Farm to Factory Motives- Mill Girls Reasons for Going to Lowell

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   In the 1800s, a lot of New England farm girls left their homes to work in textile mills, such as Lowell. These girls had many different reasons to leave, some were sent away, and some chose to leave.

One thing that influenced many families to send their daughters to work in the mills was money. Families could get extra money if they had one or more daughters earning the high wages mills offered. In Lyddie, by Katherine Paterson, the main character, Lyddie, goes to the mills to earn money to help pay off a debt her family owes. She feels responsible for her family’s debt, especially after her mom is sent to a mental hospital. 
When Lyddie is dismissed from her job at Cutlers Tavern, she tells her friend “ I’m going to be a mill girl, Triphena.” She explains how the mills offer higher wages than other jobs women had at the time. She said “ I can go to Lowell and make real money to pay off the debt so I can go home.” In an actual letter that a mill girl sent to her father in 1845, Mary Paul talks about wanting to go to the mills, because, like Lyddie, she has been hired as a domestic servant, but thinks that the mills would pay more. Also like Lyddie, Mary Paul needs new clothes, and cannot afford to buy them with the amount of money she is being paid. She says in her letter “I can earn more to begin with [at lowell] than anywhere about here.” She is talking about getting a new job at the mills, where she could earn more. There weren’t many things to do for a woman to earn money, there were seamstresses and school teachers and servants, but in the times of the mills, there were few respectable jobs that women could have, and none of them were very well paid until the mills started hiring.


 

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Money was a reason the girls wanted to leave too. Though many of them had to send a share of their earnings home to their families, they would usually keep some money for things they themselves needed. Clothes, books, doctors, these were all things that the girls might need, and would be able to pay for themselves, with money that they earned. This made the girls eager to work, they could be independent, and wouldn’t have to rely on their families money. Girls also were excited to have money for personal reasons. With extra money, they could go see a play with friends, buy fancy ribbons for their hair, or get themselves new clothes. Mary Paul also writes in one of her letters about how she had earned enough money that month to buy herself some new shoes. she said "Last Tuesday we were paid. In all I had six dollars and sixty cents paid $4.68 for board. With the rest I got me a pair of rubbers and a pair of 50.cts shoes." Farm girls rarely had time to be bothered with  these things, but if the girls came to the mills they became possibilities.

Another thing that girls worked at the mills for was money to put towards their dowry.  In the 1800s, when a girl got married, her father/parents would give her husband a dowry; a chunk of land, money, or maybe a farm animal. Men would often choose a wife with the best dowry, and if a girl didn’t offer much of a dowry, the boy might not pick her. One mill girl named Adeleen Blake writes in a letter to her cousin, that she is saving towards her dowry. Adeleen said "I feel so proud i now support myself. I am also able to save money towards my dowry, and still have some left an occasional luxury." Girls who were afraid they wouldn’t be attractive to men if they didn’t have an impressive dowry might work at the mills to earn money for it. Also, some girls’ families couldn’t afford to offer a dowry, and the girls would have to work for it themselves. 

Yet another thing that drew these girls  to the mills, was an education.  Some of the Lowell Mills offered nightly lectures from college teachers, and schooling for the younger workers. In Lyddie, one of her friends, Betsy, and her group go to lectures. the book says that "she and several other operatives had formed study groups, one in Latin, and one in botany." Also, a real mill girl wrote in a letter about having a chance for education at the mills. Lucy Larcome wrote about taking a three month break form her job at the mills to go to grammar school. she wrote "The teachers were kind and thorough in their instruction, and my mind seemed to have been ploughed up during that year of work, so that knowledge took root in it easily." Though mostly everyone in New England had, at some time in their lives, gone to school, they hadn’t learned much past reading, writing and maybe a little math. Girls might go to Lowell to learn more subjects, and save money for college, where women were starting to be accepted. 
    Besides all these reasons, some girls went to the mills for a chance to meet people. Social opportunities were rare on the farm, and working at Lowell would mean working with hundreds of girls around your age, and getting a chance to make new friends. Lyddie, Betsy and Amelia all share a room together in boarding house number 5, and often spend free time at night talking or reading together. Lucy Larcome also wrote in her letters about socializing in the mills. she wrote "...There was a great deal of fun mixed with it. We were not occupied more than half the time. The intervals were spent frolicking around the spinning-frames, teasing and talking to the older girls,or entertaining ourselves with games and stories in a corner, or exploring, with the overseer's permission,the mysteries of the carding room, the dressing room, and the weaving roo
Some girls even went to the mills just for a chance to travel and get out of their town, where they hadn't ever really had a chance to leave home. If they went to the mills, they would get to see a big city, and experience it for themselves.

There were many, many, many reasons that New England farm girls left their homes to become working will girls in Lowell, but these are just a few that have been found in historical pieces, firsthand accounts, and letters found from mill girls.


By Sage Bennis