Lowell Mill Girls Organize

Early Women's Unions

Historic Lowell
Historic Lowell. Denis Tangney Jr / Getty Images

In Massachusetts, the Lowell family's textile mills worked to attract the unmarried daughters of farm families, expecting them to work a few years before marriage. These young women factory workers were termed " Lowell Mill Girls." Their average length of employment was three years.

The factory owners and managers tried to allay family fears of allowing daughters to live away from home. The mills sponsored boarding houses and dormitories with strict rules, and sponsored cultural activities including a magazine, Lowell Offering.

But working conditions were far from ideal. In 1826, an anonymous Lowell Mill worker wrote

In vain do I try to soar in fancy and imagination above the dull reality around me but beyond the roof of the factory I cannot rise.

As early as the 1830s, some mill workers used literary outlets to write of their discontent. The working conditions were difficult, and few girls stayed a long time, even if they did not leave to get married.

In 1844, Lowell Mill factory workers organized the Lowell Female Labor Reform Association (LFLRA) to press for better pay and working conditions. Sarah Bagley became the first President of the LFLRA. Bagley testified about the working conditions before the Massachusetts house that same year. When the LFLRA was unable to bargain with the owners, they joined with the New England Workingmen's Association. Despite its lack of significant effect, the LFLRA was the first organization of working women in the United States to try to bargain collectively for better conditions and higher pay.

In the 1850s, economic downturns led the factories to pay lower wages, add more hours and eliminate some of the amenities. Irish immigrant women replaced the American farm girls on the factory floor.

Some notable women who worked in the Lowell Mills:

  • Sarah Bagley: Lowell Female Labor Reform Association organizer, first woman telegrapher
  • Lucy Larcom: poet
  • Harriet Hanson Robinson: abolitionist and suffragist
  • Margaret F. Foley: sculptor

Some writings from the Lowell Mill workers: