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Primary Sources - Workshop in American History The Lowell Systemhomesitemap
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Workshop 3:  Lectures & Activities

Lecture Transcript One:
The Lowell Experiment

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All of these anxieties help to explain the system of paternalism that's in place at Lowell. Boardinghouses are created, and they were docked a certain amount of pay to live in the boardinghouses. But it was important. It was important for helping to make sense of this transition to wage labor, to assuage the anxieties of people about wage labor. The dominant metaphor that people talked about was the family. They talked about their family in the boardinghouses. And the women not only worked, but they were expected to attend church, to go to libraries, to attend lectures. There were rules about no drinking, about no gambling.

In other words, there is a desire here to inculcate a certain set of values inside these women as well, and not just, "All right, you go to work, and then when you're done work, you do what you want to do." These are the middle-class values of order, sobriety, discipline. Time discipline becomes an important factor in this new American industrial state, getting used not to the rhythms of the sun in the morning and the sunset at night, but bells, chimes, whistles, clocks. That's also part of the new industrial order. And part of what Lowell does is it attempts to help women make that transition while simultaneously being a paternalistic system designed to help ease the anxieties that the experience of Lowell is going to produce corrupted, unvirtuous women of one kind or another.

The women participate and contribute to a publication called the Lowell Offering. It's one of the sources from which we have lots of letters and other kinds of documents that helps to explain or helps us to try and get a window on to their experiences. Well, the cover of the Lowell Offering, I think, perfectly embodies all that I've been talking about, about the attempt to make people feel better about industrialization in America. It's a vision; it's a Utopian vision of industry in literally a Garden of Eden—vines and flowers climbing up along the side, on the borders; a beautifully dressed young girl standing there with her apron on, a book in one hand, a basket in the other; behind her, the central institutions of American life: the church, the mill, the boardinghouse. She looks even as if she walks on water. And there's a tremendous amount of religious sensibilities that go along with these ideas about paternalism at Lowell, about making people feel better about this first industrial experiment. Now, that's image.

The other side is reality, and there is a tension between image and reality, between the prescriptive views that are shown versus the actual experience itself. If you look at the timetables for the workers, you know that the bells went off at 4:30 in the morning. They had to be at work by 5:00, break for breakfast for about 35 minutes at 7:00, another break mid-afternoon for the same period of time, out of work by 7:00 at night. They were paid about two dollars to $3.25 per week, based on what job they did. Different jobs got rewarded, compensated differently based on skill levels that are required. There were male overseers on each floor, but it was primarily women working together. And they had a curfew every night at 10:00, which means essentially, from the hours of 7:00 to 10:00, was on their own.

And over time, there is an expectation for increased productivity. And the women respond to this. Management wants to increase profits. Management wants to make more money out of their mills. And so they speed up the rate at which the machines are working, or they stretch out the number of machines over which an operative has to be in control. That's another interesting thing—operatives, the language of work. It's a society in transition. They don't have the word "employee." They don't know what to call these people—operatives, wage laborers, factory hands. Pay attention to the language that people use to describe their jobs.

Well, with these attempts to change conditions, what we know is that these women also begin to organize, and indeed they even strike. In February of 1834, there is a strike when hundreds walk out to protest a reduction in wages, reduction of wages by 15 percent. They held meetings; they passed resolutions; they made speeches. "The oppressing hand of avarice will enslave us," they said. And that language of slavery is not accidental. Lots of people talked about wage labor as being akin to slave labor. Now, some people denounced these women organizers as unfeminine, as their actions being inappropriate. But they strike again in 1836. As one newspaper, the Harbinger, says, "When capital has got 13 hours of labor daily out of its being, it can get nothing more."

There are a number of questions, undoubtedly, worth probing more deeply when we stop to think about these thousands of women at Lowell and the nature of what went on there for them. Why did they go there in the first place? What do we know about their reasons? What was in their heads? What were they carrying with them when they went there? How did they experience the regimen once they got there? What did it mean for them? And ultimately it's fair to ask in what ways did the Lowell women have an impact on the society and the culture at large.

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