O sing me a song of the Factory Girl
So merry and glad and free —
The bloom on her cheeks, of health it speaks! —
O a happy creature is she!
She tends the loom, she watches the spindle,
And cheerfully taketh away;
Mid the din of wheels, how bright eyes kindle!
O happy creature is she!
O sing me a song of the Factory Girl!
Link not her name with the SLAVES. —
She is brave and free as the old elm tree,
That over her homestead waves.
— A popular 19th century New England mill owner song
“We cannot have time to eat, drink, or sleep. We have only thirty minutes, or at most three-quarters of an hour, allowed us to go from our work, partake of our food, and return to the noisy clatter of machinery. Up before day, at the clang of the bell — and out of the mill by the clang of the bell — into the mill, and at work, in obedience to that ding-dong of a bell — just as though we were so many living machines.”
— “The Spirit of Discontent,” The Lowell Offering, 1841; author unknown
When 600 textile workers “turned-out” at the Cocheco Manufacturing Company in Dover, N.H., on the day after Christmas in 1828, it was the first strike of female workers in the United States. And it struck fear in the hearts of the textile barons of New England.
The young women — who ranged in age from 12 to their mid-20s — marched through town accompanied by martial music as they waved banners and flags and ignited two barrels of gunpowder to protest a five-cent-a-day pay cut imposed on female workers (but not on the men, who already earned more than they did).
The women wrote, in a series of resolutions: “We view this attempt to reduce our wages as part of a general plan of the proprietors of the different manufacturing establishments to reduce the females in their employ to that state of dependence on them in which they openly, as they do now secretly, abuse and insult them by calling them their ‘slaves.’”
They also demanded an end to the company’s “obnoxious regulations,” like its practice of locking workers out of the yard and fining them 12 1/2 cents for arriving even a few seconds after the work bell rang. The rules further prohibited employees from talking while at work or leaving without permission of the overseer.
The strike was swiftly put down after the mill began advertising for replacement workers, and the strikers returned to the job on New Year’s Day, 1829, at reduced wages. Like most newspapers at the time, the Dover Inquirer was firmly on the side of the mill owners. It wrote off the cause of the strike as “some imaginary grievance,” and described the protest as “one of the most disgusting scenes ever witnessed.” The strike had “turned out to their cost, as well as disgrace,” the paper snidely wrote of the workers.
The Philadelphia National Gazette struck a rather snarky tone in its mention of the strike, as it observed, “the late strike and grand public march of the female operatives in New Hampshire exhibit the Yankee sex in a new and unexpected light. By and by the governor may have to call out the militia to prevent a gynecocracy.”
Heedless of the scribblings of patronizing newspapermen, women continued to strike at New England textile mills throughout the 1830s, prompting companies to take aggressive measures, such as forcing workers to sign “ironclad oaths,” pledging not to engage in collective action, as a condition of their employment. However, the fact these mill owners had to stomp out union organizing efforts undermined the owners’ and editors’ propaganda efforts to paint the workers as docile, happy and contented.
In some ways, these 19th-century textile entrepreneurs were like today’s Silicon Valley titans, but with a streak of old-fashioned New England liberalism. When Francis Cabot Lowell visited the textile hubs of England in the early 1810s to learn how to develop a factory back in Massachusetts, he wanted to create a profitable industry, but without the miserable working conditions for which England was already notorious.
“Children, as well as adults, were seized from poorhouses and forced to work,” William Moran wrote of the Lancashire mills Lowell visited. “Others were recruited from the poverty-stricken masses living in the streets. … Overseers wielding lashes forced the mill workers to labor until they dropped of exhaustion. The only escape was the pauper’s grave.”
It was with a vision of a kinder and more civilized Lancashire that Lowell and his associates created the Boston Manufacturing Company to build the first fully integrated textile mill in 1813. The plan was to employ a temporary workforce of mostly young, Yankee women, who’d live in dormitories with strict paternalistic rules intended to maintain religious piety and protect “feminine virtue.” They wouldn’t become a permanent working class, but instead would labor for about three years before moving on or getting married.
The mills also gave Yankee women their first taste of independence. In the eyes of society, women were supposed to be subservient to their fathers and husbands. They had very few legal, social or political rights. They couldn’t vote or control their own finances. They were barred from professions like law and medicine, and were rarely granted legal custody of children in divorces. Prior to the establishment of mills, many Maine women had to settle for low-paying jobs as domestic servants. There was very little opportunity to get ahead, as sons would inherit the family farm and receive the best education.
Such was probably the case for Eliza Howard Bean, whose story is told in the book “Write Quick”: War and a Woman’s Life in Letters, 1835-1867, edited by Ann Fox Chandonnet and Roberta Gibson Pevear. As the sixteenth child of Ebenezer Shaw Bean, Eliza likely saw little prospect in remaining in her hometown of Bethel, in rural Oxford County, Maine. So in July of 1851, just after her sixteenth birthday, Eliza packed her few belongings and headed for Biddeford, where she went to work for the Pepperell Manufacturing Company. After a few years there, Eliza eventually moved to Lowell, Mass., where she worked at the Boott Cotton Mills. In Lowell, Eliza met her future husband, Henry Charles Foster. The couple married on December 5, 1856, and raised two children.
In her firsthand account of life among textile workers in Lowell, Harriet Hanson Robinson wrote that the cotton mill was “a great opening to these lonely and dependent women.”
“From a condition approaching pauperism they were at once placed above want; they could earn money, and spend it as they pleased; and could gratify their tastes and desires without restraint, and without rendering an account to anybody,” Robinson wrote. “At last they found a place in the universe; they were no longer obliged to finish out their faded lives mere burdens to male relatives.”
As Moran observed, the Boston mill owners believed in the dignity of their young female workers as “first-generation daughters of the American Revolution.” Unlike the immigrant textile workers who later arrived from Ireland and Quebec, both the owners and the factory girls shared “common bonds of language, place, religious heritage, and reverence for family members who had fought for independence just four decades earlier.”
The mill owners proudly showed their achievements to visiting dignitaries, and even Charles Dickens marveled at the treatment of American textile workers compared to the deplorable conditions of factory labor in England. The female textile workers in Lowell were “healthy in appearance, many of them remarkably so, and had the manners and deportment of young women: not of degraded brutes of burden,” Dickens wrote. He contrasted the conditions in Lowell and England as “between the Good and Evil, the living light and the deepest shadow.”
This is not to say that working in one of those Massacustetts mills was a pleasurable experience. The noise was so loud that many women went deaf. They also developed respiratory illnesses from the cotton lint that filled the rooms. Weavers would breathe in lint when they sucked the thread through the eye of wooden shuttles that fed the thread to the looms. The practice later became known as the “kiss of death” as it spread tuberculosis and influenza through the factories. Many of the women later developed byssinosis, also known as “brown lung,” from inhaling so much lint.
Moran estimates that 70 percent of the early mill workers died of respiratory diseases, compared to 4 percent of farmers. Eliza Howard Bean Foster became one of the unlucky ones, as her liberation from the factory proved only temporary. After her husband was killed in the Civil War, bureaucratic red tape prevented her from collecting her widow’s pension and she was forced to return to mill work. After just a few years, on August 20, 1867, she succumbed to “consumption,” the term commonly applied to such diseases.
The new factory system also sparked a moral panic that inspired a whole genre of lurid, mid-19th-century novels about Saco-Biddeford factory girls ending up pregnant, disgraced, or even dead. Professor Elizabeth DeWolfe has written of how these novels about “naïve young women and the cads who sought to deflower them” were “one part trashy romance, one part moralizing sermon on factory girls’ behavior.” They were, she notes, part of a 19th century “sensation fiction” literary craze that depicted single girls in the workforce paying a price for bucking social and sexual norms.
Even in its early days, the textile industry came under withering criticism from reformers and labor activists. In the 1830s, labor leader Seth Luther condemned the textile mills as “principalities of the destitute” and “the palaces of the poor.” Known to his many enemies as an “Apostle of Sedition” and “Disturber of the Peace,” Luther, in speeches given before audiences in Saco and Portland in 1832, railed against the York Manufacturing Company for practices such as requiring workers to attend Protestent church services regardless of their personal denomination.
“This is palpable injustice,” he roared. “It seems the owners of the mills wish to control their men in all things; to enslave their bodies and souls, make them think, act, vote, preach, pray, and worship, as it may suit ‘We the Owners.’”
With Maine shipyard workers and machinists striking up and down the coast for a shorter work day, and factory girls turning out in Lowell and Dover in the 1830s, it was only a matter of time before the strike wave hit the York Manufacturing Company in Saco.
Will Chapman is the Librarian and Archivist at Museums of the Bethel Historical Society. Andy O’Brien is the communications director for the Maine AFL-CIO. You can reach them at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.