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"Letters from Susan," Harriet Farley, Lowell Offering, Volume IV
1844


But, dear Mary, I fear I have tired you with this long letter, and yet I have not answered half your questions. Do you wish to hear anything more about the overseers? Once for all, then, there are many very likely intelligent public-spirited men among them. They are interested in the good movements of the day; teachers in the Sabbath schools; and some have represented the city in the State Legislature. They usually marry among the factory girls, and do not connect themselves with their inferiors either. Indeed, in almost all the matches here the female is superior in education and manner, if not in intellect, to her partner. The overseers have good salaries, and their families live very prettily. I observe that in almost all cases the mill girls make excellent wives. They are good managers, orderly in their households, and neat as waxwork." It seems as though they were so delighted to have houses of their own to take care of that they would never weary of the labor and the care. The boarding women you ask about. They are usually widows or single women from the country; and many questions are always asked, and references required, before a house is given to a new applicant. It is true that mistakes are sometimes made, and the wrong person gets into the pew, but

"Things like this you know must be,"
Where'er there is a factory.

I see I have given you rhyme; it is not all quotation, nor entirely original.

I think it requires quite a complication of good qualities to make up a good boarding woman. "She looks well to the ways of her household," and must be even more than all that King Solomon describes in the last chapter of Proverbs. She not only in winter "riseth while it is yet night, and giveth meat to her household, a portion to her maidens," but she sitteth up far into the night, and seeth that her maidens are asleep, and that their lamps are gone out. Perhaps she doth not "consider a field to buy it," but she considereth every piece of meat, and bushel of potatoes, and barrel of flour, and load of wood, and box of soap, and every little thing, whether its quantity, quality, and price are what discretion would recommend her to purchase. "She is not afraid of the snow for her household," for she maketh them wear rubber overshoes, and thick cloaks and hoods, and seeth that the paths are broken out. "Her clothing is silk and purple," and she looketh neat and comely. It may be that her husband sitteth not "in the gates," for it is too often the case that he hath abandoned her, or loafeth in the streets. "She openeth her mouth with wisdom, and in her tongue is the law of kindness." Her maidens go to her for counsel and sympathy, if a decayed tooth begins to jump, or a lover proves faithless; and to keep twoscore young maidens in peace with them-selves, each other, and her own self, is no slight task. The price of such a woman is, indeed, above rubies. "Give her of the fruit of her hands, and let her own works praise her."

I have now told you of mill girls, overseers and their wives, and boarding-housekeepers and I feel that I have won forgiveness for neglecting you so long. You think that I have too high an opinion of our superintendents. I hope not. I do think that many of them are chosen as combining, in their characters, many excellent qualities. Some of them may be as selfish as you suppose. But we must remember that they owe a duty to their employers, as well as to those they employ. They are agents of the companies, as well as superintendents of us. Where those duties conflict I hope the sympathies of the man will always be with the more dependent party.

Country people are very suspicious. I do not think them perfect. A poet will look at a wood-cutter, and say "there is an honest man;" and as likely as not the middle of his load is rotten punk, and crooked sticks make many interstices, while all looks well without. A rustic butcher slays an animal that is dying of disease, and carries his meat to the market. The butcher and the woodman meet, and say all manner of harsh things against the "grandees" of the city, and quote such poetry as,

"GOD made the country--
Man made the town," &c.

It is true that with the same disposition for villany the man of influence must do the most harm. But, where there is most light, may there not be most true knowledge? And, even if there is no more principle, may there not be, with more cultivation of mind, a feeling of honor and of self-respect which may be of some benefit in its stead.
But I have written till I am fairly wearied. Good by.

Yours always,   Susan

LETTER FOURTH

Dear Mary: You say that you wish to come to Lowell, and that some others of my old acquaintance wish to come, if I think it advisable; and, as I have but a few moments to write, I will devote all my letter to this subject.

There are girls here for every reason, and for no reason at all. I will speak to you of my acquaintances in the family here. One, who sits at my right hand at table, is in the factory because she hates her mother-in-law. She has a kind father, and an otherwise excellent home, but, as she and her mama agree about as well as cat and mouse, she has come to the factory. The one next her has a wealthy father, but, like many of our country farmers, he is very penurious, and he wishes his daughters to maintain themselves. The next is here because there is no better place for her, unless it is a Shaker settlement. The next has a "well-off" mother, but she is a very pious woman, and will not buy her daughter so many pretty gowns and collars and ribbons and other etceteras of "Vanity Fair" as she likes; so she concluded to "help herself." The next is here because her parents and family are wicked infidels, and she cannot be allowed to enjoy the privileges of religion at home. The next is here because she must labor somewhere, and she has been ill treated in so many families that she has a horror of domes-tic service. The next has left a good home because her lover, who has gone on a whaling voyage, wishes to be married when he returns, and she would like more money than her father will give her. The next is here because her home is in a lonesome country village, and she cannot bear to remain where it is so dull. The next is here because her parents are poor, and she wishes to acquire the means to educate herself. The next is here because her beau came, and she did not like to trust him alone among so many pretty girls. And so I might go on and give you the variety of reasons, but this is enough for the present. I cannot advise you to come. You must act according to your own judgment. Your only reasons are a desire to see a new place, a city, and to be with me. You have now an excellent home, but, dear M., it may not seem the same to you after you have been here a year or two--for it is not advisable to come and learn a new occupation unless you can stay as long as that. The reasons are that you may become unaccustomed to your present routine of home duties, and lose your relish for them, and also for the very quiet pleasures of our little village. Many, who are dissatisfied here, have also acquired a dissatis-faction for their homes, so that they cannot be contented any where, and wish they had never seen Lowell.

But tell Hester that I advise her to come. She has always lived among relatives who have treated her as a slave, and yet they would not allow her to go away and be a slave in any other family. I think I can make her happier here, and I see no better way for her to do than to break all those ties at once, by leaving her cheerless drudgery and entering the mill.

I don't know what to say to Miriam, so many pleasant and unpleasant things are mingled in her lot now. There she lives with Widow Farrar, and every thing about them looks so nice and comfortable that people think she must be happy. The work is light, but every thing must be just as the old lady says, and she has strange vagaries at times. Miriam has to devote a great deal of time to her whims and fancies which is not spent in labor. Yet she would find it unpleasant to leave her nice large chamber, with its bureau and strip carpet and large closets, for the narrow accommodations of a factory boarding-house. And the fine great garden, in which she now takes so much pleasure, would be parted from with much sadness. But then her wages are so low that she says she can lay aside nothing and still dress herself suitably, for she is always expected to receive and help entertain the old lady's company. When the widow dies, Miriam will have nothing, unless she leaves her a legacy, which, on account of the many needy relatives, is not to be expected. So you had better tell her to make all arrangements for coming here, and then if the old lady will retain her by "raising her salary," tell her to stay with her.

As for Lydia I think she had better not come. I know how disagreeable her home is in many respects, but it is her home after all. She has to be up at four o'clock in the morning, and to be "on her feet," as she says, till nine o'clock at night, unless she sits down for an hour to patch the boys' clothes or keep her father's accounts. She has to be every body's waiter, and says that all seem to think she was born for that occupation. Then she has no accommodations but a little crowded attic, which she shares with old Jenny and three or four little ones, and she has told me that she never knew what it was to have a dollar of her own to spend as she might like. Yet there she is an important personage in the family, while here it would be quite different. She enjoys excellent health, and her varied employment appears to suit her. It might be very different here in that respect also. She has nothing of her own now, but she is sure of care and comforts in case of sickness, and necessaries always. When her father dies, or when she marries, she will probably have something of her own. "But," you will reply, "her father may live as long as she will, and she may never marry." True; but tell her to consider all things, and, before she decides to leave home, to request her father to pay her a stated sum as wages. If he will give her a dollar a week I should advise her to stay with him and her mother. Here she would have as many of the comforts and accommodations of life as there, but perhaps no more. She could dress better here, but not better compared with others. That is something to consider.

Nancy wishes also to come, because her trade does not suit her. If she is losing her health by a sedentary employment, I certainly advise her to change it. I think she could do well here, and then she has a voice like a nightingale. It would gain for her notice and perhaps emolument.

But I have hardly room to say good-by. Yours, as ever, Susan


 

Consider These Questions

Background

 

1. Why do you think Harriet Farley chose to write these pieces in this particular style?

2. Who do you think the intended audience is, and what are the underlying messages that Farley is communicating? Do you think her descriptions of factory life are honest and accurate?

3. What do these letters say about women's transition from country life to factory life?




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