The Lowell Mill Girls & Their Working Conditions

The Lowell Mill Girls & Their Working Conditions
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  • 0:04 Few Choices for Women…
  • 0:38 Life for the Lowell Mill Girls
  • 2:27 Criticism from the Outside
  • 3:16 Few Protections for…
  • 4:02 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Carol Cook

Carol has taught high school Government and middle school U.S. History and Global Studies and has a master's degree in teaching secondary social studies.

In the 1800s, thousands of women and young girls left their New England farms to work in Massachusetts' textile factories. Their actions broadened opportunities for women and influenced future working hours and conditions. Learn more about the Lowell Mill Girls, then test yourself.

Few Choices for Women in the 1800s

Women in 19th century America had few rights. They were not allowed to vote, and few owned property. Their education often ended before their early teens so that they could help at home, especially in rural households where there was a lot of work to do. It was expected that they would marry and continue these traditions. Those who were able earned money to support the family outside of the household by making clothing or spinning wool for more well-to-do neighbors. Teaching jobs were few and far between and were often given to men, who carried higher credentials.

In the 1810s, Francis Cabot Lowell and his associates started the Boston Manufacturing Company, a textile company along the Charles River in Massachusetts. He constructed a planned community with factories and boarding houses for the youthful and energetic women needed to run his machines. He offered good wages to encourage independent-minded farm girls to sign annual employment contracts and wrote a handbook to ensure the moral character of his community. New England girls flocked to the Lowell Mills, and by the 1840s over 8,000 were employed.

Life for the Lowell Mill Girls

At the factories, the female operatives, single women from age ten to their 40s, worked on spinning mules, large machines that turned cotton into thread at a high volume and quality. Hours were long and hard - even more so than work on the farms, with a 12- to-14-hour day that began before daybreak and ended well after sunset. The younger girls were called doffers because they doffed (or removed) the heavy bobbins of thread from the machine spindles. The doffers worked for 15 minutes of each hour, spending the remaining time in study and play.

The workers stayed in clean and well-managed dormitory-style company boarding houses. These were run by women who served as mothers to the younger girls, providing a place to eat, socialize, read, and sleep. Attendance at church on Sundays was required, and they attended performances on Sunday evenings. Girls and women formed close-knit friendships with those from other communities that lasted their entire lives. Summers were spent at home with their families. It was anticipated that workers would stay at the mills for 3-5 years, and while most did, some stayed much longer, making their careers at the mills.

Criticism from the Outside

Many Americans were aware of the poverty and squalor that workers endured in cities like London and Liverpool with the Industrial Revolution in Europe. They had heard of the moral degradation of the women in these conditions. Lowell had attempted to offset this type of situation by maintaining a moral code that restricted men from boarding houses, dictated how women dressed, and placed curfews on when they were expected home.

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