By Adam Holdorf
English 341: Nation and Narration
In 1822, a group of Boston merchants and traders began their campaign to transform a riverbank below the thirty-foot falls of the Merrimack River into "the greatest textile manufacturing establishment in the country." These capitalists dug and improved the Merrimack canal, constructed machine shops, and built housing for mill executives, foremen and operatives. The cotton mills of Lowell, Massachusetts, and other New England sites began to employ the first female industrial labor force in the United States. Almost twenty years later, factory workers wrote and edited the Lowell Offering, a literary magazine showcasing the virtues and talents of the female operatives in verse, essays and short fiction (Eisler, 13-22).
This site discusses the female Lowell factory worker as portrayed in the Offering. Although the magazine never expressed an overtly feminist view of the factory girls' condition, nor invoked a working-class consciousness similar to later labor expressions in Lowell, there is evidence of a narrative strategy and ideology speaking both to the factory women and the middle-class readership outside of the mill town. The paper's short stories, epistolary narratives and commentaries seek to legitimize an operatives' role within the feminine ideal of domesticity. In conforming to the norms of feminine literature, the Offering reconstructs the operatives' character. It subordinates the evidence for independence or autonomy to relate stories of familial or sentimental ties binding the factory girl to the world outside of factory life. The magazine sought to provide an answer to this question: given her new liberties, what kept the "factory girl" from losing contact with her moral sentiments?
To a great degree, the economic realities of New England textile work provoked this question from the domestic narratives of the day. Independent of family ties and entrusted to Yankee patrons for both their moral and material livelihoods, residing in boarding houses close to the factory, young single women encountered a way of life sharply different from the domestic work experience characteristic of the household economy of New England farms. They experienced the social changes resulting from industrialism and the widening market economy. A new social category was in the process of construction: the female wage-worker. Writers, male and female alike, contrasted this new identity against the domestic vision expressed by women's magazines such as Godey's Lady's Book. The "cult of true womanhood," which upheld domestic ideals as the proper place for all women, was confronted with a new social fact: women were no longer confined solely to the domestic roles prescribed for them (Cott, 7-9).
The reactions to this fact were diverse and ambivalent. It could provoke feminist consciousness of the oppressive nature of domesticity, as positive expressions of the female role in industrialism displayed; it could also stimulate a yearning for refined and renewed feminine roles within the home. Among the many reactions to this new mode of life was the establishment of the Lowell Offering. The most interesting aspect of life in the mill town of Lowell from 1822 to 1848 was the opportunities given to women workers to express themselves -- albeit under the ties of a male-constructed, male-dominated industrial milieu. My analysis of the Offering, then, shows that women writers linked industrial activity to domestic ties in order to reaffirm a place for the operative within the "proper sphere" of the household economy, and thus a component of the legitimate feminine role.
To see the feminine response to such a contract, we may turn briefly to one author's portrayal of the advantages and drawbacks of industrial life. "Objectionable" aspects of factory work include the tedious regimentation of mealtime, the long hours at falling wage rates, and the constant clanging of bells telling workers, against the "repose that tired nature loudly claims ... that we are obliged to go." But in contrast to these problems, Baker's narrator says "the time we do have is our own. The money we earn comes promptly; more so than in any other situation; and ... when [the work-day is] finished we feel perfectly free, till it is time to commence it again." (Eisler, 82). Baker implies that satisfied factory operatives value economic and social independence, the power of cash payments, and the possibility of self-determination enough to endure the broad disjunction between the domestic and industrial contexts.
Unforeseen by the Boston capitalists, however, the attraction of the paternalist social contract was subject to the changing social condition of the female laborer. The early nineteenth century witnessed great shifts in the terms of this contract, as domestic labor became a less productive role of labor for young women. According to Nancy F. Cott, "social and economic change included alteration of family structure, functions, and values, which affected women's roles in manifold ways." As the importance of the household economy diminished in exchange for the market, young unmarried women found their roles diminished in the sphere feminine norms called their own: the home. The paternalist view of femininity, as belonging in the home, "persisted, bringing guilt and confusion in the midst of opportunity." (Welter, 64). This had profoundly ambivalent effects: such "alterations could be turned to constrain women's autonomy and effect conservative intents, or women could grasp them as cause and opportunity for further change, even for assertion of new social power." (Cott, 5).
Thus, we see that young, rural, unmarried women, those most likely to enter cotton mills such as Lowell (Dublin 1979, 56), were subject to two social forces: the morally upright "cult of true womanhood," and the economic advantages of wage work. When the economic promise of Lowell paternalism faltered, as it did when mill owners lengthened work hours and cut wages in the 1830s and `40s, women generally called for the renewal and refinement of the paternal social contract (88-9). Likewise, factory women familiar with the "cult of true womanhood" wished to broaden its boundaries to include industrial labor in the feminine, domestic role. The loss of status experienced when one enters into factory work, and the moral dangers thought to inhere in factory life, spurred many female writers back to entreat the "cult" for admission. The characters and narrators in the Offering do precisely this: placed in an industrial context, they argue for the pertinence of factory life for domestic norms.
These authors' works imply that feminine solidarity can be acquired by eliciting sympathy from the audience. In order to do this, the narratives often concern themselves with the identities of women operatives away from the factory. They describe links between the home and the factory, the past life and the current condition of women. The most common tool to coax a character or narrator away into the feminine context is to ask a single question: why do you work here? The narrator tries to answer, doing so in frank and thorough discussion: Harriet Farley's letter-writer tells a distant friend, "There are girls here for every reason, and for no reason at all." (Eisler, 60). Short stories portray operatives as spending money for various things, wise and unwise: either they dissipate it in fine clothes and numerous novels, or save for another purpose. But every `selfish' reason for working in the mill is overshadowed by the moral stature of the virtuous factory girl, who answers the question, "Why do you work here?" usually by invoking the economic needs of a brother, a parent, or another member of the domestic unit. By 1845 at least, this had become a common ideal type of factory operative: one editor refers to "the many who toil on, without a murmur, for the support of an aged mother, or orphaned brother and sister." (82). In Eisler's collection of writings by Offering authors, several characters earn a wage for the needs of a family member: either for the betterment of a brother or the financial redemption of a fatherless family.
Editor Harriet Farley's piece, "The Affections Illustrated in Factory Life, No. 1 -- the Sister," describes Hannah, a newcomer to Lowell, a quiet worker who maintains a mysterious relationship with a man. The male visitor's frequent visits arouse the suspicion of Hannah's fellow boarders, who accuse her of loose behavior. Fired from her job, stricken by illness, it is revealed eventually that she has been working so that the visitor, in reality her brother, could court a proud, middle-class woman from another part of town. Once worthy of condemnation, her conduct is now above reproach. Even the haughty fiancee is touched by Hannah's familial kindnesses and "gentle reproaches," as Hannah extends her sisterly forgiveness to her. The fiancee, in agreeing to marry Hannah's brother, says "For the sake of calling this sweet girl my sister, I will be your wife."(92). Gladdened by this union, Hannah revives herself after a long convalescence, and is vindicated from her former degradation by such a display of kindness.
In "Evening before Pay-Day," Rosina works not only to supplement the domestic sphere; industrial wage-work is the most useful role she can fulfill for her faraway home, even when tragedy unfolds there. Like Farley's "Affections," the fellow boarders regard Rosina's conduct with contempt, until unfortunate news arouses their sympathies. Rosina's threadbare gingham dresses, her lack of new shoes, and her resistance to giving money to the church make the boarders assume she hoards her pay; but the story soon shows this is not the case. Instead, Rosina's twin sister, Marcia, is deathly ill, and all her earnings go to pay for her care. The mother's letter, announcing Marcia's certain death, does not exhort Rosina to come to join the family in observing the death; and Rosina knows why. She replies to the letter immediately, saying
I do wish very much to see you all, especially dear Marcia, once more; but it is not best. I know you think so, or you would have urged my return. I think I shall feel more contented here, earning comforts for my sick sister and necessaries for you, than I should be there, and unable to relieve a want (171). In the absence of her actual care, the wage-earning industrial role is the most vaunted place a faithful daughter can fulfill.
But the epistolary narrative of Harriet Farley, which commences Eisler's anthology, is the best expression of the fragile, ambivalent link between the domestic and industrial contexts. Here, the distance between author, narrator and character constructed in the short fiction is collapsed, and the first-person narrative implies that the speaker is a mostly helpless witness to factory life. In the form of a new operative's account of factory life, the narrator extends her trust both outward in the social field, to the strangers she meets; and inward, to the `you' of the letter, the familiar friend of home.
Farley's newcomer speculates on the motives of her hospitable `landlady,' who greets her "in a very motherly way," bringing her into her own chambers and informing her of news on her departed friend, who traveled to another city to work. Grateful, Farley's newcomer writes that "I have since inquired if she were not unusually kind," and a better understanding of the economic motive for hospitality is clear: "Every girl, let her be ever so... rustic, fills one of the many niches prepared here for so many, and some, you know, are like nest-eggs, and bring many more." Yet the landlady should not be dismissed as purely self-interested, "for there is surely something to excite a woman's sympathies in the sight, which is not uncommon here, of a lonely friendless helpless stranger."(46-47). Farley's narrator claims to be bereft of all material support, and, relying only on the base element of feminine nature, looks to the sympathies of other women for guidance through the strange new mill town. To show the feminine bonds extending from countryside to city and into the mills was a calculated attempt to legitimate the roles and improve the status of the "factory girl" in the eyes of an external audience.
This is a sound explanation for the emerging class consciousness of Yankee female workers at Lowell, but it does not accurately describe the content of the Offering from 1840 to 1845. As Dublin has noted, the Offering did not proffer radical views partly because of an explicit editorial choice, but also because of the underlying narrative strategy we have discussed. Editor Harriet Farley wrote in 1844, after two suicides had stirred controversy over the portrayal of operatives' lives in the Offering:
[I]f in our sketches, there is too much light, and too little shade, let our excuse be found in the circumstances which have brought us before the public. We have not thought it necessary to ... constantly reiterate that our life was a toilsome one -- for we supposed that would be universally understood, after we had stated how many hours a day we tended our machines. We have not thought a constant repetition of the fact necessary, that our life was one of confinement; when it was known that we work in one spot of one room. We have not thought it necessary to enlarge upon the fact that there was ignorance and folly among a large population of young females, away from their homes, and indiscriminately collected from all quarters. These facts have always been so generally understood that the worth, happiness and intelligence, which really exists, have been undervalued (Eisler, 207).
According to Farley, then, the paper's editorial policy affirmed the positive characteristics of the operatives. Farley acknowledges that the factory girl faces a status disadvantage when compared to the condition of other authors and commentators. Yet at the same time, the "worth, happiness and intelligence" existing among the workers needs clearer expression in order to redeem these women in the eyes of the middle-class reader. Encouraging such sympathy was the main goal for Farley, far more than reiterating the condition of labor.
Because of this policy, which roughly matches the narrative strategy I have found in the short fiction, the Offering could not express a specifically working-class consciousness, nor a call for reform based on the oppositional attitude Dublin describes. In seeking to legitimize industrial roles within the cult of true womanhood, the Offering was attempting something entirely different from the labor reform groups calling for a ten-hour day. Instead of asserting the rights of all workers, it tried to legitimize factory work as a morally sound complement to the feminine role in household economic life. The female worker called upon the cult of domesticity to endorse her new role and recognize her as a new sister: the factory girl.
Cott, Nancy F. The Bonds of Womanhood: "Woman's Sphere" in New England, 1780-1835. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1977.
Dublin, Thomas. Women at Work: the Transformation of Work and Community in Lowell, Massachusetts, 1826-1860. New York: Columbia University Press, 1979.
Dublin, Thomas. "Women, work and protest in the early Lowell Mills: `the oppressing hand of avarice would enslave us.'" Labor History 16(1975): 99-116.
Eisler, Benita. The Lowell Offering: Writings by New England Mill Women (1840-1845). New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1977.
Welter, Barbara. "The Cult of True Womanhood." The Many-Faceted Jacksonian Era: New Interpretations. Contributions in American History, number 67, Edward Pessen, ed. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1977.