Lowell, Story of an Industrial City: The Mill Girls

Portuguese Mill Girls at Lowell, Library of Congress, Public Domain
Portuguese mill girls at Lowell, ca. 1910-1915.

From the George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress. Public Domain (http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ggbain.10358)

As much as the massive brick mills along the Merrimack, "mill girls" were an innovation of the early industrial revolution in New England. Lowell's mill workforce in the antebellum decades consisted largely of young single women from the farming communities of northern New England. Most were between 15 and 25, signing on for short stints that rarely exceeded a year at a time. Overall, they averaged about three years of employment before leaving the mills for marriage, migration to the west, other employment, or return to their hometowns.

Dissatisfaction with the work environment was a major reason for leaving the mills. In the 1830s and 40s women operatives protested against mill conditions. Their labor movement was not a narrow lobbying effort, but a broad reform campaign embracing a wide range of issues and underpinned by firm ideals. Writing in the Voice of Industry, Huldah J. Stone described the attitude of Lowell Female Labor Reform Association members toward reduction of the hours of labor: “They do not regard this measure as an end, but only as one step toward the end to be attained. They deeply feel that their work will never be accomplished until slavery and oppression, mental, physical, and religious, shall have been done away with and Christianity in its original simplicity…shall be reestablished and practiced among men.”

In return for monthly cash wages, female workers in Lowell agreed to regulations that varied little from company to company: work for at least a year; live in a company boardinghouse; attend church. Many worked for a year and went back to the farm, some repeating this pattern two or three times.

From: Dublin, Thomas. 1992. Lowell: the story of an industrial city: a guide to Lowell National Historical Park and Lowell Heritage State Park, Lowell, Massachusetts. Washington, D.C.: Division of Publications, National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior.

Last updated: March 19, 2019