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America's History in the Making

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Excerpted from Factory Tracts

PHILANTHROPISTS of the nineteenth century!—shall not the operatives of our country be permitted to speak for themselves? Shall they be compelled to listen in silence to [] who speak for gain, and are the mere echo of the will of the corporations? Shall the worthy laborer be awed into silence by wealth and power, and for fear of being deprived of the means of procuring his daily bread? Shall tyranny and cruel oppression be allowed to rived the chains of physical and mental slavery on the millions of our country who are the real producers of all its improvements and wealth, and they fear to speak out in noble self-defence? Shall they fear to appeal to the sympathies of the people, or the justice of this far-famed republican nation? God forbid!

Much has been written and spoken in woman's behalf, especially in America; and yet a large class of females are, and have been, destined to a state of servitude as degrading as unceasing toil can make it. I refer to the female operatives of New England—the free states of our union—the states where no colored slave can breathe the balmy air, and exist as such;—but yet there are those, a host of them, too, —who are in fact nothing more nor less than slaves in every sense of the word! Slaves to a system of labor which requires them to toil from five until seven o'clock, with one hour only to attend to the wants of nature, allowed—slaves to the will and requirements of the "powers that be," however they may infringe on the rights or conflict with the feelings of the operative slaves to ignorance—and how can it be otherwise? What time has the operative to bestow on moral, religious or intellectual culture? How can our country look for aught but ignorance and vice, under the existing state of things? When the whole system is exhausted by unremitting labor during twelve and thirteen hours per day, can any reasonable being expect that the mind will retain its vigor and energy? Impossible! Common sense will each every one the utter impossibility of improving the mind under these circumstances, however great the desire may be for knowledge....

An Operative.

Author Unknown. Factory Life As It Is, By An Operative (Lowell, Mass.: Lowell Female Labor Reform Association, 1845).

Creator Sarah Bagley or unknown
Context Working conditions at Lowell had deteriorated
Audience The general public
Purpose To mobilize sympathy and support for the female mill workers in their attempts to improve working conditions

Historical Significance

Young, white women born in the United States supplied much of the labor in some early textile mills. In the model mills of Lowell, Massachusetts, the women lived in closely supervised boarding houses, and often married and left the mills within a few years. But these mills became more impersonal and less paternalistic in the 1830s and 1840s, and those who labored there—including growing numbers of immigrants—were less and less optimistic about joining the middle class. Labor unions appeared as women and men workers alike identified themselves as members of a growing, often impoverished, working class.

By 1845, visitors were appalled by the conditions women worked and lived under at Lowell: working thirteen-hour days under intense pressure and sleeping two to a bed.

By that time, the workers were themselves speaking out against factory conditions. Some 1,500 Lowell workers had walked out in 1836. In 1845, they began issuing "Factory Tracts," calling attention to the abuses they suffered from. They also formed a union headed by weaver Sarah Bagley and demanded a ten-hour workday.


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