Theft, Lies and Good Intentions—The Textile Mills of Massachusetts

Lowell Textile Mills, Call the Darkness Light, Nancy ZaroulisMy reading into nineteenth century Boston and yesterday’s post about the “spendthrift trusts”reminded me of one of my favorite books.  Call the Darkness Light by Nancy Zaroulis is the engrossing story of a “Yankee mill girl” in Lawrence and Lowell, Massachusetts two decades before the Civil War.  Ms. Zaroulis’s story of Sabra Palfrey illustrates how the money was made to fund the trusts and shows the other side of Beacon Hill wealth.

Textile manufacturing was one of the great industries in New England at that time, and it grew rapidly to fill the need for clothing to cover the country’s burgeoning population, the waves of new immigrants coming to our shores, and the slaves who picked the cotton that the mills turned into cloth.

The textile industry was based on four things:

  • TheftSamuel Slater’sindustrial espionage that memorized the workings of British textile technology and carried it back to America.  He helped set up the first water-powered mill in Slatersville, RI in 1790.
  • Lies—When the owners bought the prime land in what was then Chelmsford, near the 30-foot waterfall that would power the Lowell mill, they told the farmers they were buying it for a hunting preserve, a place to shoot waterfowl.No big, ugly, noisy, stinky mill here, no sir!
  • Greed—The fortunes remained with the proprietors of the mills.The workers were paid but a dollar or two a week.Well, they were just women after all, and of no great consequence.
  • Good Intentions—These early capitalists wanted nothing to do with the semi-slavery that characterized mills in Manchester and Birmingham, England.  They wanted to prove that factory work could be decent work that could also turn a profit. It was a revolutionary idea for its time.

    Lowell Textile Mill

    Lowell Textile Mill Today

    Despite the owners’ best intentions, the reality or working in the mills was not quite the utopian vision they had created; one in which, “No girl need fear to go there; no father need fear that his virgin would come home deflowered, spoiled for the prospect of marriage.”  But, like the spendthrift trusts that would later shackle young Beacon Hill gentlemen, it had unintended consequences.  The unusual combination of greed and good intentions produced something totally unpredictable.

The young women of Yankee New England came to work in these new factories by the thousands.  They walked down from the hilltop farms of Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine to find independence by working on the looms in Lawrence and Lowell, Massachusetts.  To them, the mills were a godsend.  Life on the farms was one of drudgery, working morning until night at hard, dirty and thankless tasks for which they were paid nothing.  They had no privacy and no rights and the only future they could look forward to was marrying another farmer and performing the same drudgery in his house while bearing his children.  They probably, although Zaroulis does not speak of it, also faced the difficulty of being snowed in to remote farmhouses with fathers and brothers who had their own ideas of what the women in their family owed them.
Yankee mill girls, Lowell textile mills, The Lowell OfferingThe New England of the day operated with rigid social codes, particularly in regard to women, whose lives, “were severely limited: no vote, little education, few property rights, virtually no legal existence in that patriarchal society.”  

Ms. Zaroulis explains that the Industrial Revolution in America was also a short-lived revolution in the lives of women.  The “Lowell Experiment” allowed them, for the first time to earn their own money while living independently of fathers, brothers and husbands, with “perfect propriety.”

Ms. Zaroulis explains that, “This was something new in the life of the nation, and while it soon disappeared as the women were driven from their jobs by repeated wage cuts and increasingly harsh working conditions, that period, rather than the War for Independence from Great Britain a half century before, marks the true beginnings of women’s emancipation in the United States.”

More on the consequences of working conditions and wage cuts in the textile mills of Massachusetts tomorrow.  In the meantime, I recommend reading Call the Darkness Light.  You’ll enjoy it.