|The Mill Girls of "Spindle City"
Patricia L. Cummings
Just imagine being a Yankee farm girl on an isolated New England farm during the early 1800s. Your main chore would be to
help produce cloth for household use by spinning.
By the 1830s, your task of home-spinning is becoming obsolete due to technological changes which have resulted in the
availability of store-bought cloth. Eli Whitney’s 1793 invention of the cotton gin has made it possible to easily separate cotton
seeds from cotton fibers. An automated version of the spinning jenny, a machine that could wind more than one spool of
thread at a time, has been adapted to be run by water power. These machines along with the “re-invention” of the British
power loom, have contributed to the widespread establishment of New England textile factories situated on every available fast
moving stream and river during this era, a time which will eventually become known as the “Industrial Revolution."
The bell tower at Boott's Mill, Lowell, MA, summoned the mill girls to work
One day, an agent from a new mill in Lowell, Massachusetts comes to visit the farm. He tells your Dad of the high wages that
you could earn as a “mill girl.” He convinces him that both your health and your morals will be safeguarded. All of your
activities will be overseen by a good woman, most likely a widow, at the factory-owned boardinghouse where you will live.
Nutritious meals will be provided for you, including meat twice a day. The man promises to transport you to your destination.
With great anticipation, you place all of your worldly belongings in a stack of band boxes that will accompany you on your
stagecoach journey from New Hampshire or Vermont to Massachusetts. You will become part of “the mill girl experiment,”
the lucrative brainstorm of the Boston Associates, rich investors who have financed the community into which you will now
be integrated. Although you will experience long hours and potentially life-threatening work conditions, you will have had a
chance to earn the highest wages paid to any woman of your time.
The first mill girl to have ever been hired at the Boott’s Cotton Mill in Lowell was Deborah Skinner who began work on
October 8, 1823. She was the sole mill girl on the payroll until the nineteenth of that same month, at which time several
additional girls were hired, thus starting the trend of hiring that would last until the Civil War.
Alabaster replica of a mill girl displayed at the Boott's Mill Museum in Lowell
At the time, there were few respectable ways for a girl to earn money. She could hire herself out as a domestic to work in
someone else’s home for no more than $.50 cents per week. She could set up her own business as a seamstress, or she could
teach school, but only in the summer. During the regular school year, that position was reserved for men. She might also have
worked as a book binder.
Starting wages were $1 dollar per week but increased to as much as $3.50 dollars per week. Typically half that amount would
be deducted for room and board. Even at that, the mill girls were able to save money. In 1833, The Lowell Institution for
Savings* reported deposits of $100,000 dollars which represented the savings of 1,000 mill girls. These funds were
sometimes sent home to help the family, some were kept for a dowry for marriage and their own household, and often all
“extra” money helped to pay for a brother’s college education. (*The former bank site now houses the New England Quilt
Museum, according to Jennifer Gilbert.
Dangers of Factory Life
The practice of hiring young girls for mill work was a distinct change from the “Rhode Island System,” which hired entire
families. There, children as young as nine, were employed in the same dangerous environment as their parents. The first
cotton spinning mill, set up by entrepreneur Samuel Slater in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, had a high incidence of industrial
accidents for children.
Lowell had its share of problems, too. A rule stated that girls should contain their hair in a net. However, vanity prevailed and
many girls were injured or killed when long hair caught in heavy machinery. Deafness, either partial or total was the price paid
for listening to the overwhelming noise of the power looms. One of the girls described the aftermath of having worked there
as hearing crickets chirping in her ears all the time.
Poor air quality was by far the greatest risk of all of these mills. Windows were nailed shut and steam was regularly sprayed
into the air to maintain humidity. This kept cotton threads from drying out and snapping in the looms.
Free-floating cotton lint was inhaled, often causing extremely debilitating pulmonary ailments which resulted in girls leaving the
mills, never to return. We can only imagine the darkness of the mill, illuminated only by air-polluting whale oil lamps which
hung burning from a post at each loom. In spite of these issues, when one girl left, another was waiting to take her place. The
lure of high wages was just too compelling.
Life in Community
Mill girls were required to sign an agreement to abide by certain regulations. A minimum one year commitment was
demanded, although most stayed for about three years. Supervisors had to approve any absences, and anyone not reporting to
their station without good reason would be fired. Girls could also be discharged for immoral behavior, or for imbibing alcohol.
If leaving on her own accord, a two week termination notice was necessary in order to receive an “honorable discharge.”
Another requirement was mandatory church attendance on Sunday. In spite of a girl’s preferred denomination, she was
expected to attend services at the company-built St. Anne’s Episcopal Church. However, this rule was not strictly enforced.
Some of the girls felt that they could not afford to pay pew rent, or did not choose to spend their money on the fine clothes
that they deemed necessary to participate at services. Eventually, the policy of charging pew rent was abandoned.
All unmarried mill girls, if not living with family, were required to live in a company-owned boardinghouse, often sharing a bed
with another girl. Sometimes there were as many as 8 girls in a room, and boardinghouses typically housed 20 to 40 people.
There was virtually no privacy.
Grueling Work Schedule
At first, the working day was long, often 14 hours each weekday, with an additional 8 hours of work on Saturday. The length
of the work day and the short amount of time in which to eat one’s meals were to become major issues of discontent. In
1845, Sarah G. Bagley, a native of Candia, New Hampshire native, who later became the editor of a mill girl publication, the
Voice of Industry, published a petition that had been sent to the Massachusetts Legislature, asking for a 10 hour work day on
the behalf of more than 2,000 mill girls. The measure was not passed at that time, but did result in a shortened work day of 11
The great tower bell rang at many intervals during the day and controlled every activity. The bell first rang at 4:30 a.m. (or 5 a.
m. in the winter), as a wake up call. By the next bell, the girls had to be at their place in the mill. After working for two hours,
they were rung out for breakfast, and rung in to resume work.
The bell excused them for a hurried dinner at noon, the big meal of the day. They had to have returned to work 45 minutes
later. The bell announced quitting time at 6:30 p.m. (or 7:00 p.m.), depending on the season. The final bell ring of the day
announced curfew at 10 p.m. Then, girls were expected to be in their residence and ready for “lights out.”
Each mill girl knew that she was trading her work for newfound independence. Wages could be spent, in part, for self-
enrichment. In the evenings, the girls could attend a Lyceum lecture presented by John Quincy Adams, Horace Greeley or
Ralph Waldo Emerson, who spoke on a variety of topics. Other leisure time activities included attending plays, musical events
or spending time at the public library.
The girls enjoyed buying current magazines to guide them toward the latest trends in fashion. The most prominent fashion
magazine of the day was Godey’s Lady's Book. The periodical’s editor, Sarah Josepha Hale, was critical of mill girls who she
portrayed as donning expensive watches and dressing beyond their (low) social class rank in a concentrated attempt to
emulate higher class women. The girls must have welcomed the opportunity to find more fashionable apparel than the
outdated clothes they had brought from the farm. For the few mill girls who were “slaves to fashion,” most likely there were
an equal number of them who preferred to save.
Many mill gills were educated and literary-minded. While books were banned from being brought into the mill itself, the girls
often taped newspaper clippings or torn out pages from books to any vertical space near their work area. Reading or
memorizing stanzas of poetry, must have been an enchanting diversion from their repetitive, monotonous tasks.
Among other tasks, the girls wove “negro cloth,” a coarse composite cloth containing wool. This “inferior” cloth was sent
south for use in making slave’s clothing. In the midst of their weaving the girls reportedly circulated a poem written by
abolitionist, John Greenleaf Whittier, which includes this stanza:
Speed on the light to those who dwell
In Slavery’s land of woe and sin,
And through the blackness of that Hell
Let Heaven’s own light break in.
Mill Girls Find a “Voice”
Soon girls were meeting in small “Improvement Circles” to share their writings and to critique each other’s work. In Lowell,
there were seven such self-improvement clubs, two of which were under the auspices of the Unitarian Universalist Church
and the Congregational Church. In 1840, the first edition of Lowell Offering, a collection of mill girl essays, letters, and
poetry, was published under the guidance of their mentor, Reverend Abel C. Thomas.
By 1841, subscriptions were being offered for 6 ¼ cents per issue. Things were going well until Reverend Thomas was re-
assigned to another congregation. In his absence, the magazine that he had worked so hard to encourage merged with The
Operative Magazine. Soon there were accusations that Lowell Offering did not truly reflect the difficult working conditions of
the mill, and that it sided with management. In 1845, the publication changed its names to New England Offering which was
last published in 1849.
In the meantime, the magazine had catapulted Lucy Larcom into the spotlight where she remains today as the most famous
mill girl. Lowell Offering provided a venue for mill girls to express their thoughts and to record first-hand accounts that might
otherwise have been lost to history.
Excerpts from this landmark publication were compiled into a book entitled: The Lowell Offering: Writings by New England
Mill Women (1840-1845), edited by Benita Eisler, Norton, 1998).
During the 1830s, mill workers had begun to be agitated over working conditions. In 1834, this resulted in a short-lived and
rather ineffective walk out. In 1836, Harriet Robinson organized a strike. Without a union in place, both events had little effect
on working conditions.
New Wave of Immigrants Replaces Yankee Mill Girls
As greed increased among the mill owners, so did the pressure to make each girl more productive. Now, each girl was
required to take care of three or four looms instead of one. When the Yankee mill girls became unwilling to continue working
under these conditions, tides of immigrants stood ready to take their places. Irish workers flooded into the country especially
during the potato famine years of 1846-1848. Other immigrants from Greece, Poland, Russia, Portugal, and Colombia, and
Canada soon followed.
Between 1828 and 1850, the population of Lowell had increased from 3,500 to 35,000 people.
In 1860, 61.8% of Lowell’s textile workers were immigrants, half of them Irish. By the Civil War, active Yankee mill girl
recruitment was a thing of the past.
The “Vision” of Francis Cabot Lowell
This “mill girl experiment” had been the vision of Francis Cabot Lowell, who died in 1817 before he could see his dreams
come to fruition. His ideas were carried out by a group of his friends, wealthy investors who sought to create a more
paternalistic and caring mill environment than that which Lowell had seen during his 1810 trip to England.
At that time, Lowell had memorized the working structure of power looms in British textile factories well enough to come
home and re-invent a working model with the help of mechanic, Paul Moody. The first mill that Lowell established was
located on the Charles River in Waltham, Massachusetts.
However, the water flow there was more sluggish than he desired, so he decided to build a mill on the more swiftly moving
Merrimack River. His plan to establish the textile mills at Lowell have been far-reaching, providing employment for many, even
into the middle of the 20th century when the last one closed. In the interim, Lowell, nicknamed, “Spindle City” had become
truly an international city.
Looking back almost two centuries, we applaud the mill girls for striving to make a difference. They were unafraid to speak
out to protest unjust labor conditions, and they made the best of all of their experiences away from home. They enjoyed their
independence and sometimes established lifelong friendships with co-workers.
They also proved that they were both intelligent and morally straight. With a certain innocence, the mill girls upset the social
order for those ladies who considered themselves to be of higher social class and who superficially judged others by clothing
After spending a few years at Lowell, each mill girl in turn left to either return to the farm, seek other employment, or to
marry and join the westward migration, perhaps leaving New England forever. Most any other occupation would have seemed
more pleasing than confining factory labor.
The Mill Girl statue at the Millyard Museum of Manchester, New Hampshire, created by sculptor, Antoinette Prien Schultze, is
a powerful tribute to all of the fine female textile workers of the 1800s, but particularly those women who toiled at the
Amoskeag Mills of Manchester, situated along the Merrimack River and dependent on its water power. When we look at the
fabrics in 19th century New England quilts, we are compelled to wonder how many of them include fabrics made by mill girls.
May the achievements, courage, and self-reliance these young women set a shining example of the durability and adaptability
of the “weaker sex,” and the memory of their labor and circumstances be forever recalled.
An invaluable reference on this subject is: The Belles of New England: The Women of the Textile Mills And The Families
Whose Wealth They Wove, William Moran, Thomas Dunne Books, 2002.
Copyright 2003, Patricia and James Cummings, Quilter's Muse Publications, Concord, New Hampshire. All rights reserved.