Harriet Hanson Robinson (1825-1911) wrote an account of her experince in the textile mills, helping to encourage women to flock to the mills for a chance to earn their own wages.
Harriet Hanson Robinson was born on August 2, 1825, in Boston, Massachusetts, the second of four children born to William and Harriet Hanson. When she was six years old, her father died, leaving her mother with the difficult task of feeding and caring for four young children. At the time, it was not unusual for a family to break up because of financial need, but Robinson's mother was determined to keep her family together. When a concerned neighbor offered to ease her burden by adopting young Harriet, Mrs. Hanson said, "No; while I have one meal of victuals a day, I will not part with my children." These words stayed with Robinson, who wondered for many years what the word "victuals" meant.
With help from her husband's friends, Mrs. Hanson set up a small shop in Boston, selling food, candy, and firewood. The family lived in a room behind the shop, sleeping in one bed, "two at the foot and three at the head." In spite of their poverty, the children went to school every day and Robinson also attended a sewing school on Saturdays.
Mrs. Hanson's struggle to support her family became increasingly difficult. When her sister suggested she join her in Lowell, a booming mill town about twenty miles northwest of Boston, to manage a boardinghouse for mill workers, Mrs. Hanson did not hesitate. In 1832, she piled her four children into a canal boat and traveled the short journey up the Middlesex Canal to Lowell.
New England mill towns
Samuel Slater's introduction of spinning technology, combined with advances in weaving technology, such as power looms, pushed the cotton spinning and cloth weaving industries to the forefront of American industry. As businessmen rushed to profit from the booming textile industry, new mills were quickly constructed. Large mill towns began to spring up all over the New England countryside, along the region's powerful rivers, especially the mighty Merrimack.
One of the most successful mill owners was Francis Cabot Lowell, a Harvard graduate from a wealthy Boston family. Taking advantage of the demand for cloth brought on by the War of 1812 and with financial help from his family, Lowell established the Boston Manufacturing Company. It was a mill complex that, under Lowell's guidance, used the power loom to its greatest advantage. Located at Waltham, the Boston Manufacturing Company was the first factory in which all processes from raw material to finished product were performed in one building. From the spinning of the cotton to the weaving of the finished cloth, all work was done in this one mill.
Young women over children
Instead of turning to very young children for labor, as Slater had done, Lowell believed that young women would suit his purposes perfectly. His employees did not need to be strong, only intelligent and hard working. Lowell knew, however, that in order to attract young women to the mills, he would have to offer safe, respectable working and living conditions. Single women living on their own feared for their safety and avoided circumstances that would stain their reputations. Lowell solved this problem by setting up boardinghouses run by responsible, trustworthy matrons, like Robinson's mother, and instilling a strict moral code in both the mills and the surrounding town.
Later, larger mills were built at Lowell, Massachusetts, along the Merrimack River. These mills used power looms, which required workers with nimble hands for smooth operation. The Merrimack Manufacturing Company employed both women and young girls, and the Hanson family moved to this new and larger city.
Life at the mills
In Lowell, Mrs. Hanson worked as hard as ever. She managed a house of forty boarders, taking care of all the cooking, cleaning, and shopping. Now her income was steady and secure. The children continued with their school, but also helped with the housework. Robinson washed many sinkfuls of dishes, standing on a crate to reach the sink.
At age ten, Robinson went to work in the mills. Her mother needed the extra income and Robinson wanted to help out. She was sent to work as a doffer—a worker who took full bobbins off the spinning frame and replaced them with empty ones. The work was fairly easy; doffers were needed only fifteen minutes out of every hour. "The rest of the time," she later wrote, "was their own, and when the overseer was kind, they were allowed to read, knit, or even to go outside the mill-yard and play."
When she was older, Robinson became a drawing-in girl, one of the more desirable positions in the mill. Drawing-in girls drew in the threads of the warp through the harness and the reed, making the beams ready for the weaver's loom. (The warp is the thread that runs lengthwise in a fabric. The harness raises and lowers warp threads on the loom. The reed is a movable frame that separates the warp threads.) Though it required skill and a nimble and steady hand, this job was not very demanding. Since the drawing-in girls were paid by the piece, not by the hour, they could work at their own pace. If they chose to read, they could, and Robinson often took the opportunity to open a book while she worked. Throughout her childhood, books were extremely important to her. She spent much of the precious free time she had each day reading.
When she was fifteen, Robinson took two years off from working in the mills to attend Lowell High School. Here, in a wooden schoolroom located above a butcher shop, she learned French, Latin, and English grammar and composition. Her composition titles—including "Poverty Not Disgraceful" and "Indolence and Industry"—give a glimpse into her attitudes about life. She felt that hardworking poor people were just as worthy as wealthy people and she hated laziness. A photograph of her during this time shows a strikingly beautiful young women with piercing black eyes, ringlets in her long hair, and a brave, confident face.
After high school, Robinson joined in many of the literary groups that had sprung up around Lowell. She even began writing and publishing her own poetry. In fact she met her husband, William Robinson, when she took some of her poetry to the Lowell Journal, where he worked as an editor.
Chronicle of early mill life
Robinson left the mills at age twenty-three. She later wrote of her experiences in a book called Loom and Spindle, or Life Among the Early Mill Girls, published in 1898. Although many historians believe that Robinson paints an overly bright and rosy picture of life in the mills during this time, Robinson claimed that hers was an accurate account of her experiences and that working conditions did not worsen until after she left in 1848. It is important to keep in mind, however, that Robinson's circumstances may have been more favorable than most. She lived with her family (many girls had left homes far away to work in the mills); she held a skilled but relatively easy job that allowed time for reading; and she worked in the very early days of the industry, when workers were still allowed to perform at their own pace. Nonetheless, her account captures a time in history when women began to see their position in society change as they had the opportunity to become wage earners and to educate themselves.
Who were the mill girls?
Assured of a safe environment and attracted by the cash wages and the chance to earn a living for themselves, women from all over New England flocked to the mill towns to work. They called themselves mill girls.
According to Robinson, mill girls included farmer's daughters aching for city life, women from fine families who did not really need the money but wanted to be in a cultured and stimulating environment, "women with past histories," married women running away from husbands who had mistreated them, and unmarried women who had been dependent on relatives for their support.
Robinson's moving account of this last group gives a clear idea of how strongly women were affected by the opportunity to earn their own income: "How well I remember some of these solitary ones! … I can see them now, even after sixty years, just as they looked,—depressed, modest, mincing, hardly daring to look one in the face, so shy and sylvan had been their lives. But after the first payday came, and they felt the jingle of silver in their pockets … their bowed heads were lifted, their necks seemed braced with steel, they looked you in the face, sang blithely among their looms or frames, and walked with elastic step to and from their work."
Mills offered women the opportunity to make their own way in life. Becoming wage earners for the first time empowered these women with a new sense of confidence. Even the large numbers of women who worked in the mills to finance their brothers' education came away from the experience more confident and self-assured.
By today's standards, work in the mills during Robinson's time was demanding and difficult. Workers began their day at 5:00 in the morning and worked until 7:00 in the evening, with only two half-hour meal breaks in between. Robinson wrote that though she did not mind such a schedule, the worst part of it was having to get up so early: "I do not recall any particular hardship connected with this life, except getting up so early in the morning, and to this habit, I never was, and never shall be, reconciled, for it has taken nearly a lifetime for me to make up the sleep lost at that early age."
Inside the mills, the noise of so much machinery— pounding levers and grinding gears—could be deafening. As a drawing-in girl, Robinson worked in small rooms away from the busiest and noisiest part of the mill. In the early days of the mills, mill operators let workers progress at their own pace and did not force them to take on any more work than they could handle. As Robinson wrote, "We were not hurried any more than was for our good, and no more work was required of us than we were able easily to do." As the years passed, however, and textile manufacturing became more competitive, workers were forced to labor at a quick pace, churning out products as fast as was humanly possible.
"The mill girl's alma mater"
One of the most fascinating aspects of mill life was the urgency with which many girls went about educating themselves. Mill life, where books and ideas were shared and discussed on a daily basis, offered many mill girls their first opportunity at real learning. Many had come from faraway villages and farms where the only book available was the family Bible. Robinson recalled one boarder in her mother's boarding house who had traveled from her farm in Maine to work in the mills "for the express purpose of getting books." This boarder read from two to four books per week, renting them for about six cents each at the local lending library. In exchange for running to the library and back, the boarder let Harriet and her siblings read the books, too.
With work consuming fourteen hours of each day, mill girls had precious little free time, yet many spent their free hours reading, writing, and learning. It was not uncommon for mill girls to spend their evening hours participating in reading groups, attending night school, and going to lectures. One lecturer, A. P. Peabody, gave a stirring picture of mill girls listening to a lecture: "The Lowell Hall was always crowded, and four-fifths of the audience were factory-girls. When the lecturer entered, almost every girl had a book in her hand, and was intent upon it. When he rose, the book was laid aside, and paper and pencil taken instead … I have never seen anywhere so assiduous note-taking. No, not even in a college class … as in that assembly of young women, laboring for their subsistence."
The Lowell Offering
In October 1840, some of the mill girls got together to produce and publish, in the words of editor Abel C. Thomas, "the first magazine or journal written exclusively by women in the whole world." The sixteen-page Offering, which sold for about six cents a copy, published poems, articles, and stories written by mill girls. Robinson contributed several poems to the journal and later became its historian. The Offering received praise from literary circles around the country and even the world. English novelist Charles Dickens claimed that it would "compare advantageously with a great many English annals." In France, female writer George Sands hailed the work.
In spite of the educational advantages, the spirited fellowship, and the income that the mills offered, workers were not always happy with the treatment they received. Robinson witnessed two strikes during her younger years, and participated in one of them. In 1834, when she was nine, workers left their posts at 11:00 on a Saturday morning, turning out to the streets to protest a 15 percent wage cut. The mill owners were surprised by this show of female resistance and called the striking workers "Amazons." This strike was one of the first cases of organized protest in the history of the textile industry and did considerable damage. Some rooms in the mills were left completely empty and the town's banks were drained as fired workers withdrew their savings and returned home.
Two years later, when Robinson was eleven and working as a doffer, workers struck because of a proposed pay cut that would allow mill owners to pay more to the boardinghouse managers. This time, Robinson was directly involved in the strike, leading a room full of girls into the march. She wrote: "I, who began to think they would not go out, after all their talk, became impatient, and started on ahead, saying, with childish bravado, 'I don't care what you do, I am going to turn out,' and was followed by the others." This time, thousands—one-quarter of Lowell's working population—marched in the streets. This turnout, which lasted a month, produced some effects; several of the mills reversed the wage cut. Only later did Robinson realize that her action hurt her mother, who, as a boardinghouse matron, could have used the extra income.
As early as 1841, when Robinson still worked in the mills, workers were complaining about the inhuman conditions, claiming they were treated like machines. The piece below, titled "The Spirit of Discontent," was published in The Offering: "I am going home, where I shall not be obliged to rise so early in the morning, nor be dragged about by the factory bell, nor confined in a close noisy room from morning to night. I shall not stay here…. Up before day, at the clang of the bell,—and out of the mill by the clang of the bell—into the mill, and at work in obedience to that ding-dong of a bell—just as though we were so many living machines."
As years passed, mills sped up production and gave workers increased work loads. Wages dropped and working conditions worsened. Reporters described mill hands as working endlessly and "when they can toil no longer, they go home to die." Housing became cramped as more and more workers moved to mill towns. In one home, reported the Lowell Courier, 120 people lived under the same roof; in another case, 22 people made their home in a basement.
Now, workers, with the support of the public, fought for a shorter working day (ten hours) and better wages. By the mid-to late 1800s, mill girls were replaced by immigrants—Irish, Italian, and Portuguese—who were willing to work for lower wages. As the twentieth-century approached, mill towns like Lowell, Lawrence, and Holyoke teemed with mill workers, many of them immigrant men. Housing became scarce and overcrowded. Cramped conditions, improper air circulation, and unclean surroundings caused outbreaks of tuberculosis, cholera, and typhoid. One out of every three spinners, many under the age of twenty-five, would die before completing ten years in the factory. It was a far cry from the dismal round of life in these mill towns to the pleasant, spirited days that Robinson wrote about.
Marriage and family
Robinson's marriage on Thanksgiving Day of 1848 to William Robinson ended her work in the mills. Her husband, who for a time published an antislavery newspaper, was politically active and his liberal views made him many enemies. The couple eventually moved to Malden, outside of Boston, and had four children, one of whom died in infancy. Robinson was content to live as a housewife while her husband worked. Later, however, after William's death, Robinson devoted much of her time to fighting for women's rights. She hoped to, but did not, see women get the vote in her own lifetime.
With her elder daughter, Hattie, Robinson joined the National Woman Suffrage Association, which promoted a woman's right to vote as well as her rights in the workplace and in the home. In 1881, Robinson published a book, Massachusetts in the Woman Suffrage Movement. At one point she testified before Congress on the subject of suffrage. Robinson and Hattie also formed a women's club in Malden.
In her later years, Robinson often was asked to lecture about her life as a mill girl. At these lectures she met women who were working in the mills of the late 1800s and soon learned that the conditions they labored under were far worse than anything she remembered. She wrote:
"The wages of these operatives are much lower, and although the hours of labor are less, they are obliged to do a far greater amount of work in a given time. They tend so many looms and frames that they have no time to think. They are always on the jump."
Robinson spent the last years of her life keeping active with her family, reading, writing, and sewing. She died on December 22, 1911, at the age of eighty-six. Death notices praised her contributions as a champion of women's rights. Years later, during the bicentennial celebration of the United States in 1976, Robinson's home in Malden was declared a landmark.
Further Reading on Harriet Hanson Robinson
Bushman, Claudia, "A Good Poor Man's Wife"; Being a Chronicle of Harriet Hanson Robinson and Her Family in Nineteenth-Century New England, Hanover, New Hampshire: University Press of New England, 1981.
Dunwell, Steve, The Run of the Mill: A Pictorial Narrative of the Expansion, Dominion, Decline and Enduring Impact of the New England Textile Industry, Boston: David R. Godine, 1978.
Robinson, Harriet Hanson, Loom and Spindle, or Life Among the Early Mill Girls, Originally published, 1898; reprint, Hawaii: Press Pacifica, 1976.
Selden, Bernice, The Mill Girls: Lucy Larcom, Harriet Hanson Robinson, Sarah G. Bagley, New York: Atheneum, 1983.