Women, morality, and factory work


The early factories in
America were in fact very different than the
factories of Britain. Though both focused on the
production of textiles, they nonetheless had a different
economic and moral underpinning. In America, there had
been a long tradition of women going out to work,
especially young daughters, moving from farm to farm, from family
to family, earning a little extra money and getting out of their mother’s hair. When the first factories started in
the US, especially in Massachusetts, these older patterns of daughters
moving from house to house became part of the way in which the
first factory workers went to work. These women of the farm
went to the factory, where they were expected to
maintain the same level of virtue as they had when they went
to other families’ households back in the country. This was crucial. No one expected to work
in a factory forever. All these young women expected to
go off and get married and enter into a normal sense of what they
considered to be family households. These new mills were very
different than the ones in Britain. People like Frances Cabot Lowell and
other prominent Boston industrialists really focused on maintaining
the moral order of the factories as much as the productivity
of the factories. This sense of wanting to replicate
Britain in terms of productivity but maintain American virtue,
especially the virtue of young women, who were the foundation of their
ideas of Republican motherhood, were… it was crucial to
the way in which Americans organized the very first factories. After the success of
the factory in Waltham, prominent Boston industrialists
wanted to expand their operation. But they didn’t want to
maintain the same company. This hearkened back to older
ideas of merchant capitalism, wherein every single
venture was created anew. And so people got together. And in 1823, they founded a new
company, the Merrimack Company in Lowell, Massachusetts. Now, Lowell was a ramshackle
before they got there. And they renamed the city for
their friend, Francis Cabot Lowell, who had been so instrumental
at the Waltham factory. This company in Lowell,
the Merrimack Company, was different than the earlier factory. It focused not only on the production
of certain kinds of textiles, but also in the production of the
machines that made the textiles, which allowed for a rapid expansion of
the industry surrounding Lowell. So it was not just one
company, but many companies. And the experience of the workers
in Lowell in the 1820s and 1830s could not have been more
different than the experience of the same textile workers in Britain. As Charles Dickens toured the
factories in 1842, he wrote in his book American Notes on the evident health
and moral fiber of the young women who worked there comparing
it favorably with, quote, “those great haunts of
desperate misery in his own country.” After all, 1,000 women had saved
nearly $100,000 in the local back. Young women after work
performed on the pianoforte. They studied at the local libraries. They had wonderful organizations. And of course, they attended
church every single Sunday. The local working women
even had their own magazine with stories of moral uplift
and virtue, the Lowell Offering. In every way that was observable, these
women were part of the factory system for a little while and then returned
to their own lives back in the country, having saved a little
money either for a dowry or for a brother needed to buy land. Of course, it’s hard to get into trouble
when you’re working 12 hours a day on a power loom, making sure that
all the different threads come in and fabric comes out. The work was incredibly monotonous. The work was incredibly isolating. It was loud. It was noisy. In the summer, it was hot. In the winter, it was cold. This was nothing like
the normal kind of work that people had done
on farms in households, where you would yes, go
and weave cloth together. You would also gossip, you
would take care of children, you would engage in
idleness whenever possible. This new factory work
demanded not just a new kind of productivity from workers,
but also a routinization of what they did,
making it more constant and repetitive and
monotonous and boring. That’s after all what
people got paid for. That’s how you could draw people in. But no one wanted to spend a life there. The very success of
the Merrimack Company was also the undoing
of this moral order. As more and more workers
crowded into Lowell, as more and more factories opened, there
was a competition for these markets. What had first been an opportunity for
everybody now became very competitive. Prices began to fall in the
American textile markets. And in response, the
owners of these companies were less willing to pay good
wages, provide extra services, especially high-quality boarding houses. There had always been
a losing proposition. By 1842, dividends for these
corporations remained high. But wages had been falling, especially
after the panics of the late 1830s. In 1842, the same year that
Dickens’ book came out, there was an attempted
cartelization– that is, an informal agreement between
all the textile manufacturers to prevent further collapses in prices. By the mid to late 1840s, it
was clear that this moral order of a virtuous citizenry as part
of this new industrial order would not be possible, that there
was an incompatibility between having cheap labor on the one hand
and uplifted virtuous labor that would eventually be
returned to the countryside. The demonic mills that
Dickens had so warned about had finally come to the States. And it’s in Lowell that we see
this apparent for the first time. All the early ordered streets
quickly became shanty towns, as thousands of people crowded in
for the prospect of work and wages.

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