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 young women employed in an innovative system of labor in textile mills centered in Lowell, Massachusetts during the early 19th century.

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

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

Lowell System Employed Young Women

Francis Cabot Lowell founded the Boston Manufacturing Company, prompted by the increased demand for cloth during the War of 1812. Using 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 but 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. 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 also an opportunity to assert some independence from their families despite being paid less than men.

The company set up boardinghouses to provide safe places for the women employees to live and imposed a strict moral code.

Lowell Became Center of Industry

Francis Cabot Lowell died in 1817. His colleagues continued the company and built a larger and improved mill along the Merrimack River in a town 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.

However, the efforts at organized labor were not successful. In the late 1830s, the housing rates for the female mill workers were raised. 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

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 The Lowell Offering. The magazine was published from 1840 to 1845 and sold for six-and-one-fourth cents a copy. It contained 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 positive. 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 impressed at the conditions of the mills in Lowell. He was also impressed by The Lowell Offering.

But one operator, reading of Dickens' impressions, responded in The Voice of Industry newspaper, "Very pretty picture, but we who work in the factory know the sober reality to be quite another thing altogether."

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 10 hours, tensions between workers and management became inflamed and the magazine was shut down.

Immigration Ended Lowell System

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 could 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.

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Your Citation
McNamara, Robert. "Lowell Mill Girls." ThoughtCo, Sep. 9, 2021, thoughtco.com/lowell-mill-girls-1773332. McNamara, Robert. (2021, September 9). Lowell Mill Girls. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/lowell-mill-girls-1773332 McNamara, Robert. "Lowell Mill Girls." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/lowell-mill-girls-1773332 (accessed May 30, 2023).