mill girls, lowell, mass.

Women's History Month: The "Mill Girls" of Lowell, Mass.

March 06, 2010
by findingDulcinea Staff
The women who found work in the mills of Lowell, Mass., during the first half of the 19th century also found a reason to rebel.

Manufacturing in 19th-century Massachusetts

The mills in Lowell, Mass., are a pivotal part of U.S. history. Their extraordinary output—and the grueling effort they demanded—helped shape both the American Industrial Revolution, and the women’s rights movement. PBS offers a feature on the Massachusetts mills via the life of Francis Cabot Lowell, a pioneer of American manufacturing who offered young American women professional opportunities in the factories he established.

If you’re interested in reading more about the history of the Lowell mills, try “The Belles of New England: The Women of the Textile Mills and the Families Whose Wealth They Wove” by William Moran. For firsthand accounts of the experience, read “The Lowell Offering: Writings by New England Mill Women (1840-1945).”

Daily Life in Lowell, Mass.

To learn more about the day-to-day lives of Lowell citizens and mill workers, visit the the Center for Lowell History at the University of Massachusetts. The section on mill life in Lowell details daily life in town with letters, census records, building blueprints and more.

The mills in Lowell were at once a blessing and a curse for New England women in the first half of the 19th century. While the mills promised benefits previously unknown to many of the farm girls who sought work in town, workers faced grueling hours and strict, boarding-house rules. In fact, the girls’ schedules were controlled by the factories, both inside and outside of work. Read the “Factory Rules” and “Boarding House Rules” from the “Handbook to Lowell, 1848” at The Illinois Labor History Society and see how constraining mill life could be.

The “Mill Girls” Rebel

The exceedingly strict rules caused discontent among women in the mills. With so many women working and living together, a grassroots rebellion eventually took hold. Even the rigorous factory codes could not stop mill workers from insubordination.

In order to defend their dignity, the women at Lowell eventually banded together to create “liberty rhetoric,” demanding better treatment. Eventually, the women of the Lowell Mills went on strike, using the documents they had prepared against their harsh employers. Read original “liberty rhetoric” and explore newspaper reports of the strike at Lowell Mills, archived by the American Studies Program at The College of Staten Island.

Visiting Lowell

The hard work and rebellious spirit of the women of Lowell provided inspiration for the women’s rights movement. The factories and boarding houses of Lowell are monuments to a quintessential moment in American industrial history and the battle for women’s rights. Experience Lowell firsthand by visiting its historical museums and parks, including the American Textile History Museum, the New England Quilt Museum and the Lowell National Historical Park.

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