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Lowell History: Visitor Observations 1827-1913

Observations of Lowell by A Working Women, 1867


To the Editor of the Boston Daily Evening Voice 
February 23, 1867

Thirty years [1837] ago I was a factory girl in the city of Lowell. I was ambitious to do something for myself in the way of earning money to pay my expenses at an Academy; and being too young to teach school in the country, not strong enough to do housework or learn a trade I went into the card-room on the Tremont Corporation. My work was easy; I could sit down part of the time, and received ($1.75) one dollar and seventy-five cents per week beside my board. Being fond of reverie, and in the habit of constructing scenes and building castles in the air, I enjoyed factory life very well.

After a few months my parents removed from a country town to Lowell, and I went to board with them on the street, and then I began seriously to reflect on the realities of life.

For a delicate girl of fourteen years of age to be called out of bed and be obliged to eat her breakfast without any light, and then frequently wallow through the snow to the factory, stay there until half-past twelve, then run home and swallow her dinner without mastication, run back and stay there until half-past seven, is, to say the least, very unpleasant and unnatural, and exceedingly hurtful to the constitution.

I attended school three months during the following summer; then worked about eighteen months longer in the factory; afterwards worked in the weave-room, in all three years, but only about six months at a time, as my health would not allow me to work longer. The labor of attending three or four looms thirteen hours per day, with no time for recreation or mental improvement is very severe.

The habit of standing on the feet frequently produces varicose veins; and though the girls seldom complain, for they know it is useless, yet it is a fact that factory girls are great sufferers in this respect.

In those days the morals of the girls were well guarded, and they were generally treated respectfully by the overseers, and I think lived well on the corporations.

They were generally daughters of our New England farmers and mechanics, some of them were well educated. Many of them had learned trades. Some of them were of a literary turn and [got] up improvement circles. And I will say in truth that if the hours of labor had been only eight instead of thirteen, I should prefer working in the mill to house work, enjoyed the society of the girls, and the noise of the machinery was not displeasing to me; but after one has worked from daylight until dark, the prospect of working two or three hours more by lamp light is very discouraging.

In 1849 I was thrown into the society of several young women who were daughters of mill owners; and the contrast between their condition and that of the operatives was so great that it led me to serious reflection on the injustice of society. These girls had an abundance of leisure, could attend school when and where they pleased, were fashionably dressed, were not obliged to work any except when they pleased; indeed, they suffered for want of exercise; and while they were so tenderly cared for, lest the “winds of heaven should visit their faces too roughly,” the operatives toiled on through summer's heat and winter's cold; many passing into an early grave in consequence of protracted labor, and many others making themselves invalids for life.

For one, I could never see the justice of one set of girls working all the time in order that another set should live in ease and idleness. Cowper says, “I would not have a slave to till my ground, to fan me while I sleep, and tremble when I wake, for all the wealth that sinews bought and sold have ever earned.” But many of our people in Massachusetts are quite willing to make fat dividends on the labor of anybody they can hire, widows and orphans, boys and girls of tender age; and when they cannot obtain American girls, they send across the ocean for operatives, and then allow them just enough to keep them from starvation.

I am satisfied from my own experience, as well as from observation of the working classes for many years, that nothing can be done for their education or elevation, until the hours of labor are reduced. After one has worked from ten to fourteen hours at manual labor, it is impossible to study History, Philosophy, or Science.

I well remember the chagrin I often felt when attending lectures, to find myself unable to keep awake; or perhaps so far from the speaker on account of being late, that the ringing in my ears caused by the noise of the looms during the day, prevented my hearing scarcely a sentence he uttered. I am sure few possessed a more ardent desire for knowledge than I did, but such was the effect of the long hour system, that my chief delight was, after the evening meal, to place my aching feet in any easy position, and read a novel. I was never too tired, however, to listen to the lectures given by the friends of Labor Reform, such as John Allen, John C. Cluer or Mike Walsh. I assisted in getting signers to a Ten Hour petitions to the Legislature, and since I have resided in Boston and vicinity have seen and enjoyed the good results of that improvement in the condition of the working classes.