A rough draft of our papers is due Wednesday, so its time to put everything together.
Rereading all the articles I’ve gathered and working them into the paper renews my appreciation for the Lowell factory girls. It seems a number of people, some unidentified, others quite famous, like Charles Dickens, visited Lowell around the 1840s and the Lowell mill girls were often the main attraction. Not only were they observed and judged but these judgments were published in the newspapers!
Dickens account was published in a number of papers, which indicates to me that his opinion was valued. Of the factory girls, he writes, “They were all well dressed, but not to my thinking above their condition: for I like to see the humbler classes of society careful of their dress and appearance, and even, if they please, decorate with such little trickets as come within the compass of their means. Supposing it confined within reasonable limits, I would always encourage this kind of pride, as a worthy element of self-respect, in any person I employed; and should no more be deterred from doing so, because some wretched female referred her full to a love of dress.” He believed the girls should dress to reflect their lesser status, and yet permits them to demonstrate through their clothing some element of pride. Yet this was a thin line that the factory girls were careful not to overstep.
Balance was the key for the mill girls, and the more I examine the articles they wrote the more I see this balancing act, even in the pieces that seem very idealized. In “Abby’s Year in Lowell” Abby is lured to Lowell by the prospect of fine clothing, exhibited by her neighbors upon their return from the city: Abby’s ”head had been filled with visions of fine clothes; and she thought if she could only go where she could dress like them, she should be completely happy.”
And yet she wants to prove to her father that she can save her earnings and learn the value of money. Her father allows her to go to Lowell thinking she will “return home and become a little more steady, and be willing to devote her active energies (for she is a very capable girl) to household duties .” He wants her to become a better daughter, not an independent woman.
At the end of Abby’s year in Lowell, it seems that she has returned as the good, obedient daughter. She has saved her money but the story ends with her asking to go back: “I should like to add a little to the sum in the bank, and I should be glad of one silk gown!” So while she has saved her money, she still desires fine clothing, even if it is only one silk gown. She has managed to be both responsible and yet has not given up her passion for dress. She has found balance between the two.
It is unclear exactly how writing for the Lowell Offering influenced the mill girls’ later lives, but I think the ideas they played with in their writing helped them develop into women. Writing allowed them to experiment with their ideas of themselves so that when they finished their work in the factories, they were empowered individuals. Many remained in Lowell. Some went on to work in the women’s rights movement, others wrote for newspapers or wrote their own books. Many married, but they married men who were very similar in age to them. Most women in New England at the time married men that were typically a couple years older then themselves, so the factory girls were unique, and this equality in age signaled more equality in the marriage. Their time in Lowell had changed them, and writing for the Lowell Offering was part of that.