While some factories employed entire families, the early New England textile mills relied largely on female and child labor. At Lowell, the most famous center of early textile manufacturing, young unmarried women from Yankee farm families dominated the workforce that tended the spinning machines. To persuade parents to allow their daughters to leave home to work in the mills, Lowell owners set up boarding houses with strict rules regulating personal behavior. They also established lecture halls, churches, and even a periodical edited by factory workers, the Lowell Offering, to occupy the women’s free time.

Women at work tending machines in the Lowell textile mills.

A photograph from around 1860 of four anonymous working women. Their stance and gaze suggest a spirit of independence.

The constant supervision of the workers’ private lives seems impossibly restrictive from a modern point of view. But this was the first time in history that large numbers of women left their homes to participate in the public world. Most valued the opportunity to earn money independently at a time when few other jobs were open to women. Home life, Lucy Larcom later recalled, was narrow and confining, while living and working at Lowell gave the “mill girls” a “larger, firmer idea of womanhood,” teaching them “to go out of themselves and enter into the lives of others... It was like a young man’s pleasure in entering upon business for himself.” But women like Larcom did not become a permanent class of factory workers. They typically remained in the factories for only a few years, after which they left to return home, marry, or move west. Larcom herself migrated to Illinois, where she became a teacher and writer. The shortage of industrial labor continued, easing only when large-scale immigration began in the 1840s and 1850s.

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