Now that I’ve read through all of the Lowell Offering articles that I’ve collected, I am trying to put them in context.
The Lowell factory girls were like no others. Other mills employed families and didn’t pay their workers monthly, in cash, like the Lowell factories did. The Lowell girls were young, single, leaving their families’ farms for the first time, arriving in the city, earning money that was theirs to do with as they pleased.
The ability to purchase fine clothing and fabric was a natural symbol of their new economic and overall independence. And yet the ability to be fashionable was reserved for the middle class as a means of demonstrating their higher social status.
In one essay, “Gold Watches,” which was published twice in the Lowell Offering, the Lowell factory girl addresses Sarah Josepha Hale, editor of the prominent Godey’s Lady’s Book. The author quotes Hale as saying, “How stands the difference now? Many of the factory girls wear gold watches, and an imitation, at least, of all the ornaments which grace the daughter’s of our most opulent citizens.” Hale clearly signals fashion as a status marker, and is upset that this symbolism no longer exists. But she does so by picking on the factory girls, distinguishing them as less than “the daughter’s of our most opulent citizens,” unworthy of fashion.
The factory girl’s response balances the general principles of Hale’ s article with her specific referencing of the factory girls: “why is the idea so prevalent that dress appears more objectionable in the factory girl than in any other female? Extravagance should be objected to in any one; but the exercise of taste in dress, should not be denied to them, more than to any other young females.” This is the sort of middle ground the Lowell factory girls are navigating throughout their writings in the Lowell Offering. Because they were of the working class, society thought they should dress as such, modestly, reserving fashion for the middle and upper classes. But they had another factor working against them; many people believed their work to be degrading. And in reading the Lowell Offering, the reader can see the girls address this, stressing that the factory is an excellent place to think, and that they use their free time in the boardinghouses to read. And yet they are young girls with money, clothing and fashion is both a source of interest and pride.
It is not surprising then that their articles are not decisive concerning their opinions of fashion. Rather, when looked at together, their writings are filled with tensions. They are trying to figure out how they feel about their new economic independence, as symbolized through clothing. They know that they have a natural passion for clothing. One girl, Mary Paul, even writes to her father saying, “I am in need of clothes which I cannot get here [working as a domestic servant] and for that reason I want to go to Lowell.” And they know that society judges this passion harshly, and has high expectations concerning how they act. They are unsure of the self they want to put forth in the world but they know they must balance societal expectations and their own desires. So the Lowell Offering becomes a means of exploration of their ideas and opinions. The women used pseudonyms and wrote many fictional pieces, all of which allowed them a means of safe experimentation with their ideas and those of society. It also allowed them to voice these ideas to the public which judged them, thus empowering them to find their own ideas and voice, a voice strong enough to be made public.
With this understanding, I hope to see how the factory girls used this experimentation to come to some decision about fashion in their lives. Unfortunately, there are very few such personal accounts so it is hard to make any sort of sweeping statement about their views, and there is no real way of knowing how their writing inspired their ideas and decisions. Nonetheless, the articles of the Lowell Offering provide me with more than enough material for my paper. And I hope in writing it that I can give voice to an aspect of these girl’s lives that has gone unnoticed, and give them credit for creatively and bravely navigating a world that was both new and daunting to them.