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Factory Women and Girls
of New England

1881 — Convention of the Association for the Advancement of Women
Rhode Island Woman Suffrage Association


Thus, it is a fact, that a very large number of women and girls, from ten years old to forty or fifty, are employed in the cotton and woolen mills of the northern and middle states of this country, mostly in New England. It is, therefore, a subject of grave concern as to what is their actual condition, and, what are the duties of other women toward them. Many of those born in England, Ireland and Canada cannot read or write; and of those who have had a chance in our public schools, most of them have gone to work so early, that their schooling has been of the most rudimentary character, and is easily forgotten. They are excluded from the society of their own sex outside of the factory, by a variety of barriers — chief of which are their foreign birth or extraction, their poverty, their want of education, and the necessity that they should be always at work. Two other causes also contribute largely to this exclusion. These people are mostly Catholic in their religion, and this excludes them from Protestant companionship, as well as excludes Protestant companionship from them ; and the other cause is, the growing tendency in our civilization, toward class distinctions.

Many of these operatives live a floating life. Trifling circumstances, and the hope of improving their condition, lead them to move about, and thus they continue unthrifty and poor; and, whatever unfortunate results follow, they all bear with most hardship upon the women. On the contrary, those who remain in one place, if they cultivate habits of industry and sobriety, do constantly improve their circumstances, and become more and more assimilated to the native inhabitants. But, with rare exceptions, they have brought with them the inherited improvidence, which comes from many generations in hopeless poverty, under old world oppressions.

Their grandmothers were not of the kind who never suffered a crumb that a chicken would eat, to be swept into the fire, or a piece of bread that a child could hold in his hand, to be cast into the swill-pail, or a shred of cloth that would serve for a patch, to go into the rag-bag. The vice of intemperance is a terrible curse to these people; and, though drunkenness is far less common among women than among men, still, it is they who suffer most severely from its effects. The operatives are mostly women and young persons of both sexes; the men are not always able to find employment at anything they can do, and so, they often get into the habit of depending on their children for support, and, in their idleness, they indulge in drinking, which renders them a torment as well as a burden in their homes.

These homes have too often little to make them either comfortable or attractive to their inmates. The tenement system in the villages necessitates the crowding of several families in too close proximity; two and sometimes four families using the same stairs, entries and doors, making neatness and privacy impossible. In some of these tenements, the room where all the cooking, eating, washing, etc., are done, is the only sitting room, thus giving little chance for comfort, to say nothing of recreation.

Much of the poverty which we find in families who have been long employed in the factory is due to the constant employment of young girls therein, because they are thus left ignorant of all proper management of household affairs. Many of these girls cannot sew decently; they know nothing of the cutting or fitting of garments, that great source of economy in poor households. They understand little of cooking, they are wholly ignorant of hygiene, and have no idea what foods are nutritious, and, consequently, economical.

They have had no time to learn, and nobody to teach them, for their mothers were ignorant before them. The need is imperative, of finding some way to teach these growing girls, who are to be the wives and mothers of future workers of both sexes, the needful art of right home-making and home-living. Where there are no sufficient accommodations for bathing indoors, the health of the women suffers more from the want than the men, because men and boys have the use of the ponds and rivers. The introduction of bath-houses for the operatives, by some manufacturers, is a blessing that should be made universal, and where it has been bestowed, it is appreciated by the recipients beyond all expectation.

Ventilation in tenement houses is seldom sufficiently provided for, and, as a rule, this class of people are excessively afraid of open windows at night. The pale faces, the languid steps, noticeable in factory girls, are as much due to unhealthful conditions at home, as to overwork and confinement in the mills. And, I repeat, the important necessity is, the securing of time and opportunity to the girls for learning the arts of healthful, frugal housekeeping.

A girl who goes into the mill at twelve years of age, and I am sorry to have to say they often do when younger, and works there till she marries ; and, as is frequently the case, continues to work there until she has children, and often afterward leaves some old woman to care for the little ones while she goes to the factory for ten or eleven hours a day, cannot, in the nature of things, become a wise and prudent housewife.

The question of the employment of young children in the factories is of so difficult solution that one meets with great discouragement at the outset in any undertaking to prevent it. The first obstacle which strikes the humane student of factory life, after the conviction that young children should not work there, is the apparent necessity that they must do so or be worse off than they are. They often belong to large families, in which there are several children younger than themselves; the mother has her hands full, with the nursing and the housework ; the wages of the father will not support the family, even if he dispenses with the expense of tobacco and rum. Thus, it often happens, that the labor of such children is so important an item in the maintenance of the household, that one is unable to see how it can be dispensed with.

I have, myself, with the best intention of preventing young children from being permitted to work, lacked the courage to interfere, when it seemed quite certain that such interference must ensure their actual suffering and that of the other members of their families, or compel them to depend on charity. In all the Now England States, laws have been enacted and amended, from time to time, to limit and regulate the employment of children in manufacturing establishments. In Massachusetts the law forbids such employment of any child under ten years of age, with heavy penalty upon any parent or guardian who violates it. Also, the employment of any child under fourteen, unless such child shall attend school twenty weeks in each year. Truant officers are appointed in every manufacturing town, to see that the law is enforced; and I believe it is more fully attended to in Massachusetts than in any other state. Still, violations are frequently reported at Fall River, while at Lowell, it is claimed that the law is strictly obeyed, as far as is possible; and that the superintendents of the corporations and the school teachers cooperate with the authorities in the matter. And yet, the superintendent of the Merrimack Mills says, that he has no doubt they have many children at work below the age of ten years, because mother and child will swear to the requisite age, and so, with all their vigilance, the authorities are foiled. In Maine, the law is scarcely less stringent, and yet, ex-Governor Dingley declares, that ‘it is not enforced, except in special cases — as when the School Committee’ (who are the only persons appointed to attend to it) ‘make a special request to the agents’ — and from the tone of the answer of Governor Dingley, I judge this is but seldom. Connecticut, New Hampshire and Rhode Island statutes differ only slightly from the preceding; but I fear they are not very rigidly enforced or obeyed, except as the manufacturers choose to observe them. I am sure this is the case in Rhode Island; although there is a movement here in the direction of more stringent measures, which is not yet put into law. For reasons heretofore stated, there is not, as a general rule, in most manufacturing places, any hearty cooperation with the authorities, on the part of the parents or the employers.

There is much excuse for the parents, in the fact that they do not know the physical deterioration which must result to their offspring from too early continual labor; and they do not appreciate the value of the education which their children are thus deprived of. Also, these parents are, in many cases, miserably poor. The father is often intemperate, and the mother, dragged about from one factory village to another, too frequently adding more children to the burden she already carries, learns to calculate upon their earnings, as fast as they get old enough to use their hands. For all this, the employer is not wholly responsible. Partly in charity and kindness, partly because such labor is cheaper, partly because some work in factories can best be done by children, and partly from indifference and inattention, it is seldom that the employers themselves take any decisive measures to secure obedience to these laws. The laws themselves, although intended for the protection of the children, do not sufficiently protect them, because continuous labor of this character, from ten to eleven hours a day, is too much for any children under sixteen years of age, even for nine months in the year; and many of those so employed are not over ten or twelve. The moral, economical, physical and mental effect is injurious, and, therefore, although temporarily beneficial in the support of the families, it is, in the end, unprofitable to all concerned. Also, in many cases, the effect upon parents of depending upon their young children for support is bad. Drunken, idle fathers, drunken, negligent mothers are to be found in this class of our population, who learn to depend easily on the labor of young boys and girls for bread, as well as for rum and tobacco.

I shall, of course, in this paper especially consider only the effect of this juvenile labor upon girls, leaving the question of its results upon the growing manhood to be discussed on other occasions.

Most of the work performed by girls in factories requires almost constant standing; and of course some of it is more difficult than others, A superintendent of many years’ experience told me that the work on one kind of machine, performed entirely by girls of thirteen and fourteen years, is, with one exception, considering the nature of the labor and the strength of the laborers, the most difficult and the most straining of any work done in a cotton mill. And the exception is some work performed by men. When I asked him why boys were not set to do this work, he replied, that it required a nimbleness and dexterity of the fingers, of which only young girls are capable. And yet it is absolutely legal to employ these girls in this standing, straining work, which requires this constant and swift motion of the hands either ten or eleven hours a day, for nine months in the year. Fortunately, in each cotton mill, there are but few required on this particular machine, and most of the girls can gain time to take some rest during every day. But many girls, at that critical age, are employed in other tasks, which, though less arduous, do keep them on their feet the greater part of the time; although at this day, seats are pretty generally provided for them to use in spare moments.

Many physicians, of late years, have sounded the alarm concerning overstudy, school-houses built in such a manner as to necessitate the climbing of many stairs by young girls, and other causes of ill-health among them. These evils affect the more carefully guarded classes of children, belonging to families, where, in other respects, hygiene is more or less considered, and youth receives some protection, in the effort to establish a vigorous womanhood. The girls for whom I speak come from another class, who, in other respects, have little chance for health, who sleep in ill-ventilated rooms, who eat unwholesome food, who are often poorly clad, and upon whose dawning womanhood is laid this fearful strain.

It seems to me a vain excuse to say that such is an unavoidable result of financial laws, which require that the working classes shall be worked to the utmost extent of their strength. If the controlling classes, in their struggle to retain and increase their wealth, are justified in availing themselves of all the power given them by the possession of capital, of all the forces created by what are called the laws of trade, to the detriment of their weaker fellow-creatures, I see no reason why they would not also be justified in using physical force to attain the same end, thus converting their employees into chattel slaves. Neither can the urgency of competition justify us in “laying heavy burdens grievous to be borne” upon shoulders too weak to carry them healthfully.

If manufacturers would make their superintendents and overseers understand that they desire the welfare of the help more than the greatest amount of labor, much good would result. A superintendent said to me, ‘A man in my position is between two duties; he doesn’t want to crowd work on an operative that he knows will nearly kill him, and yet he feels under an obligation to the manufacturer to get all the work done possible.’

Studying this question of juvenile labor in all its aspects, the only just solution which seems to me possible is the general establishment by law of half-time schools, to be maintained at the public expense, and made a branch of the public school system. Thus, there could be two sets of children to attend the same machinery, one in the forenoon and the other in the afternoon, alternating the attendance at school in the same way; and this, of course, should be made compulsory. By this means the children would be receiving a double education — one in the very important art of being useful and of earning a living; the other in the knowledge and wisdom of the school, so necessary to the proper development of character and the making of worthy citizens. This system, as adopted and tried in England, is pronounced entirely satisfactory.

These families of factory workers must have the help of their children, and our present system, even where the restraining laws are best enforced, as they are, I believe, in Massachusetts, do not overcome all the objectionable features in the employment of these children. And where they are not thoroughly enforced, as I know to be the case in Rhode Island, we are allowing to grow up, a large class of dwarfed and ignorant people, which gives anything but promise for the future welfare of our country, to say nothing of the cruel injustice of such a system to the people themselves. It is asserted, as the result of experience with half-time schools, that children so taught learn more rapidly and have more liking for the school than do those who are confined there the whole of the school day; and also that they have more interest and more activity and faithfulness in their work when their working time is so shortened that it does not weary them. All which seems rational. Evening schools for children employed throughout the day, though better than none, must always be a partial failure, because preceded by a full day’s work, which unfits the mind for much mental activity.

An important subject to be considered in this connection is the virtue of factory girls. In this, perhaps, more than in any other class of society, it is impossible to be sure of preserving the purity of the maidens, while no effort is made to inculcate an equal morality into the minds of the boys who grow up beside them. These young men have no lower class of women upon whom to prey, and, if their passions are uncontrolled by moral principle, their influence upon the girls with whom they are in daily and hourly association is of the most dangerous character.

Both tenement and factory life tend to break reserve between the sexes, and, when the girls are only slightly guarded and imperfectly taught, and the boys are neither guarded nor taught at all, the result is natural. There is, of course a large class of factory families in which virtue is taught and respected, and where the daughters are as carefully trained and watched over, as the circumstances will permit; but, in the more ignorant and wretched families, where the parents are frequently intemperate, and the children rush gladly, when the day’s work is done, into the streets, away from their crowded and unclean homes, it is not strange that the sensual instincts assume control. The discomforts of many of the homes, sometimes extending to actual cruelty by drunken parents toward their children, not unfrequently sends the daughters out to become an easy prey to any solicitations which wear the garb of tenderness and gentleness, and which come from the sex, who, in the eyes of the world, suffer little disrepute thereby.

Another source of temptation is the fact, that girls who live at home, whether they are of age or not, rarely have the control of their own wages. Instead of paying their board to their parents, and reserving the rest to use at their own discretion, it is the almost invariable custom for the mother to take all that the daughters earn, and then provide them such clothing as she thinks she can spare from the family necessities. I have known girls long past their majority, who had worked at the mill from their childhood, but had never had a cent they could call their own. Notwithstanding all these untoward circumstances, I believe it is rare that a factory girl becomes an actual prostitute; and though less mercenary lapses from virtue, often followed by wretched marriages, do occur, there is still much to be said in praise and commendation of the lives of many of these girls. Better homes, wiser teaching, for the youth of both sexes, would do much to prevent the currents of their young lives from setting; in wrong directions, into which too many of them naturally enter, when it is almost the only relief from toil, and the sole change from dreary conditions of existence. With experienced, conscientious teachers, I should hope much from the half-time schools, for the moral training of this, to me, deeply interesting class of people,

In depicting the condition of women and girls, both in the factory and the home, I wish it to be understood, that much of what I say is the result of my own personal observation. Also, I do not mean to give the impression, that the employment of large numbers of women and men, in establishments for the manufacture of useful fabrics, is, in itself, an evil. Neither do I mean that the wrong conditions of which I speak are equally in force in all manufactories, although I do believe they exist in all to some extent. There are many cases, where constant attempts are made by manufacturers to correct abuses, and to improve the condition and elevate the character of the operatives.

In factory homes a frequent visitor will often meet with incidents and circumstances that reveal conditions from which there is much to hope. I have, myself, witnessed instances of rare cleanliness and tastefulness, under very unfavorable circumstances, and evidences of unselfishness and kindness, such as is seldom to be found elsewhere. Living as these people generally do, in tenements so connected, that the different families are constantly coming in contact in all their domestic affairs, the numerous children being much together, from all parts of the house, there have been times when I have bowed my head in humiliation and reverence, before the forbearance, the self-denial and the patient endurance of some of these women. Unless incited by intoxicating drinks, a quarrel between different families is a rare occurrence.

There is another class of factory women, to whom I have hitherto made no allusion, but to whom I should be very unjust, if I failed to include them in the considerations of this paper; and that is, the wives and daughters of the manufacturers. In this day of larger establishments, of greater wealth and higher opportunities, they are not required to take part in the running of the machinery; but, in the light of a searching analysis of duty, they cannot be excused from a grave responsibility in the process of dealing with the concerns of those from the results of whose labor, they largely derive the means of their own comfort and enjoyment.

The ascent from ignorance, poverty, coarseness and hardship, to culture, wealth, refinement and ease, is by slow steps of progress, and those at the highest point are fortunate in having had the way opened for them by others who have preceded them. And surely it is their duty to hold out to those behind them a helping hand, in order to lift them as far as possible to a level with themselves. I know plenty of people, who are now in the enjoyment of all the advantages which wealth bestows, whose grand-parents were, within my own memory, among the hand-workers of the day; some of them as uneducated and as poor as are many of those now employed by their grand-children. There is much these more fortunate women can do to improve the conditions in the lives of their humbler sisters: and, as the recipients of the fruits of their labor, there is no excuse for them if they pass them by on the other side. These factory women of the higher class should make themselves personally acquainted with the actual condition of the feminine workers in the mills. It is their duty to see that too heavy work is not required of them; that they have seats on which to rest in spare moments; and, above all, that the superintendents and overseers are men who, while they arc qualified to manage the work well, are also morally fit to preside over women and girls. If this better class of factory women would combine in any one state, to secure the establishment of half-time schools, I believe they would be successful. When this is accomplished, the time thus gained will afford opportunity to institute cooking schools, sewing schools and kitchen gardens, where the young girls can be trained for house-keeping. These upper class factory women should visit the homes and take a personal interest in their concerns. Many suggestions they might make there would he invaluable to these households. Their very presence and their kindly words would give comfort and hope to the hearts of the women they would meet there. The little children in the families of the factory workers should be the especial care of these ladies, who should establish nurseries and kindergartens, to save from neglect in the homes and contamination in the streets, these future men and women, whose lives are often turned in wrong directions before they are old enough to be admitted to the schools. To my sisters of this fortunate class of factory women, I would urge an appeal, if I could, that should banish sleep from their eyes and slumber from their eyelids, until they were so awakened to a sense of their duties, as to lead them to go forth to the investigation of the condition of every family, and of every woman, and of every girl, whose labor in the mill, while it produces the means of their own support, helps also to furnish the supply of purple and fine linen which these ladies wear. What better supplement to the education of a young lady could there be, than the round of visiting by her mother’s side, which this service would require.’ To what better purpose could she devote a share of her leisure time, than to devising and carrying out methods for the amusement, instruction and benefit, in a variety of ways, of the young girls, whose lives could be sweetened and enriched by her sisterly ministrations; while, from some of them, she could learn lessons of self-sacrifice and faithfulness in the performance of duty, such as her life has hitherto given her no opportunity to conceive.”

I would not exclude from such beneficence other women living in factory neighborhoods, who are not directly interested in the financial interests of the mills, but who, with their children, cannot escape the effect of the moral, intellectual and physical atmosphere around them. I maintain that, wherever we live, it is our duty to interest ourselves in the welfare of the people among whom our lives are cast, especially if in the race of progress, they are behind us; and this for our own sake as well as theirs. We cannot flee from our responsibilities of this character, and woe be unto us if we ignore them. The plea that the people around us are not in our employ, and therefore we have no duties toward them, will not save us from the consequences to ourselves of our neglect of them. The unfortunate Jew who fell among thieves was not only an alien but he was an enemy of the good Samaritan who ministered to his necessities.



Source: Elizabeth Buffum Chase, 1806-1899, Her Life and Its Environment, by Lillie Buffum Chace Wyman and Arthur Crawford Wyman in Two Volumes, Volume II, (Boston: W.B. Clarke Co.) 1914, pp. 146-159.