The Mill Women of Lowell, Massachusetts-the first female industrial wage earners in the United States-were a new social and economic phenomenon in American society. In the 1830s and 1840s, drawn by the highest wages offered to female employees anywhere in America, they sought and found independence and opportunity in the country's first planned industrial community.
Even after long work hours, the women found time and energy to write about their lives and aspirations. From their own literary magazine, the Lowell Offering, here are their letters, stories, essays, and sketches.
Historians have dismissed as naive and sentimental The Lowell Offering, the periodical published from 1840 to 1845 by and for the "mill girls" of America's first planned industrial community. But in a succinct introduction and afterward to this selection from The Offering's pages, editor Eisler sees the mill girls as "the last WASP labor force in America" bent on self-sacrifice and self-improvement through honorable industry. Theirs was the last "idyll of work" before the irreparable social rifts of industrialization that made factory work the ignoble, unbearable fate of immigrants. We see it all coming in The Offering. Selections describe steadily worsening working conditions (75 hours per week, half an hour to run home for lunch and back, sealed windows, declining wages) and life in the overcrowded corporate boarding houses ("instruments for surveillance and 'moral policing'"). The passion of these New England girls for "mutual self-help" is seen in essays on Joan of Arc and mineralogy and a lachrymose funeral verse for President Harrison: "Who dreamed in grief like this to share?" Caught in the "relentless world," the mill women are filled with nostalgia for the quiet life of their farm homes, the quiltmaking and sugaring parties among family and loved ones. They refuse to be looked down upon, vigorously defending mill women as "virtuous, intelligent, &c." Under the editorship of Harriet Farley - who may have been management's tool - The Offering combats "the spirit of discontent." Still, some write of the ten-hour-day movement, equal pay for women and men, the suicide of workers, and "the miserable, selfish spirit of competition, now in our midst." For the most part they find consolation in "devoting the avails of. . . labor to a noble and cherished purpose," most often support of a mother and younger children (after father's death from alcoholism), or a brother's education. Today they seem naive largely because competitive industrialization smashed their ideals. This valuable collection shows their difficult position. Their "fierce aspirations," Eisler argues, "shame our failed promises." (Kirkus Reviews)