Friday, December 11, 2020

1845 Report of Labor Conditions at Lowell, MA Textile Mills

In 1775, the American Manufactory at Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, introduced to America the spinning jenny, a machine for spinning thread. In 1814, a Waltham, Massachusetts, factory became the 1st American site with a power loom for the mechanized weaving of cloth.  During the 1800s, textile manufacture became the largest American industry, employing millions of people, mostly women and children.  The earliest textile manufacturer in the United States, such as the Slater Mill in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, employed mostly children. Child labor was generally accepted in the 1700s-1800s, since children were already accustomed to working long hours on their families’ farms.  Certain of the working conditions — such as 12 to 14 hour workdays 6 days a week for both adult & child workers; low wages; deafening noise; dangerous machinery; unhealthful air; & overcrowded housing— prompted growing criticism of workers’ exploitation as the century progressed.

Massachusetts House Investigation into Labor Conditions 1845

The Special Committee to which was referred sundry petitions relating to the hours of labor, have considered the same and submit the following Report:

... On the 13th of February, the Committee held a session to hear the petitioners from the city of Lowell. Six of the female and three of the male petitioners were present, and gave in their testimony.

... Miss Sarah G. Bagely said she had worked in the Lowell Mills eight years and a half, six years and a half on the Hamilton Corporation, and two years on the Middlesex. She is a weaver, and works by the piece. She worked in the mills three years befo re her health began to fail. She is a native of New Hampshire, and went home six weeks during the summer. Last year she was out of the mill a third of the time. She thinks the health of the operatives is not so good as the health of females who do house-w ork or millinery business. The chief evil, so far as health is concerned, is the shortness of time allowed for meals. The next evil is the length of time employed -not giving them time to cultivate their minds. She spoke of the high moral and intellectual character of the girls. That many were engaged as teachers in the Sunday schools. That many attended the lectures of the Lowell Institute; and she thought, if more time was allowed, that more lectures would be given and more girls attend. She thought tha t the girls generally were favorable to the ten hour system. She had presented a petition, same as the one before the Committee, to 132 girls, most of whom said that they would prefer to work but ten hours. In a pecuniary point of view, it would be better , as their health would be improved. They would have more time for sewing. Their intellectual, moral and religious habits would also be benefited by the change. Miss Bagely said, in addition to her labor in the mills, she had kept evening school during th e winter months, for four years, and thought that this extra labor must have injured her health.

... From Mr. Clark, the agent of the Merrimack Corporation, we obtained the following table of the time which the mills run during the year.

Begin work.
From 1st May to 31st August, at 5o clock.
From 1st September to 30th April, as soon as they can see.
From 1st November to 28th February, before going to work.
From 1st March to 31st of March, at 7 ¼ o'clock.
From 1st April to 19th September, at seven o'clock.
From 20th September to 31st October, at 71/2 o'clock. Return in h alf an hour.
Through the year at 12 ½ o'clock.
From 1st May to 31st August, return in 45 minutes.
From October, at 7 ½ o'clock.
Return in half an hour.
Through the year at l2 ½ o'clock.
From 1st May to 31st August, return in 45 minutes.
From 1st September to 30th April, return in 30 minutes.
Quit work.
From 1st May to 31st August, at 7 o'clock.
From 1st September to 19th September, at dark.
From 20th September to 19th March, at 7 ½ o'clock.
From 20th March to 30th April, at dark.
Lamps are never lighted on Saturday evenings. The above is the time which is kept in all the mills in Lowell, with a slight difference in the machine shop; and it makes the average daily time throughout the year, of running the mills, to be twelve hour s and ten minutes.

There are four days in the year which are observed as holidays, and on which the mills are never put in motion. These are Fast Day, Fourth of July, Thanksgiving Day, and Christmas Day. These make one day more than is usually devoted to pastime in any o ther place in New England.

A Description of Factory Life by an Investigator in 1846
We have lately visited the cities of Lowell and Manchester, and have had an opportunity of examining the factory system more closely than before. We had distrusted the accounts, which we had heard from persons engaged in the Labor Reform, now beginning to agitate New England; we could scarcely credit the statements made in relation to the exhausting nature of the labor in the mills, and to the manner in which the young women, the operatives, lived in their boarding-houses, six sleeping in a room, poorl y ventilated.

We went through many of the mills, talked particularly to a large number of the operatives, and ate at their boarding-houses, on purpose to ascertain by personal inspection the facts of the case. We assure our readers that very little information is po ssessed, and no correct judgments formed, by the public at large, of our factory system, which is the first germ of the Industrial or Commercial Feudalism, that is to spread over our land.

In Lowell live between seven and eight thousand young women, who are generally daughters of farmers of the different States of New England; Some of them are members of families that were rich the generation before.

The operatives work thirteen hours a day in the summer time, and from daylight to dark in the winter. At half past four in the morning the factory bell rings, and at five the girls must be in the mills. A clerk, placed as a watch, observes those who a re a few minutes behind the time, and effectual means are taken to stimulate to punctuality. This is the morning commencement of the industrial discipline- (should we not rather say industrial tyranny?) which is established in these Associations of this m oral and Christian community. At seven the girls are allowed thirty minutes for breakfast, and at noon thirty minutes more for dinner, except during the first quarter of the year, when the time is extended to forty-five minutes. But within this time they must hurry to their boarding-houses and return to the factory, and that through the hot sun, or the rain and cold. A meal eaten under such circumstances must be quite unfavorable to digestion and health, as any medical man will inform us. At seven o'clock in the evening the factory bell sounds the close of the days work.

Thus thirteen hours per day of close attention and monotonous labor are exacted from the young women in these manufactories. . . So fatigued-we should say, exhausted and worn out but we wish to speak of the system in the simplest language-are numbers o f the girls, that they go to bed soon after their evening meal? and endeavor by a comparatively long sleep to resuscitate their weakened frames for the toils of the coming day. When Capital has got thirteen hours of labor daily out of a being, it can get nothing more. It could be a poor speculation in an industrial point of view to own the operative; for the trouble and expense of providing for times of sickness and old age could more than counterbalance the difference between the price of wages and the e xpense of board and clothing. The far greater number of fortunes, accumulated by the North in comparison with the South, shows that hireling labor is more profitable for Capital than slave labor.

Now let us examine the nature of the labor itself, and the conditions under which it is performed. Enter with us into the large rooms, when the looms are at work. The largest that we saw is in the Amoskeag Mills at Manchester. It is four hundred feet l ong, and about seventy broad; there are five hundred looms, and twenty-one thousand spindles in it. The din and clatter of these five hundred looms under full operation, struck us on first entering as something frightful and infernal, for it seemed such a n atrocious violation of one of the faculties of the human soul, the sense of hearing. After a while we became somewhat inured to it, and by speaking quite close to the ear of an operative and quite loud, we could hold a conversation, and make the inquiri es we wished.

The girls attend upon an average three looms; many attend four, but this requires a very active person, and the most unremitting care. However, a great many do it. Attention to two is as much as should be demanded of an operative. This gives us some id ea of the application required during the thirteen hours of daily laborer. The atmosphere of such a room cannot of course be pure; on the contrary it is charged with cotton filaments and dust, which, we were told, are very injurious to the lungs. On entering the room, although the day was warm, we remarked that the windows were down; we asked the reason, and a young woman answered very naively, and without seeming to be in the least aware that this privation of fresh air was anything else than perfectly n atural, that "when the wind blew, the threads did not work so well." After we had been in the room for fifteen or twenty minutes, we found ourselves, as did the persons who accompanied us, in quite a perspiration, produced by a certain moisture which we o bserved in the air, as well as by the heat.

The young women sleep upon an average six in room; three beds to a room. There is no privacy, no retirement here; it is almost impossible to read or write alone, as the parlor is full and so many sleep in the same chamber. A young woman remarked to us , that if she had a letter to write, she did it on the head of a band-box, sitting on a trunk, as there was not space for a table. So live and toil the young women of our country in the boarding-houses and manufactories, which the rich and influential of our land have built for them.

The Editor of the Courier and Enquirer has often accused the Associationists of wishing to reduce men "to herd together like beasts of the field." We would ask him whether he does not find as much of what may be called "herding together in these modern industrial Associations, established by men of his own kidney as he thinks would exist in one of the Industrial Phalanxes, which we propose.

For further research into New England mill workers...

See the magazine American Ancestors: New England, New York, and Beyond published by the New England Historic Genealogical Society. Their Volume 14, Number 1, Winter 2013 focues on Researching the Lives of Nineteenth-Century New England Mill Workers.

Online sources for further study...

The Center for Lowell History regularly adds primary records and secondary sources to its website.

Especially useful website features include Mill Life in Lowell, 1820–1880, a collection of links to specific topics; the Lowell Corporation Hospital Association Registry of Patients, 1840–1887; and the Lowell Institute for Savings Bank Records, 1829–1992.

The Harvard University Library, through its Open Collections Program “Women Working, 1800–1930”, has available published texts, manuscripts, & images — a number of which relate to the textile industry & its workers.

You might wish to contact Judith A. Ranta, PhD, who has written books and articles about nineteenth-century American mill workers, including Women and Children of the Mills (1999) and The Life and Writings of Betsey Chamberlain: Native American Mill Worker (2003). She can be reached at