Cotton spinning existed long before the industrial revolutions started in the United States. There were spinning systems already built but it was not until the year 1814 when Francis Cabot Lowell and Paul Moody invented the first power loom that included an improved spinning frame did the factory system of America begin. With this new machinery, all aspects of the manufacturing of cloth were now done in the same location. This included the spinning of yarn all the way to cloth weaving. This new loom was powered by water, as such the textile mills were located by the many rivers of New England (Strickland).
The town of Lowell Massachusetts was incorporated in the year 1826. At the time, the towns population totaled 2,300 people, 2,000 of which worked in the textile factories (“Timeline”). In 8 years there were 19 textile mills in Lowell due to the fact that capital, water power and labor were available. Indeed men and women came from everywhere to work here (Strickland). The influx of workers was so great that by 1850 the population had grown to 33,000 people, 10,000 of whom worked in the textile mills (Fitzsimons). The industrial revolution had begun in earnest.
Majority of those hired were women. This is because the work was broken down into simple steps, such that young children could do it too. While men were needed for the more difficult tasks of such as picking, carding, in the watch force and repair shop, the women were better at spinning, speeding, weaving drawing and dressing which was the majority of work needed. In a regular textile mill the ratio of women to men was 40 to 1 with 2 boys to assist the men (Dublin). In order to get the parents to release their young and unmarried daughters into their care, factory agents had to convince them that the girls would be protected. As such, they built boardinghouses where their workers were housed and fed at a fee. These boarding houses had rules to govern them that included curfews, regulations of who could visit and what time as well as rules on how they were to conduct themselves. Additionally, every one was to attend church on a regular basis or risk being thrown out. They were same sex dormitories to protect the girl’s virtue. (Wayne 35). The rooms were often small and over crowded. One was described as having 3 beds and 6 girls occupying it which meant that they shared beds. There was no privacy whatsoever for these girls (“Factory rules”).
Life at working at the mills was not at all easy. The working conditions were terrible and the work hours too long. Often they were expected to be at the mill before first light and retire after dark. They worked from 5 am to 7 pm with little over an hour’s break all day. This meant that they worked approximately 13 hour days. Additionally, the looms were noisy and one had to yell over the din to be heard. Spending that much time in such a noisy environment was bound to take a toll on their hearing in later years. While the girls worked, they kept the windows shut as the blowing wind would cause the threads to be frayed; as such the room was not well ventilated. Coupled with the poor ventilation were dust and cotton filaments that filled the room as the girls worked which was bad for their lungs (“Factory rules”).
The close quarters in which they worked and lived meant that any diseases caught by one could easily be passed around. The danger was escalated by the influx of new workers that poured into Lowell in search of work. Because of this, the owners had a doctor come in once a month to vaccinate those who had just been hired and were living at the boarding houses this was done at the expense of the company (“Factory rules”). In these conditions, the workers faced a danger to their hearing from the noise, lung infections from the dust and cotton filaments, and were constantly exposed to disease from incoming workers. This coupled with exhaustion from working long hours was sure to be hazardous to their health.
In 1834, there was an announcement made that their wages would be cut by 15%. This led to a protest by the women who realized that much money was made from their labor yet their wages were to be cut. What they did not realize was that over production had become a problem as many went into the textile business to cash in on the fortunes. Because of this, the price of the finished product dropped and the high profits to which the managers and owners were accustomed became a thing of the past. As the profits declined, the conditions at the mill did too and in a bid to salvage the profit margins wages were cut. At the same time, pressure was put on the workers to produce more. This created much tension at the mills resulting in the strikes that followed (Dublin).
The strike of 1834 was among the first strikes by women. It was triggered by the cut in wages. Although about 800 women refused to report to work for a few days, the Mill owners did not change their position and the ladies ended up back at the mills working at the lower wage (Lavendar). The reason the women went on strike was first because the wage cuts undermined both their social equality and their sense of dignity. Additionally, they viewed the reduction in wage as a direct attack on their independence (Dublin) The strike that followed two years late in 1836 garnered even more participation with up to 2000 women out in protest. They wanted improved working conditions and shorter working hours. This strike was better timed in that the cotton market had picked up and operators were few. Because of this they got better results than in the first one. (Lavendar).
Between the years 1843 and 1848 the mill girls began petitioning for fewer hours at the mills (Dublin). They were petitioning for 10 hour work days. This led to more protests and strikes until in the year 1853 the Lowell textile corporation agreed to 11 hrs (“Timeline”). Later on the 10 hour workday was made into law (Robinson).
Regardless of the petitions and strikes, their working conditions did not change much at all. In fact due to an influx of Irish settlers in 1847 (“Timeline”) as well as French Canadians, most of them were replaced with these less skilled workers. They were poor and needed any work they could find therefore taking lower wages. Additionally, they did not require the boarding houses provided for the Native Americans or entertainment. The boarding houses were then converted to apartments that brought a tidy sum for the mill owners (Wayne 35). The Irish immigrants did not complain about the poor working conditions, anything was better than the famine ridden country they had just fled.
Many of the displaced workers went back home to their parents farms. There were no special provisions made for them. In fact, people who led strikes at this time were considered trouble makers and it was good riddance for their employers. It took a long time for any kind of labor laws to be put in place. The labor wars went on for many decades. Strikes, petitions and law suits were filled with wins and defeats being the norm before any real changes could be seen.
The industrial revolution was great for America but it came with many challenges of its own. Initially, the textile agents and workers had a hard time convincing parents to let their girls come to work at the mills. In fact, they traveled far and wide, as far as Canada, to get workers for the mills and were paid per head (Robinson). In order to earn their parents trust, they set up boarding houses for the girls to live in as they worked, for a small fee that was directly cut from their salaries. These houses had rules and regulations that ensured that morality was upheld in its strictest form. As challenges in the industry were felt, competition became a problem and profits dropped. To counter this change, mill owners and managers had to cut costs. This took the form of wage cuts, poor working conditions; girls had to man more that one machine at a time which was very taxing (“Factory rules”). Additionally, the boarding houses were overcrowded and with little ventilation. The conditions in the factory were not much better with windows shut all day, cotton filaments and dust blowing as well as the great noise from all the machinery. This coupled with long working hours led to poor health conditions for the workers. These changes led to strikes in 1834 and 1836 as well as many more thereafter in a bid to get their working conditions better. When the Irish famine of the 1840s led to the influx of poor Irish workers into the US, many mill workers found themselves displaced with no provisions made for them. Lowell led the industrialization period, especially the textile industry, which later moved to the South (Strickland). It played a great role in the industrialization of America with many lessons learned by other states and industries.
Much good came from the challenges faced in Lowell and other early industrialization areas. Labor laws were put in place as the labor industry continued to develop that took into consideration the plight of the worker and not just that of the owner. Benefits that we enjoy today like minimum wage, no child labor, an eight hour work day, and governed work breaks and work environments are a result of battles fought and won by forerunners like the Lowell Mill workers. Today’s workers have much to thank them for.
Dublin, T. “Women, Work, and Protest in the Early Lowell Mills: The Oppressing Hand of Avarice Would Enslave Us”. Labor History, 16, 99-116. Abingdon Oxfordshire: Carfax Publishing Limited, 1975. Retrieved March 23, 2009. http://invention.smithsonian.org/centerpieces/whole_cloth/u2ei/u2materials/dublin.html
“Factory Rules from the Handbook to Lowell, 1848”. The Illinois Labor History Society. Retrieved March 23, 2009. http://www.kentlaw.edu/ilhs/lowell.html
Fitzsimons, G. “Mill Life in Lowell 1820-1880: Introduction”. Retrieved March 23, 2009. http://library.uml.edu/clh/mo.htm
Lavendar, C. (1997, October 22). “Lowell Mill Girls and the Rhetoric of Women’s Labor Unrest”. Department of History, the College of Staten Island of the City University of New York. Retrieved on March 23, 2009. http://www.library.csi.cuny.edu/dept/history/lavender/lowstr.html
Robinson, H. “Lowell Mill Girls”. Fordham University. Retrieved March 23, 2009. http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/robinson-lowell.html
Strickland, N. “A History of Cotton Mills and the Industrial Revolution”, 2007. Retrieved March 23, 2009. http://narvellstrickland1.tripod.com/cottonmillhistory2/index1.html
Wayne, T. K. Women’s Role in Nineteenth-Century America. Westport: Greenwood Press, 2007
“Timeline”. Tsongas Industrial History Centre. Retrieved March 23, 2009. http://www.uml.edu/tsongas/MGIRL/timeline/index.htm