoverished labor to exploit. Eventually, the Irish too would demand better lives. Jews and Italians would be next, then corporations would discover the glories of capital mobility. They moved their factories to southern Appalachia beginning in the early 20th century, then to Mexico in the 1960s, and then to Taiwan, China, and Bangladesh in a never ending global search for workers desperate enough to accept the risk of dying in fires or having their factories collapse on top of them.

In 1846, Sarah Bagley quit her job in the mill and became the nation’s first female telegraph operator.

This is the 92nd post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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  • rea

    Where are the girls, I will tell you plain
    The girls have gone to weave by steam
    And if you’d find them you must rise at dawn
    And trudge to the mill in the early morn

  • fka AWS

    Thanks for these posts. They have been very enlightening about some labor history (LOTS) that I did not know.

    A couple of copy edits:

    “their work, something that continues apparel companies have aimed for ever since.”

    and

    “Lowell employers recruited young farm women from around New England to come work in the factories, have a bit of an adventure, and live in a respectably. ”

    and

    “not one of them 1laving the courage to lead off”

  • Whether it’s labor history or some other form of history, it seems to me the story arc is always the same – a small, privileged elite exploiting a large relatively powerless mass of ordinary people.

    It’s pyramids and slave labor [or the nearest equivalent contemporary mores will allow] all the way down.

    All hail the Koch Brothers and the coming new feudalism!

  • DrDick

    The irony here is that the mill owners, in England as well as here, turned to women workers because they would work for lower wages and were seen as more subservient and less likely to stand up for themselves. The race to the bottom has been a constant theme of capitalism, only alleviated by episodic government interventions on behalf of labor (fuck you libertarians!).

  • LeeEsq

    Has anybody done a good study on the economics of company towns, as in when the company built the town like Pullman or at least set up conditions like Lowell not a city that happens to be dominated by a single company? Its understandable why such arrangements are attractive to a corporation for a control point of view but economically and adminstratively it looks like more trouble than they are actually worth. The company towns did little to stop the labor movement, many of them became the sites for the fiercest confrontations. They have to be a drain on resources that could be spent elsewhere.

    • DrDick

      IIRC there is some literature on this. I know that there are several studies of Pullman. It is all kind of interesting to me since I grew up in a company town (30,000 people and national headquarters of Phillips Petroleum Company before the merger with Conoco).

      • rea

        Bartlesville, OK, right?

        • DrDick

          Yep. My sister lives in Ponca City now. I guess she could not get enough of oil company towns.

      • JoyfulA

        The coal towns in Pennsylvania but, more positively, Hershey, which had its own free parks and junior college for residents. The Hershey Trusts have now manipulated all the nice free stuff out of existence, unfortunately, as it’s done away with many of the good (and union) factory jobs.

    • Yeah, I can’t point you to a single source that answers this question specifically. But I think you are generally correct. Where company towns still held on by the 1940s or so was only in isolated areas–mostly mining and logging towns in the West, and some in the Appalachian textile towns. But mostly the companies looked to dump these properties as modern business practices developed in the 20s. That usually just meant selling them off to the people living in the houses pretty cheap.

      • rea

        Sometiems, the company town was necessary. If you want 5000 workers to open your new mine in Hellhole, Arizona, you may have to build the infrastructure (houses, stores, etc.) that enables your workers to live there.

    • Unemployed Northeastern

      IIRC – and I may not – the primary reason for founding Lowell was it was basically the closest falls on the Merrimack River to Boston, which of course was the entrepot of the region. One of the first canals in the United States carried goods from Lowell to Boston and back.

      As for being a control point, I’m not sure how much this was ever the case for Lowell. There were plenty of places to build water-powered textile mills on fast-flowing New England rivers, and a lot of other mill cities appeared concurrently or quite soon after Lowell: Lawrence, Haverhill, Fall River, Nashua, Manchester, Lewiston, and so forth.

      Today, Lowell’s proximity to Boston still helps it a bit, as there is a commuter rail connection and a lot of those old mills have been converted into lofts that fetch maybe 1/3 of the rent they would in Beantown.

      • snarkybastard

        Actually there were at least one more set of falls closer to the ocean on the Atlantic in Lawrence. The Pawyucket Falls were fairly steep (a 32 foot drop in under a mile) plus Lowell was the site of the convergence of the Merrimack and Concord Rivers. A pre-exisiting canel (the Pawtucket) was already built to bring barge traffic from above the falls down to the Concord below the falls. Lowell also had a link to the Middlessex Canal which was an industrial transport canal that connected the Merrimack to Boston while Lawrence and other Merrimack fall sites did not have the transit infrastructure in place for large scale industrial use before the railroads were built out.

        • Unemployed Northeastern

          My point exactly – the falls at Lawrence, MA are a good 10 or 12 miles downstream from Lowell, and could utilize the small-but-prosperous mini-entrepot of Newburyport, but the Pawtucket Falls in Lowell were closer to Boston, hence the construction of the Middlesex Canal.

          • snarkybastard

            Lawrence is slightly closer to Boston than Lowell

    • joe from Lowell

      Lowell wasn’t a real company town. The owners would build mills then sell them to another company.

      • Anna in PDX

        Isn’t it neat that you have your very own edition of the “This day in labor history” series, jfL?

  • I’m sure the machinery was pretty dangerous as well. Worker safety wasn’t a big concern in those day. Plenty more where those came from.

    • LeeEsq

      Worker safety is a concern now? Recent events do not bear this thesis out.

  • BlogWood

    Susie Madrak at C&L finds a piece on a descendant of New England textile money – his childhood during the depression sounds absolutely hellish, having to make do with 3 cars and only a single chauffeur. He is, of course, self-made.

    Billionaire CEO to 99 Percent: Stop Whining, You’d Be The One Percent In India.

  • Matt

    Great (well, greatly terrible) article from WaPo citing the Lowell experience:

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/the-switch/wp/2014/01/25/what-the-humble-loom-can-teach-us-about-robots-and-automation/

    Best (at being terrible) graf in the thing:

    At first wages were low and stagnant for decades. But by the end of the 19th century, Lowell’s weavers earned more than twice what they earned per hour in 1830, after taking inflation into account, and they earned much more than workers with lesser skills. What changed? A labor market for skilled weavers developed.

    Notably absent from the post: any MENTION of labor activism. Wages just “developed”. Fucking WaPo.

    • I wish I had seen that at the time so I could rip it apart here. That’s just terrible.

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