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Lowell History: Visitor Observations 1827-1913

Observations of Lowell by Joseph Sturges, 1841

Wages in the Mill; Morality of Mill Workers; Education;  
Literary and Charitable Societies 


By Joseph Sturge

Joseph Sturge came to America with two expressed purposes: the abolition of slavery, and the promotion of a permanent international peace. An active member of the English anti-slavery movement and a Quaker, Sturge visited the United States in order to meet with abolitionists in the United States, as well as to view other social and charitable institutions.

Sturge's visit fell at an interesting time in the abolition movement's history. A short while earlier, the American Anti-Slavery Society had undergone a schism when it was torn over the question of admitting women to its ranks. The Society voted to include their sister abolitionists, and in protest, a number of male members had formed The American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society, an organization that would remain all-male and closely allied to the all-male abolitionist groups abroad. Sturge's position on the issue was the more traditional one. He wrote appreciatively of the efforts of female abolitionists, but felt the societies were best kept separate. 

When he arrived in March 1841, his first stop in New York was an orthodox Quaker meeting. Later he visited Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Baltimore, Delaware, Vermont, Washington, Virginia, and Massachusetts. He returned home a year later to write A Visit to the United States in 1841.

Sturge's account provided insight into an area of life for American women totally ignored by Tocqueville and Beaumont, that of reform and abolition. In addition, Sturge included comments about mill workers in Lowell and a sample article written by a female mill worker in the Lowell Offering, the mill newspaper.


On the 30th, in company with JOHN G. WHITTIER and C. STEWART PENSNAW, I went over to Lowell, the chief seat of the woollen and cotton manufacture in America. Less than twenty years ago, there were not more than forty or fifty houses on the site of this flourishing city, which now contains upwards of twenty thousand inhabitants. Its numerous mills are all worked by water power, and belong to incorporated joint-stock companies. We were obligingly shown over two of the largest woollen and cotton factories, where every stage of the manufacture was in process, from the cotton, or sheep's wool, to the finished fabric. We also visited works, where the printing of cottons is executed in a superior style, besides a new process for dyeing cotton in the thread, invented by an Englishman, now in the establishment. The following abstract of the manufacturing statistics of Lowell, on the first of January, 1841, will show the great importance to which this new branch of industry has attained with such unprecedented rapidity. 

"Ten joint-stock companies, with a capital of ten millions of dollars, having thirty-two woollen and cotton factories, besides print works, et cat., with one hundred and seventy-eight thousand eight hundred and sixty-eight spindles, and five thousand five hundred and eighty-eight looms, employing two thousand one hundred and seventy-two males, and six thousand nine hundred and twenty females; who made, in 1840, sixty-five millions eight hundred and two thousand four hundred yards of cotton and woollen cloths, in which were consumed twenty-one millions four hundred and twenty-four thousand pounds of cotton alone. 

"The average amount earned by the male hands employed, exclusive of their board, is four dollars and eighty cents, or about twenty shillings sterlings per week, and of the females two dollars, or about eight shillings and sixpence per week." 

But the most striking and gratifying feature of Lowell, is the high moral and intellectual condition of iti working population. In looking over the books of the mills we visited, where the operatives entered their names, I observed very few that were not written by themselves; certainly not five per cent of the whole number were signed with a mark, and many of these were evidently Irish. It was impossible to go through the mills, and notice the respectable appearance and becoming and modest deportment of the "factory girls," without forming a very favourable estimate of their character and position in society. But it would be difficult indeed for a passing observer to rate them so high as they are proved to be by the statistics of the place. The female operatives are generally boarded in houses built and owned by the "corporations" for whom they work, and which are placed under the superintendence of matrons of exemplary character, and skilled in housewifery, who pay a low rent for the houses, and provide all necessaries for their inmates, over whom they exercise a general oversight, receiving about one dollar and one-third from each per week. Each of these houses accommodates from thirty to fifty young women, and there is a wholesome rivalry among the mistresses which shall make their inmates most comfortable. We visited one of the boarding houses, and were highly plessed with its arrangement. A considerable number of the factory girls are farmers' daughters, and come hither from the distant States of Vermont and New Hampshire, et cet., to work for two, three, or four years, when they return to their native hills, dowered with a little capital of their own earnings. The factory operatives at Lowell form a commu- nity that commands the respect of the neighbourbood, and of all under whose observation they come. No female of an immoral character could remain a week in any of the mills. The superintendent of the Boote Corporation informed me, that, during the five and a half years of his superintendence of that factory, employing about nine hundred and fifty young women, he had known of but one case of an illegitimate birth-and the mother was an Irish "immigrant." Any male or female employed, who was known to be in a state of inebriety, would be at once dismissed.  
At the suggestion of the benevolent and intelligent superintendent of the Boote Company, we waited to see the people turn out to dinner, at half-past twelve o'clock. We stood in a position where many hundreds passed under our review, whose dress, and quiet and orderly demeanour, would have done credit to any congregation breaking up from their place of worship. One of the gentlemen with me, who is from a slave State, where all labour is considered degrading, remarked, with emotion, "What would I give if-, (naming a near relative in the slave States,) could witness this only for a quarter of an hour!" We dined with one of our abolition friends at Lowell, who informed us that many hundreds of the factory girls were members of the Anti-slavery Society; and that, although activity in this cause has been pretty much suspended by the division in the ranks of its friends, yet there is no diminution of good feeling on the subject. The following extracts, from a pamphlet published by a respectable citizen of Lowell, in 1839, will further illustrate the moral statistics of the place, which, I believe, can be paralleled by no other manufacturing town in the world. The work is dated July, 1839:- 

"How shall I go to work to satisfy the reader of the high standard of morals among the female part of our population? I know of but one method, and that is, avoiding as much as possible all loose generalities, to state all such settled, ascertained, undisputed facts as bear directly on the question. 

"The amount of strictly religious influences will be best and most clearly shown, by the number of accessions to the several churches. The aggregate number of these I am not able to give, from want of the requisite materials. I have been able, however, to procure returns from nine of the fifteen churches in the city. These churches were organized at different times since the origin of the city, and the whole number of persons who have joined them by profession, amounts to five thousand five hundred and fifty nine. From eight to nine tenths of these were females, a large proportion of whom were employed in the mills. 

"There are now in the city fourteen regularly organized religious societies, besides one or two others quite recently established. Ten of these societies constitute a Sabbath School Union. Their third annual report was made on the fourth of the present month, and it has been published within a few days. I derive from it the following facts. The number of scholars connected with the ten schools at the time of making the report, was four thousand nine hundred and thirty-six, and the number of teachers was four hundred and thirty-three, making an aggregate of five thousand three hundred and sixty-nine. The number who joined the schools during the year, was three thousand seven hundred and seventy, the number who left was three thousand one hundred and twenty-nine. About three-fourths of the scholars are females. A large proportion of the latter are over fifteen years of age, and consist of girls employed in the mills. More than five hundred of these scholars have, during the last year, become personally interested in practically piety, and more than six hundred have joined themselves to the several churches. Now let it be borne in mind, that there are four or five Sunday Schools in the city, some of which are large and flourishing, not included in this statement. Let it be borne in mind, too, that a great proportion of these scholars are the factory girls, and furthermore, that these most gratifying results just given, have nothing in them extraordinary-they are only the common, ordinary results of several of the past years. 
There has been no unusual excitement; no noise, no commotion. Silently, quietly, unobtrusively, from Sabbath to Sabbath, in these little nurseries of truth, duty and religion, has the good seed been sowing and springing up-watered by the dews, and warmed by the smiles of heaven-to everlasting life. 

"I shall now proceed to enumerate some of the influences which have been most powerful in bringing about these results. Among these are the example and watchful care and oversight of the boarding house keepers, the superintendents, and the over-seers. But a power vastly more active, all pervading and efficient, than any and all of these, is to be found in the jealous and sleepless watchfulness, over each other, of the girls themselves. The strongest guardianship of their own character, as a class, is in their own hands, and they will not suffer either overseer or superintendent to be indifferent to this character with impunity. 

'`The relationship which is here established between the Sunday school scholar and her teacher-between the member of the church and her pastor-the attachments which spring up between them, are rendered close and strong by the very circumstances in which these girls are placed. These relationships and these attachments take the place of the domestic ties and the home affections, and they have something of the strength and fervency of these." 

The next extract shows their prosperity in a pecuniary point. 

"The average wages, clear of board, amount to about two dollars a week. Many an aged father or mother, in the country, is made happy and comfortable, by the self-sacrificing contributions from the affectionate and dutiful daughter here. Many an old homestead has been cleared of its encumbrances, and thus saved to the family by these liberal and honest earnings. To the many and most gratifying and cheering facts, which, in the course of this examination, I have had occasion to state, I here add a few others relating to the matter now under discussion, furnished me by Mr. CARNEY, the treasurer of the Lowell Institution for Savings. The whole number of depositors in this institution, on the 23rd July, was nineteen hundred and seventy-six; the whole amount of deposits was three hundred and five thousand seven hundred and ninety-six dollars and seventy cents (about 60,000 pounds.) Of these depositors nine hundred and seventy- eight are factory girls, and the amount of their funds now in the bank, is estimated by Mr. CARNEY, in round numbers, at one hundred thousand dollars. It is a common thing for one of these girls to have five hundred dollars in deposit, and the only reason why she does not exceed this sum is the fact, that the institution pays no interest on any larger sum than this. After reaching this amount, she invests her remaining funds elsewhere." 

In confirmation of this description of the state of the Lowell population, I have obtained, through the kindness of a friend in Massachussetts, the following parallel statistics to a recent date:-  
"PUBLIC SCHOOLS.-BY the report of the school committee for the year ending on the 5th of Fourth Month (April) 1841, it appears that the whole number of pupils in the schools, who attended during the whole or part of the year, was 5,830. The whole amount expended by the city for these schools, during the year, was 18,106 dollars, 51 cents. 

"SABBATH SCHOOLS.-The number of scholars and teachers in the Sabbath Schools, connected with the various religious societies in Lowell, during the year ending on the 5th of Seventh Month (July) 1841, was 5,493. 

"SAVINGS' BANK.-The Lowell Institution for Savings, in its report of Fifth Month (May), 1840, acknowledges 328,395 dollars, 55 cents, deposits, from 2,137 persons; together with 16,093 dollars, 29 cents net amount received for interest on loans and dividends in stocks, less expense and dividends paid- making in all, 344,488 dollars, 84 cents: net amount of interest, 24,714 dollars, 61 cents. Within the year, 120,175 dollars, 69 cents, had been deposited, and 70,384 dollars, 24 cents, drawn out. 

"PAUPERS.-The whole expense of the city for the support of the poor, during the year ending on the 31st of Twelfth Month (December) 1840, was 2,698 dollars, 61 cents."  
As a proof, slight yet significant, of the spread of intellectual cultivation, I ought not to-omit a notice of the "Lowell Offering," a little monthly magazine, consisting of original articles, written exclusively by the factory girls. The editor of the Boston Christian Examiner commends this little periodical to those who consider the factory system to be degrading and demoralizing; and expresses a doubt " whether a committee of young ladies, selected from the most refined and best educated families in any of our towns and cities, could make a fairer appearance in type than these hard-working factory girls." I have given, in the appendix, an article from this little periodical.

The city of Lowell has been distinguished by British tourists as the Manchester of the United States; but, in view of the facts above related, an American has declared it to be "not the Manchester of the United States."

APPENDIX M: Article from "The Lowell Offering, a Repository of Original Articles, written by Females employed in the Mills."

The following article from this miscellany has been selected without reference to literary merit, but as incidentally affording information respecting the origin, habits, manners, and tone of mind and morals of the "factory girls" of Lowell.


"'I will not stay in Lowell any longer; I am determined to give my notice this very day,' said Ellen Collins, as the earliest bell was tolling to remind us of the hour for labour. 

"'Why, what is the matter, Ellen? It seems to me you have dreamed out a new idea? Where do you think of going? and what for?'  
"'I am going home, where I shall not be obliged to rise so early in the morning, nor be dragged about by the ringing of a bell, nor confirmed in a close noisy room from morning till night. I will not stay here; I am determined to go home in a fortnight.' 

"'Such was our brief morning's conversation. 

"'In the evening, as I sat alone, reading, my companions having gone out to public lectures or social meetings, Ellen entered. I saw that she still wore the same gloomy expression of countenance, which had been manifested in the morning; and I was disposed to remove from her mind the evil influence, by a plain common-sense conversation. 

"'And so, Ellen,' said I, 'you think it unpleasant to rise so early in the morning, and be confined in the noisy mill so many hours during the day. And I think so, too. All this, and much more, is very annoying, no doubt. But we must not forget that there are advantages, as well as disadvantages, in this employment, as in every other. If we expect to find all sun-shine and flowers in any station in life, we shall most surely be disappointed. We are very busily engaged during the day; but then we have the evening to ourselves, with no one to dictate to or control us. I have frequently heard you say, that you would not be confined to household duties, and that you disliked the millinery business altogether, because you could not have your evenings, for leisure. You know that in Lowell we have schools, lectures, and meetings of every description, for moral and intellectual improvement.' 

"'All this is very true,' replied Ellen, 'but if we were to attend every public institution, and every evening school which offers itself for our improvement, we might spend every farthing of our earnings, and even more. Then if sickness should overtake us, what are the probable consequences? Here we are, far from kindred and home; and if we have an empty purse, we shall be destitute of friends also.' 

"'I do not think so, Ellen. I believe there is no place where there are so many advantages within the reach of the labouring class of people, as exist here; where there is so much equality, so few aristocratic distinctions, and such good fellowship, as may be found in this community. A person has only to be honest, industrious, and moral, to secure the respect of the virtuous and good, though he may not be worth a dollar; while, on the other hand, an immoral person, though he should possess wealth, is not respected.' 

"'As to the morality of the place,' returned Ellen, 'I have no fault to find. I object to the constant hurry of every thing. 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-dung of a bell-just as though we were so many living machines. I will give my notice to-morrow: go, I will- I won't stay here and be a white slave.'  
"'Ellen,' said I, 'do you remember what is said of the bee, that it gathers honey even in a poisonous flower? May we not, in like manner, if our hearts are rightly attuned, find many pleasures connected with our employment? Why is it, then, that you so obstinately look altogether on the dark side of a factory life? I think you thought differently while you were at home, on a visit, last summer-for you were glad to come back to the mill, in less than four weeks. Tell me, now-why were you so glad to return to the ringing of the bell, the clatter of the machinery, the early rising, the half- hour dinner, and so on ?' 

"I saw that my discontented friend was not in a humour to give me an answer-and I therefore went on with my talk. 

"'You are fully aware, Ellen, that a country life does not exclude people from labour-to say nothing of the inferior privileges of attending public worship-that people have often to go a distance to meeting of any kind-that books cannot be so easily obtained as they can here-that you cannot always have just such society as you wish-that you'- 

"She interrupted me, by saying-' We have no bell, with its everlasting ding-dung.' 

"'What difference does it make,' said I, 'whether you shall be awakened by a bell, or the noisy bustle of a farm-house? For, you know, farmers are generally up as early in the morning as we are obliged to rise.'

"'But there,' said Ellen, 'country people have none of the clattering of machinery constantly dinning in their ears.'

"'True,' I replied, 'but they have what is worse-and that is, a dull, lifeless silence all around them. The hens may cackle sometimes, and the geese gabble, and the pigs squeal'-

"Ellen's hearty laugh interrupted my description-and presently we proceeded, very pleasantly, to compare a country life with a factory life in Lowell. Her scowl of discontent had departed, and she was prepared to consider the subject candidly. We agreed, that since we must work for a living, the mill, all things considered, is the most pleasant, and best calculated to promote our welfare; that we will work diligently during the hours of labour; improve our leisure to the best advantage, in the cultivation of the mind,-hoping thereby not only to increase our own plessure, but also to add to the happiness of those around us.