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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 326


This is the grave of Sarah Bagley.

Born in 1806 in New Hampshire, Bagley’s family was like many other New England families. They were farmers and owned a little mill to make extra money. New England farm families were almost by definition poor but middling at this time. The entire economy of New England was based around this, but it was getting harder as the large families and high child survival rates really clamped down on opportunities. Much of this was alleviated by people heading west, which had begun after the American Revolution and much of it by the Industrial Revolution, just beginning its transformation of the region when Bagley was born.

In 1835, Sarah Bagley, age 28, began work in the mills in Lowell, Massachusetts. Lowell was designed as a model city that would avoid the hellish conditions of English industrial cities, attracting solid American labor who would be uplifted by living there. Much of this mill labor was already done by women, but for young women from rural New England, this was seen as an opportunity to see a bit of the world before marriage. The Lowell Mill Girls worked very hard and long days, but then they were used to that on the farms. What they weren’t used to was the heat, noise, and regimentation. Sure, they had the opportunity to see Ralph Waldo Emerson or Henry Wadsworth Longfellow give talks and they could publish their writings in the newspapers they made, but like with industrial labor throughout history, soon the workers started organizing to demand better conditions.

Bagley became politically aware and started working to reform the conditions. By 1840, she was publishing pieces in the Lowell Offering about the rare pleasures in the mills. She asked the Workingmen’s Convention in 1844, “When our rights are trampled upon and we appeal in vain to our legislators, what shall we do but appeal to the people? Shall not our voice be heard and our rights acknowledged here; shall it be said again to the daughters of New England, that they have no rights and are not subject to legislative action?” Bagley, who held many of the gender norms of her day, saw women as taking a subservient role to men in the overall labor movement, but also as agents who needed to stand up for themselves. Bagley believed women should operate within the women’s sphere of society that Victorian era reformers had created by the 1840s, staying at home if possible, but given that the reality of factory work degraded the morals of women, they also needed to speak out to protect themselves.

Bagley helped found the Lowell Female Labor Reform Association in 1844. Other mill towns such as Manchester, New Hampshire formed their own Female Labor Reform Associations. Bagley led a campaign to demand the Massachusetts government hold hearings about conditions in the mills. By 1845, 1,150 Lowell workers had signed petitions to demand the hearings, about three-fourths of them women. On February 13, 1845, Bagley’s organizing paid off and the state of Massachusetts held hearings on reducing the workday in the state’s textile mills to ten hours a day. Six women testified, including Bagley. She said, “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.” Bagley and other women would use their perceived vulnerability as women to make the ten-hour argument. Said E.S., a Mill Girl, a shorter work day would lead “to the improvement of the condition of women in particular” that would allow them to become educated and then become better mothers. Bagley built on these arguments by arguing that Sunday work undermined women’s morality because they could not go to church. But in 1846, the Massachusetts legislature voted to reject the workers’ demands. Massachusetts prioritized the desires of employers over any form of social justice. However, the owners did agree to reduce the hours to eleven a day in 1853 as the women continued pressuring them. States did respond to pressure to pass ten-hour legislation, including New Hampshire in 1847 and Rhode Island in 1853, but these laws were ineffective and not enforced, a major problem in this era where even the federal government was small and weak.

Bagley also became interested in women’s rights and was a big supporter of Thomas Dorr, who led Dorr’s Rebellion in Rhode Island against the anti-democratic elites who ran the state. She opposed the Mexican War, when the U.S. stole the northern half of Mexico to expand slavery. She was out of the mills by this point and worked as a telegraph operator for awhile. She did return to the mills briefly but then moved to Philadelphia to work with the Quakers heading a home to reform prostitutes. While there, she married James Durno, thus the name on the gravestone. In 1851, they moved to Albany to work as homeopathic physicians and they started a reasonably successful business in New York making and distributing herbal medicines, which at the very least probably wasn’t any less deadly than actual medicine of the era. Durno died in 1871 and was buried in New York. Bagley at some point moved back to Philadelphia, where she died in 1888.

Sarah Bagley is buried in Laurel Hill Cemetery, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

If you would like this series to visit more of the Lowell Mill Girls, you can donate here to cover the required expenses. Lucy Larcom, who wrote the wonderful A New England Girlhood, probably the best remembrance of the Mill Girls, is in Beverly, Massachusetts and Harriet Hanson Robinson is in Concord, Massachusetts. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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