The Boarding House Life in New England

Laconia Boarding House
         The boarding houses of New England usually hosted about 20-40 girls total. With all of the girls at the home, they met a lot of new friends. Suprisingly enough there was only one caretaker. The rooms were very small and cramped and somehow six people managed to lived in one room but, unfortunately, only three beds. In the rooms there was very little furniture.  Usually there was only a small desk but, if you were lucky you might get a fireplace.  At the boarding house there were a lot of rules, and girls knew about them before deciding to live in the homes. A few of them were: a curfew of 10:00 p.m., men were generally not allowed inside, they were expected to attend church every Sunday, and demonstrate morals of proper society.  Each girl was served three good meals a day fed to them in a common room. They were provided all of these things for a good price, between 1-2 dollars a week. There were also a few down falls to living there though. They got a lot of chores, there was poor circulation, and they only were paid about $2-$6 a week, so little spending money. Even with these downfalls, most girls enjoyed living at a boarding house, some of them even said they liked it better than their own family farm.

Fashion of the Mill Girls

A Group Picture
         Most mill girls dressed the same to go to work. Though, the generations of workers had variations of the same outfit.  The outfits all consisted of a dress, boots and stockings. The specific clothing for each generation is listed below.  While they were in the mill they either wore there hair up, in a hat, or in a bonnet. The women's hair of this time was about shoulder length at longest. The girls who lived at the boarding houses didn't have that big of a chance to bathe or wash their hair. The reason for this was that themselves and their "room-mates" had to take turns.  Adding on to this; mill girls were poor, and soap was expensive.         During the cold season (winter) the girls wore heavier clothes made of wool. The mills were not heated so they had to wear shawls or coats. With bonnets or hats to keep their head warm.  During the hot season (summer) they wore lighter cotton made dresses to keep cool. They usually left the bonnet off and just wore their hair up. The mill got very hot during the summer and many girls fell ill.  In the book Lyddie by Katherine Patterson, the main character, Lyddie, said she was surprised at how fancy and sophisticated the mill girls dressed. She didn't even own a pair of boots that fit. The farm clothes were very different than the mill clothes. Lyddie's farm fashion was not allowed in the mills, the overseer at her boarding house even told her that the mill owner wouldn't hire her dressed like that.

Younger Mill Girl Fashion

Young Mill Workers in a Mill
         The younger mill girls tended to wear clothes that they would have worn on a farm, except a bit fancier and more expensive. When the young girls were working on their family farm they usually wore an old ratty dress, boots, and a coat. At the factory though, it was a different story. Their outfits usually consisted of: a dress, tights (stockings in summer), shawl or coat (only in winter), boots and sometimes a hat or bonnet. In the summer the girls tended to just wear their hair up when working. Since money was tight the workers usually wore hammy-downs from older siblings to save money

Teen Fashion

Teen Mill Girls Standing Above a River on a Bridge
         The teen fashion was a mix between their child clothing and adult clothing. The girls usually wore: dresses, stockings or tights, boots, coats or shawls, and aprons. Like the children that worked in the mill the coat and stockings were unnecessary in the summer.  This new fashion was a big change for them, because as children they wore what they, for the most part, usually wore to work on their family farm. They had to  start wearing sophisticated clothes in order to be asked to be married by a wealthy man. 

Adult Fashion

Adult Mill Workers In Front of Their Boarding House
          The adults usually wore aprons, button-up dresses, boots, stockings, and always wore their hair up. The women either made their clothes, or had their outfits tailored in stores on Sundays. Since they were adults they didn't grow anymore so, the women usually wore the same dress until it was completely ruined, or the women needed fancier clothes. They usually only started purchasing new clothes when they wanted to be asked for their hand in marriage. Most adult female mill workers were not married, but for only one reason, they could not provide a dowry (a sum of money provided from the father of the bride to the husband, a blessing) to give to her husband. If you were a mill worker your father usually couldn't provide your dowry. There is even some record of some workers paying their own dowry with their earnings.


Boarding House Environment

A piano similar to one that might have been found in the boarding houses
     Most of the mill girls who didn't work with their families or live near the mill lived in boarding houses. There were generally 50 to 60 girls living in these houses together.  The houses were described as quite attractive.  They had pianos and parlors for guests during the appropriate hours for visiting.  Sometimes the mother of a mill girl would own the boarding house.  The girls created a welcoming community of girls in the houses.  They created bonds of mutual dependence and sisterhood.  During the strike, for example, they said it was important to maintain, "a universal bond of womanhood."  Sometimes, the mill girls even called themselves a "band of sisters".  The girl supported each other whenever needed, such as helping new girls adjust to their new life and fit in.  Also, if a girl wanted to take a day off without actually being sick, the other girls would cover for her so that she could keep her pay and her job, but take a break from working.  
There was a kind atmosphere in the boarding house, and the girls developed many friendships while working at the mills.  Most of the times, their lives weren't very private due to their living conditions.  The girls shared with each other about their ideas on politics, men, clothes, and other important topics.  There was a gentle peer pressure that made all the girls seem the same to outsiders. They all adopted the city's style and accent.  Although working in the mills was hard work, living in the boarding house was often positive and lively.

Activities of the Boarding Houses

The cover of the periodical 'Lowell Offering', written by mill girls.
      The boarding houses and surrounding areas offered many opportunities and activities for girls with enough energy left to do them.  The girls played the pianos in the boarding houses.  A lot of the time, they socialized, read books from libraries, wrote letters or worked on sewing.  The girls enjoyed reading aloud occasionally, reciting poetry, reading magazines, and writing to the "Lowell Offering".  (See photo left).   The girls often sat in groups during these activities.  Sometimes, they even had circles to discuss or engage in friendly criticism about an issue.  They discussed topics such as, books, social life, religion, thoughts and experiences, and gave each other advice.             The girls gained much knowledge which working at the mills.  Some of them were able to complete their elementary learning while working at the mills.  During their education the books the girls read were mostly history and poetry.  The girls didn't read novels as often, but they did religious reading in church and read English classics and a few American novels for education.  They went to public events on Sundays that were sponsored by the church, Sunday seminars and lyceum lectures.  On holidays and Sundays, they might also go on walks.  On Sundays, it was also fun for the girls to go shopping to see the latest fashions or look at shawls, furs and hats in the "fancy" stores.  There were many activities available to the mill girls while they lived in the boarding houses. 

Children's Boarding House Activities

A typical checkers board children might have used
      Sometimes, there were immigrant families working at the mills and living in the boarding houses.  There were also young children who were employed as bobbin girls and doffers (boys).  These children acted as runners, bringing supplies to the other workers when they ran out.
      The children of the mills found lots of ways to keep entertained while the adults worked.  The job included a lot of free time for playing and tended to be easy.  The children played checkers, talked, told stories, sang songs, played with wooden dolls, and other homemade toys.  They played cards occasionally, but the game was not popular among them.  Because the law stated that children under a certain age must be educated, the children also attended school.

This is a picture of a slightly fancier doll than the children of the mills might have owned.

Fun facts

  • The girls ate breakfast before dawn.
  • They ate all meals on fancy china.
  • A lot of girls treated church like a fashion show and tried to dress up as much as possible.
  • Lights out time was 10 PM.
  • Most girls used "Lowell Offering" to complain about unfair treatment at the mills.  

Boarding House Regulations

Boarding house rules

 - Only girls who work in the mills could stay at the boarding houses.-  There was no improper conduct or unreasonable visiting hours allowed.-  Doors to the house closed at 10PM and no one would be allowed in without a very good reason.-  Girls who behaved badly or did not attend church were reported to the mill owners and discharged.  -  Buildings and yards were to be kept neat, clear, and orderly.-  All boarders and workers must have the mandatory vaccines.

Project Sources

The Mill Girlsby Bernice Seldon, published 1983 by Anthneum in New YorkWomen at Workby Thomas Dublinpublished in 1850 in New York by columbia universityby Charles Dickens

Picture Sources