The Mill Girls – Going, Going, Gone

Pepperell Mill Workers

Image description from Maine Memory:

Pepperell Manufacturing Company was a cotton textile mill which operated at the Saco River falls in Biddeford for 100 years from 1849-1949. The company was named after Sir William Pepperell, a Maine soldier and merchant. Pepperell made sheeting and blankets many of which were shipped to Asian countries. Pepperell still exists today in some form due to mergers.

At mid century, ongoing labor strife and rising tension between mill owners and their increasingly savvy female work force led to a shift in the composition of mill workers.

Cropped Image from Shorpy


The Yankee factory girls are ‘some.’ In Maine recently, the Proprietors reduced the wages, whereupon there was a general determination to strike; and as they were obliged to give a month’s notice before quitting work, they have meanwhile issued a circular to the world at large, in which is the following paragraph:

We are now working out our notice, and shall soon be out of employment — can turn our hand to most anything — don’t like to be idle — but determined not to work for nothing where folks can afford to pay. Who wants help? —

We can make bonnets, dresses, puddings, pies, or cake; patch, darn, knit, roast, stew and fry; make butter and cheese, milk cows, feed chickens, and hoe corn; sweep out the kitchen, put the parlor to rights; make beds, split wood, kindle fires, wash and iron, besides being remarkably fond of babies — in fact, can do anything the most accomplished housewife is capable of, not forgetting the scolding on Mondays and Saturdays; for specimens of spunk, will refer you to our overseer.

Speak quick! — Black eyes, fair foreheads, clustering locks, beautiful as a Hebe, can sing like a seraph and smile most bewitchingly; any elderly gentleman in want of a wife, willing to sustain either character; in fact we are in the market.

Who bids?

Going, going, gone.

Who’s the lucky man?

Huron Reflector (Norwalk, Ohio) Jan 20, 1849

Mill Girl

Image from cover of:

Title    The Lowell offering: writings by New England mill women (1840-1845)
Author    Benita Eisler
Editor    Benita Eisler
Edition    illustrated
Publisher W. W. Norton & Company, 1998



She Says that Agent Lyon Draws a Salary of $12,000 a Year, Which if True Would Make Him the Best Paid Agent in Lowell.

Under the caption of “Grinding Down Mill Girls” the following letter has been received by THE SUN:

Mr. Editor — I thought I would write a few lines to you to give an idea of what the life of a Lowell mill girl is at the present time. I have worked for 20 years in a Lowell mill, and having shared all the ups and downs of mill life for that length of time, I doubt if many mill girls are better acquainted with mill life than myself. In looking back to my first years as an operative, comparing them in regard to the amount necessary nowadays, I find we do twice the amount of work for less money nowadays. Of course, people will say that we do not work as long hours as we did 20 years ago, which is all very true; but take the cotton weave room girls, twenty years ago she ran five looms, and was considered a fine weaver; today she must run eight looms to hold her own. So it is in every department of the mill. The machinery is speeded so that the machines turn out more work, so I feel confident in my statement that mill girls do twice the amount of work for less money.

I think it is a burning shame the way mill owners treat the operatives. It is easy if you stop to think how owners become rich while operatives become poorer. The former would like to bring the operatives down to a level with the ignorant classes in some pars of Europe. We see a sample of them on our streets with a handkerchief tied over their heads, instead of a hat, and wearing a dress all colors of the rainbow. I thank God for free America and the stars and stripes that protect us, and the old Bay state with Governor Greenhalge to look after the children, and see that they are sent to school and receive a proper education before they are allowed to go into these factories, so that when they reach manhood and womanhood they will be able to speak for themselves and not allow mill owners to squeeze the very life out of them in order to get rich.

The merchant receives as good a price for his goods today as he did ten years ago. If you wish to buy a piece of cotton cloth you will pay as high for it as you did ten years ago. You can get a remnant a little cheaper perhaps, but for perfect goods the prices are the same.

I think it is a shame to keep down the mill girl the way mill owners are doing by reducing wages so often and then closing the mills. No trade or business suffers as much as that of mill operatives. If a dressmaker is able to make one dress a week she gets her price; if she makes two dresses she gets double wages. If the mill girl makes good pay the mill agent at once makes a cut down.

Can it be wondered at that there are are so many strikes? or so much going on in mill circles? The owners make money and the more they make the more they want; they engage heartless men to manage the affairs. I pity the people who work under them, and there are a few on the Carpet. Just at present there are many people suffering from the Carpet strike. It is a just strike. If the stockholders cannot afford to raise wages, why do they not cut down the salaried men? Why do they rob the help and pour the money into the pockets of the stockholders?

When Agent Lyon first came to work for the Lowell company he was content to work for $4000 a year, and now he is receiving $12,000. There are $8000 which should go into the pockets of the operatives.

As long as he has been in Lowell he does not know how to manage the brussels department, and so he has an overseer to help him out; one is as good as the other. The weavers say that the overseer does nothing but make trouble; in the morning he does a little writing and the rest of the day walks around with his hands in his pockets, and for this gets $6 a day.

He watches the weavers like a cat does a mouse, to see if they do anything which needs reporting to the agent. Brussels weavers working on the piece need no watching. These are things which the public should know, and as THE SUN is not brought up by the corporations I believe you will willingly give a few things about mill life in Lowell and the strike going on in the Carpet mill.


Lowell Daily Sun, The (Lowell, Massachusetts) Jun 2, 1894

Image from Shorpy

LINK to Shorpy Historic Picture Archive


“Sweet Ballston girls,” — said Ben one day,
While they were gaily spinning —
“Upon my honor I will say,
“You all are deuced winning.”
“If I but had a fortune now
As ample as my will,
Not one of you, henceforth, I vow,
Should work within that mill.”

“Ah!” — said a pretty blue-eyed miss,
A fair and rosy creature;
With lips that seemed but made to kiss,
And love in every feature —
“With such a will there are but few,
But easier said than done;
Yet this I’d do, if I were you,
Begin to-day with one.

Title    Centennial history of the village of Ballston Spa: including the towns of Ballston and Milton
Authors    Edward Fabrique Grose, John Chester Booth
Publisher    Ballston journal, 1907


Two Aged Sisters Taken to County Home To-day.


Their Industry Recalls Hood’s “Song of the Shirt” — At Last One Sister Became Ill and the Other Was Obliged to Give Up Work and Nurse Her — They Were in Pitiable Condition.
After years of toil and striving to earn an honest living and to keep together, Catherine Coffey, 65 years old, and her sister, Mrs. Elizabeth Smith, two years younger, were taken to the Onondaga county home at 3 o’clock this afternoon from the rooms at No. 119 Seymour street, where, thanks to the generosity of a Syracuse business man by whom they were formerly employed, they have lived rent free for several years.

Hood’s “Song of the Shirt” with a twentieth century setting tells the story of the two aged women. Born to hard work, they have never known anything else and ever since their girlhood they have kept up their poor home by their own exertions. They belonged to the class of sewing women now almost extinct — the kind who would go out to do tailoring by the day in families where the clothing of the boys and sometimes of the man was home made and where two or three times during the year the tailoress came to make over old garments and to make up new ones. This was forty years and more ago, however, and as “store clothes” became cheaper and more commonly used, the demand for the kind of work that the sisters could do became less and less.

They Were Industrious.

The younger sister married, but her husband was soon taken from her by death, and compelling her to take any means that offered to earn a livelihood. And opportunity finally offered to take work home for several custom and ready made clothing houses and of this the women eagerly availed themselves. For years they went every week for the bulky package of unmade garments and returned them neatly put together and finished. “Stitch, stitch, stitch” — it was the same story repeated over and over for close upon twenty years.

But as the sisters grew older and feebler and less able to work, less money flowed into the little treasury and the outgoings began to exceed the incomings. They were frugal and economical to the point of parsimony, but try as they might, they could not always obtain even the few and scanty articles which they were obliged to class among the necessities of life. They counted themselves more than fortunate when one of the members of a firm which had given them employment told them that, if they wished to do so, they might move into a part of a house belonging to him where they could live rent free. With the burden of fearing the monthly visit of the landlord off their shoulders, they felt that their way would be easy, but as their ability to work grew less, they found that even fuel, food, and clothing meant heavier expenses than they were able to meet.

Mrs. Smith Stricken by Illness.

They strove bravely, for independence, however. The packages of clothing were still called for, but they became smaller and took a long time in the making than had been the case before. At last, Mrs. Smith fell sick with inflammatory rheumatism, brought on, perhaps, by lack of sufficient warmth and nourishment, and her sister was obliged to give up her work in order to have the time to care for her. Then it was that Miss Coffey had to ask for aid from the Department of Charities. An inspector was sent to the room of the two aged women and found a pitiable condition of need. The sick woman was lying on the slates of a bed covered with two thin, old blankets and the covering over her was sadly insufficient. There was little furniture in the house and almost no food, but the women said that they thought that they would be able to work again in a short time and only wanted temporary relief.

The physician who was called to attend Mrs. Smith, however, said that her illness would probably be of long duration and that, unless her sister were relieved of care and responsibility, it would only be a matter of a short time before she, too, would be completely broken down. The devotion of the two was so great that it would have been impossible to part them, and, after much persuasion, they were induced to go to the County home, where it is hoped that they may regain their strength and where they will be better provided for than they have been in years.

Syracuse Herald (Syracuse, New York) Apr 30, 1906

The Song of the Shirt

by Thomas Hood

WITH fingers weary and worn,
With eyelids heavy and red,
A woman sat, in unwomanly rags,
Plying her needle and thread–
Stitch! stitch! stitch!
In poverty, hunger, and dirt,
And still with a voice of dolorous pitch
She sang the “Song of the Shirt.”

“Work! work! work!
While the cock is crowing aloof!
And work–work–work,
Till the stars shine through the roof!
It’s Oh! to be a slave
Along with the barbarous Turk,
Where woman has never a soul to save,
If this is Christian work!

Till the brain begins to swim;
Till the eyes are heavy and dim!
Seam, and gusset, and band,
Band, and gusset, and seam,
Till over the buttons I fall asleep,
And sew them on in a dream!

“Oh, Men, with Sisters dear!
Oh, men, with Mothers and Wives!
It is not linen you’re wearing out,
But human creatures’ lives!
In poverty, hunger and dirt,
Sewing at once, with a double thread,
A Shroud as well as a Shirt.

“But why do I talk of Death?
That Phantom of grisly bone,
I hardly fear its terrible shape,
It seems so like my own–
It seems so like my own,
Because of the fasts I keep;
Oh, God! that bread should be so dear,
And flesh and blood so cheap!

My labour never flags;
And what are its wages? A bed of straw,
A crust of bread–and rags.
That shatter’d roof–and this naked floor–
A table–a broken chair–
And a wall so blank, my shadow I thank
For sometimes falling there!

From weary chime to chime,
As prisoners work for crime!
Band, and gusset, and seam,
Seam, and gusset, and band,
Till the heart is sick, and the brain benumb’d.
As well as the weary hand.

In the dull December light,
And work–work–work,
When the weather is warm and bright–
While underneath the eaves
The brooding swallows cling
As if to show me their sunny backs
And twit me with the spring.

“Oh! but to breathe the breath
Of the cowslip and primrose sweet–
With the sky above my head,
And the grass beneath my feet,
For only one short hour
To feel as I used to feel,
Before I knew the woes of want
And the walk that costs a meal!

“Oh! but for one short hour!
A respite however brief!
No blessed leisure for Love or Hope,
But only time for Grief!
A little weeping would ease my heart,
But in their briny bed
My tears must stop, for every drop
Hinders needle and thread!”

With fingers weary and worn,
With eyelids heavy and red,
A woman sat in unwomanly rags,
Plying her needle and thread–

Stitch! stitch! stitch!
In poverty, hunger, and dirt,
And still with a voice of dolorous pitch,–
Would that its tone could reach the Rich!–
She sang this “Song of the Shirt!”

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One Response to “The Mill Girls – Going, Going, Gone”

  1. Real. Strong. Women. | kimmy rae goldberg Says:

    […] of the Lowell Mill Girls from YesterYear Once More) Share this:TwitterFacebookLike this:LikeBe the first to like this. Bookmark the […]

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