In 1814, Boston Manufacturing Company began opening textile mills on the Charles River in Waltham, Massachusetts. Recognizing a need for dedicated workers, founder Francis Cabot Lowell began actively recruiting young New England farm girls to work for the company in the mills. The Lowell Mill Girls, as they came to be known, made up about three quarters of the workforce at the textile mills, a number unheard of for women employees at the time.
The Lowell Mill Girls ranged in age from about ten years old up to middle age, although most of the girls were in their early twenties. Once they agreed to work for the Boston Manufacturing Company, they were required to follow the rules set by the company. The Handbook to Lowell explained to the girls that they were to attend religious services each week without failure and hold themselves up to generally accepted moral standards. The threat of termination was held over the heads of the women who failed to comply with the handbook.
Francis Cabot Lowell offered the women a generally high wage, and that enticed them to accept the yearlong contract to work for the company. Many of the women extended their contracts, and they worked for Lowell for an average of four years. Another incentive for the women to come and work for the mills was the fact that they were paid in cash on a daily basis, much of which went to brothers or husbands to further their educations.
Each of the Lowell Mill Girls was offered space in one of the hundreds of boarding houses run by the Boston Manufacturing Company. The houses, which held up to 25 women at one time, enforced a 10om curfew and forbade male visitors. The girls were mentored by older female mill workers, and they were advised how to dress, how to conduct themselves in public, and how to speak properly. The girls in the boarding houses were also given opportunities to attend lectures, concerts, and other events.
The Lowell Mill Girls generally worked 70 or more hours each week in hot and difficult workplace conditions. When the economy took a downturn and the mills decided to reduce wages by 15%, the girls went on strike. With only a fraction of the employees in support of the walk out, the strike ended just days after it started, with most of the girls going back to the mills with the salary decrease. Two years later, when the mills proposed an increase in rent for the girls living in the boarding houses, more than 1,500 of them walked out with support from the community of Lowell. After several weeks, it was determined that the company was in violation of the written contract it had with the Lowell Mill Girls, and the rent hike was abandoned.
The Lowell Offering, a publication created by and for the Mill Girls featured articles about the girls and the things they did, as well as offering a place for them to publish their poetry and songs. It was a way for them to talk about their lives both seriously and with humor. Historians continue to reference the Lowell Offering to get a glimpse of what life was like for the Lowell Mill Girls.
The Lowell Mill Girls organized again in 1845 to try and get a ten hour workday reform enacted. Their strength and power again proved formidable, and with thousands of signatures on petitions and the appearance of the girls at public hearings, the Lowell corporations eventually reduced the workday from fourteen to eleven hours.
Organized, vocal, and definitely unfeminine for the times, the Lowell Mill Girls went a long way in reforming working conditions for women all over New England. Their actions and reactions paved the way for rights and dignity for female workers all over the United States. The Lowell Mill Girls played a major role in the history of Lowell.