Lowell Mill Girls

Photograph of a restored textile mill in Lowell, Massachusetts
Restored textile mill in Lowell, Massachusetts. Paul Marotta/Getty Images

The Lowell Mill Girls were female workers in early 19th century America, young women employed in an innovative system of labor in textile mills centered in Lowell, Massachusetts.

The employment of women in a factory was novel to the point of being revolutionary. And the system of labor in the Lowell mills became widely admired because the young women were housed in an environment which was not only safe but reputed to be culturally advantageous.

The young women were encouraged to engage in educational pursuits while not working, and they even contributed articles to a magazine, the Lowell Offering. 

The Lowell System of Labor Employed Young Women

Francis Cabot Lowell founded the Boston Manufacturing Company, prompted by the increased demand for cloth during the War of 1812. Utilizing the latest technology, he built a factory in Massachusetts which used water power to run machines that processed raw cotton into finished fabric.

The factory needed workers, and Lowell wanted to avoid using child labor, which was commonly used in fabric mills in England. The workers did not need to be physically strong, as the work was not strenuous. However, the workers had to be fairly intelligent to master the complicated machinery.

The solution was to hire young women. In New England, there were a number of girls who had some education, in that they could read and write. And working in the textile mill seemed like a step up from working on the family farm.

Working at a job and earning wages was an innovation in the early decades of the 19th century, when many Americans still worked on family farms or at small family businesses.

And for young women at the time, it was considered a great adventure to be able to assert some independence from their families.

The company set up boardinghouses to provide safe places for the women employees to live, and also imposed a strict moral code. Instead of it being thought scandalous for women to work in a factory, the mill girls were actually considered respectable.

Lowell Became the Center of Industry

Francis Cabot Lowell, the founder of the Boston Manufacturing Company, died in 1817. But his colleagues continued the company and built a larger and improved mill along the Merrimack River in a town which they renamed in Lowell's honor.

In the 1820s and 1830s, Lowell and its mill girls became fairly famous. In 1834, faced with increased competition in the textile business, the mill cut the worker's wages, and the workers responded by forming the Factory Girls Association, an early labor union.

The efforts at organized labor were not successful, however. In the late 1830s, the housing rates for the female mill workers were raised, and they attempted to hold a strike, but it did not succeed. They were back on the job within weeks.

Mill Girls and Their Cultural Programs Were Famous

The mill girls became known for engaging in cultural programs centered around their boardinghouses. The young women tended to read, and discussions of books were a common pursuit.

The women also began publishing their own magazine, the Lowell Magazine. The magazine was published from 1840 to 1845, and sold for six cents a copy. The content poems and autobiographical sketches, which were usually published anonymously, or with the authors identified solely by their initials. The mill owners essentially controlled what appeared in the magazine, so the articles tended to be a positive nature. Yet the magazine's very existence was seen as evidence of a positive work environment. 

When Charles Dickens, the great Victorian novelist, visited the United States in 1842, he was taken to Lowell to see the factory system. Dickens, who had seen the horrible conditions of British factories up close, was very impressed at the conditions of the mills in Lowell. He was also impressed by the publication issued by the mill workers.

The Lowell Offering ceased publication in 1845, when tensions between the workers and the mill owners increased. Over the last year of publication the magazine had published material that was not entirely positive, such as an article which pointed out that loud machinery in the mills could damage a worker's hearing. When the magazine promoted the cause of a workday shortened to ten hours, tensions between workers and management became inflamed and the magazine was shut down.

Immigration Brought the End of the Lowell System of Labor

In the mid-1840s, the Lowell workers organized the Female Labor Reform Association, which tried to bargain for improved wages. But the Lowell System of Labor was essentially undone by increased immigration to the United States.

Instead of hiring local New England girls to work in the mills, the factory owners discovered they would hire newly arrived immigrants. The immigrants, many of whom had come from Ireland, fleeing the Great Famine, were content to find any work at all, even for relatively low wages.