The Early 1800’s, The Dawn of a New Era Had Begun

By the early 1800″s, the dawn of a new era had begun. Family and home life was changing as well as the communities around them. There was a fast growing need to produce products like clothing, quickly and efficiently. This new era brought about the mechanical industry that created factories, which could meet this need. But who would work in these factories if the men were moving west? By the 1840″s the necessity to find workers for these factories had produced major social changes-changes which carry on until today.

Before this time, most all clothing was spun and woven in the home by women. But by the 1840″s, most was produced in factories set up in what were referred to as mill towns. Lowell Massachusetts was one such town. This change created a whole new idea of what women”s duties were, domestic or money earning laborers? Women had previously only been seen as domestic and having one goal, that of being a housewife.

Their move into town to provide a workforce for the clothing factories sparked controversy in many eyes. Some people branded them “mill girls” who were doomed and unmarriable. Others thought of them as adventurers, with the fancy of bringing new fashions, books and ideas home with them. But the statistics show the average working life at a Lowell factory was only three years. Many of the women who returned home were sick and never married, because they were characterized by “she has worked in a factory”.

In the factories, women were looked down upon–seen only as people who flowed in to the factory day in and day out earning their keep, spinning and weaving for the rest of their lives. They were not worthy of earning an education, and were considered socially and intellectually inept. As time went by, the bigotry began to wear away. The factories flourished with women who had wisdom and potential. One man who visited one of the mills was noted to have bowed to all the women in the mill, This sign of respect was usually reserved for ladies whom society regarded as upper class. As time wore on, “mill girls” were eventually heeded as ladies, women worth of respect.

Eventually, people started noticing that the “mill girls” were spending their free time bettering themselves. Many had circles of natural selection that allowed them to cultivate and stimulate their minds. They filled the churches, libraries and lecture halls. Many of the women were highly respected by clergyman and lecturers. They testified that the women”s spirits were high along with their intellect. Inevitably, women were encouraged to finish school and reach for goals. This shows a change in how women were perceived. They were no longer lone mill workers without anything to offer society; each was an individual with purpose and worth. Though this was happening, the conditions of the factories were not changing.

The Lowell factories provided boarding houses for the women, each housing up to sixty girls. To onlookers, the houses were so charming that many came to visit just to see how the women lived. The perceptions of outsiders were that the women worked and lived in great conditions. They enjoyed their jobs and were hearty and content, but this was not the case. The women often worked twelve or more hours a day and were only allowed up to an hour and forty-five minutes for meals, depending on the time of year. The factories were not properly ventilated and poorly lit. Eliza R. Hemmingway recalls that at any given time six or more women were out due to illnesses.

. Miss Sarah G. Bagley submitted the first petition to the Lowell Corporation that was signed by Mr. John Quincey Adams Thayer, and eight hundred and fifty others. This petition called for improvements in the overall working conditions within the factories. These demands for better conditions lit a spark that was the beginning of what is a modern day OSHA, a systematic law for all employers and employees. The corporation acknowledged that their demands were reasonable and considerable, but believed they were not the source for solving the problems the mill workers faced. They felt that the workers in a capitalistic system had their own bargaining power and were equal to management. As a result, the Massachusetts Legislature did not pass into law the provisions outlined in the petition.

Around this same time poor immigrants started pouring into the United States by the thousands. They became willing workers, not complaining about conditions as the native workers did. Could this be why the corporation did not meet the women”s needs? The immigrants would be happy to take over the jobs for less money and in the same conditions. What does this say for the corporation? Were they steering away from caring the women working in their factories, or was it just easier to use immigrants? Or maybe, they feared the switching of women”s class and roles in society? They were not ready for women of independence and means.

Regardless, society now had to deal with a more independent, self-assured working class woman. No longer needed to fill the entry level, low-paying jobs in the mills, and no longer interested in going back home to be homemakers, women entered society as productive members of the workforce. This transition is still taking place today.

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