At the seminar this week we went to the AAS to do some research. We have to present a primary source of our choice to the class over the next two weeks, so I decided to call up the Lowell Offering in order to see the real thing.
I had previously read an article by Sylvia Jenkins Cook, a professor at the University of Missouri – St. Louis. Her article, “”Oh Dear! How the Factory Girls Do Rig Up!”: Lowell’s Self-Fashioning Workingwomen” is the only secondary source I’ve found that has discussed the Lowell mill girls’ understanding of dress and how that was expressed in the Lowell Offering (http://www.mitpressjournals.org/doi/pdf/10.1162/tneq.2010.83.2.219). In general, few sources even elaborate on the Lowell mill girls and their connection to the clothing they bought and wore. This makes my research easier and harder; I’ll have to do a lot of work with the primary sources, but this lack of scholarly attention gives my research value in that it is looking into a unique subject.
Anyway, I was eager to look into the claim Cook made: that the magazine was supported in part by advertisements, many of which were clothing advertisements. At the AAS there were four volumes of the Lowell Offering and one larger, as in length and width (not content), unmarked volume. The four marked volumes covered the vast majority of the publication, from April 1841 – December 1845. The other collection contained parts of the publication’s first year from December 1840 – March 1841; interestingly advertisements were only present in this collection. I’m not sure why. To find out I’d have to look into its publication history. Nonetheless, in looking at the advertisements, I found that roughly half had to do with clothing and the other half covered a wide range of other products and services. Besides listing the various products like “lace,” ”scarfs,” “silk,” and “shoes,” some advertisers emphasized the items’ qualities, claiming to have goods ”of the most Fashionable Style.”
I’ve begun to read some of the girls’ writtings and they seem to have differing reactions concerning clothing, ranging from praising the purchase of clothing as a symbol of the girls’ economic independence to condemning concern for clothing as frivolous. For most of these girls, going to work in the mills and living in these urban areas mark the first time they are independent, away from their families, making their own money. Most were from large farming families, and they were only about 16 years old when they leave for Lowell. This life is new to them. Clothing takes on a whole new meaning and as Cook says, they are trying to navigate this world and society’s contradictory beliefs about clothes. They, as a group, and as individuals, don’t have their minds made up about their new access to fashion and they seem to be using the magazine as an outlet to explore their beliefs and understandings. So I have to wonder what they must of thought of needing to rely on advertisements (for at least some time) to publish their magazine. Did they feel yoked to consumerism – to fashion? Did this influence the way their thinking or their buying habits? There is probably no real way of ever knowing for sure, but it is something I have to keep in mind as I read.