Mill Girls: A Look at Working Conditions of Early Textile Mills

 

While the west was being settled, large factories sprang up back east that gave many women new opportunities. Women who worked in textile mills were called “Mill Girls.” However don’t the term fool you. The employable age was between 14 to 35 years old. And rule #1 was that they be single women.

One of the first textile mills was in Lowell, Massachusetts in 1823. Their first order of business was to find workers to run the machines. They wanted to employ women because (1) they could pay them less than men (2) the men were needed on the farms and (3) most women already knew how to weave.

Many women decided to leave their farms so their families would have one less mouth to feed. And they saw the opportunity to send money back home to help keep their families afloat. Most earned $3.25 a week.

But all was not wonderful and good. The young women worked six days a week, twelve hours a day. And they were required to stay in boardinghouses owned by the factories. They paid $1.25 a week for a bedroom that sometimes held six women, sleeping three to a bed. They had a strict 10 PM curfew and were required to attend church on Sunday.

A Typical Day:

Bells on top of the mills began ringing at 4 AM to wake up the girls. At 5 AM the bells rang for them to report to work. They had five minutes to get inside the mill courtyard. At 5:05 AM the gates closed and locked. If a woman was late, she had to walk through something called a counting house. A man there took down the names of the tardy women and penalties were assessed. If a woman was late too often she was fired.

Mill girls worked from 5 AM to 7 AM. The bell rang at 7:00 to signal breakfast. They had thirty minutes to run back to the boardinghouse and eat. They got thirty minutes for lunch. Then it solid work until 7:00 PM. After that the women had free time until 10 PM but I’m sure most were too exhausted to do much more than crawl into bed.

Working Conditions:

The average temperature of a weave room on a summer day was as high as 115 degrees. Even in the winter it could get as hot as 90 degrees. The windows were never allowed open. A breeze from the window might cause threads to snap. Broken threads meant poor quality cloth. The cloth needed warm, moist air. To do that, steam was pumped in through pipes. Cotton dust filled the air making it difficult to breathe. Many women died from cotton dust getting trapped in their lungs.

Conditions got steadily worse.  By 1840 women were working as long as 16 hour days and often had to tend three or four machines. A lot of women returned to the farms, got married, or found new jobs elsewhere. It wasn’t long before the textile mills replaced them with immigrant men, women, and children.

Could you have managed these conditions? What was the worst job you had?

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Here in the Texas Panhandle, we do love our cowboys. There's just something about a man in a Stetson and jeans that makes my heart beat faster. I'm not much of a cook but I love to do genealogy and I'm a bit of a rock hound. I'm also a NY Times & USA Today bestselling author of historical western romance. You can contact me through my website and I'd love to connect with you on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and more. HAPPY READING!
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27 thoughts on “Mill Girls: A Look at Working Conditions of Early Textile Mills”

  1. Hi Linda! The women who worked those jobs had to be strong . . . and desperate. What a difficult life. After reading about the heat, steam and cotton dust, I’m embarrassed to say my worst-ever job was in an air conditioned office. No physical discomfort, just mental boredom. And I do mean BOREDOM! Hours of it! The women who worked in the mills had it much rougher.

  2. Early morning, Vicki………you’re sure up early. I guess you get the worm. Glad you enjoyed my post. I thought it was really interesting and the writer in me immediately started constructing a story. My worst job was a when I waitressed in a cafe. It was either I was too swamped and couldn’t think straight or we sat on our rears wishing people would come through the door. There was no in between. But I sure learned a lot and I enjoyed meeting the people. Most were really nice and understanding.

    Hope you have a great day!

  3. Hi Linda, after reading about the mill women I can’t complaim about any jobs I had. However one stands out: My first job at seventeen was at a department store. They put me in the gift wrapping section and the first (and last) gift I was asked to wrap was a floor lamp. After that fiasco, they transferred me to toys.

  4. Hi Linda! The worst job I ever had was delivering the Nifty Nickle to various retail outlets in Southern California. My car didn’t have air, the papers were heavy, the ties cut my fingers and it was a boring, go nowhere job. Fortunately for me, I was able to quit after a few months. I don’t know I would have survived a mill job at 115 degrees. It’s been 107 here for days and I’m half melted.

  5. What a grueling job. And I complain about being tired after a forty-hour work week. A great reminder to count my blessings.

    I remember a scene from the mill floor in the British mini series North and South, where all the cotton dust was blowing about the room. It looked like it was snowing indoors. I can’t imagine breathing that every day. Miners had coal dust, mill girls had cotton dust. I’m so thankful for regulating agencies that keep our work conditions so much safer these days.

  6. Good morning, Linda. What a great post! One of the reasons I’m proud to be a Filly is because we can tell the world about interesting facts that we’d never know otherwise. I didn’t know about the mill girls until you told me.

    I’m like the others, when I think about these girls, I’ve never had a job that I can complain about. Thanks for a very informative post, Miss Linda. Love, P

  7. Unbelievable conditions, Linda. Those poor girls. They probably thought they had it good.
    I’ve been lucky enough to get interesting jobs that weren’t too taxing physically. For me the toughest job I ever had was teaching Junior High kids. I just couldn’t handle a classroom of rowdy adolescents and have long since left the profession. Good teachers have my undying respect and admiration. It’s such hard work.

  8. Morning Margaret…….I can’t imagine having to gift wrap a floor lamp. Oh my gosh! Bet that was a mess. Thank goodness they moved you to something as easy as toys. We probably all have had crazy jobs at some time or another. Glad you enjoyed my post.

    Loved meeting you in Anaheim. You’d changed quite a bit from when I saw you in Dallas so many years ago.

    Hoping you have a wonderful day!

  9. Morning Chelley………glad you stopped by and that you liked my post. My gosh, girl, no wonder you’re feeling like a melted glob. Those are some hot temps! We’ve been lucky here in Texas this year. Not having an overly amount of 100 degree days, thank goodness, and nothing close to 107. That Nifty Nickel job must’ve been a killer. I’m glad you didn’t have to do it long.

    Wishing you a wonderful day!

  10. Morning Karen W………..glad you enjoyed reading about my Mill Girls. Those working conditions were horrible. Like you, I’m so glad the government regulates these things now. People complain a lot about Big Brother taking over our lives but sometimes it makes things better. I’d hate to have work in a place where I had to breathe cotton dust all the time. Just horrible.

    I enjoyed meeting you in Anaheim. Hopefully, I can see you again before too long since you don’t live too far away.

  11. Morning Phyliss……….yes, the best thing about P&P is that we find out so many interesting unknown facts. I really think it’s been helpful to me in writing my stories. As I read about these Mill Girls my brain started whirling, thinking of all kinds of things I could put in a story.

    You’ve led a very interesting life and done so many interesting things. I’m sure life has never been dull or boring for you.

    Love you, lady!

  12. Morning Elizabeth………yes teachers really have it rough. I can only imagine the challenges and then on top of everything else you have to add the worry of crazy gunmen and drugs and all sorts of other things. Glad you could move on to something else and be a fantastic talented writer.

  13. Compared to these conditions,I had it good even in the worst job I had. Which was working in a restuarnt where I had to wait tables and wash dishes… I think that is why I hate to do dishes today.. No where I have lived, except at family and friends homes has there been a dishwasher….Except ME..

  14. YOU KNOW! This just makes me mad. Those mill owners didn’t have to make it so awful! If they’d have shown a LITTLE kindness, a LITTLE understanding of how brutal their requirments were, now, a century and a half later, people wouldn’t still look back at them with rage.

    The big dumb jerks.

    (okay, calm down, Mary!)

  15. My worst job EVER!
    I spent one summer, right after I graduated from high school, working in a plant that made trucks. Not the front end, engine and all that, the grain trucks that are pulled behind semis.
    Terribly hot in there.
    My job was to mow the lawn and fill in for people on vacation. So I did a little of everything. They put me on big machines that bend iron bars into hinges and other big machines that bent huge sheets of metal into the sides of the trucks. I ran a hand held power bolt driver, to bolt the sides of the trucks onto the frame. I helped with inventory. I just did about everything except for running a really scary power saw. They wisely kept me away.
    But the WORST part of it was….they gave me the job of REDECORATING THE LUNCH ROOM!!!
    I know, doesn’t sound that bad, right?
    The lunch room had one of those dropped ceilings in it, white styrofoam panels held up by a metal grid. I had to lift each of those panels out of the grid and paint the panels white and the grid black. (I know, very festive. Martha Stewart in a truck factory)
    HERE’S THE TROUBLE!!!
    When I lifted those panels out of that grid there were DEAD MICE ON THE PANELS AND THEY’D RAIN DOWN ON MY HEAD.
    My very own worst nightmare. Raining mice.
    Okay, I’m going to stop now before I run screaming out of the room.

  16. It’s amazing what a person can do when they know no better and really have no choice. And some people question why unions started!! There are still people/children today that live in those kind of conditions. Such greed is beyond my comprehension. I never had any really horrible jobs. My first was working after school for the high school counselors and then I was in the secretarial field. I did work for some men that were demeaning and controlling but that was nothing new at that time. They would never get away with what they did then today.

  17. Hi Kathleen………I hate to wash dishes. I can’t imagine having to do it in a restaurant. I’m sure it’s really tough trying to get that dried food off the plates. And the kitchen is always the hottest part of a restaurant. When I waitressing I hated having to walk through there and was so glad I worked up front. Sorry you’re still the family dishwasher. I’ve done my share too. But thank goodness I now have an electric dishwasher. My hands and feet (and my sanity) thank me.

    Thanks for stopping by to leave a comment.

  18. Hi Mary……….I understand your anger because I feel a lot myself. Seems to me that women ALWAYS get the short end of the stick, the lower wages, the poor working conditions, the crappy bosses. Change has been slow and painful. But the first time a man needs a problem solved they usually come to a woman. I love your stories because they show this very thing over and over. You shine a bright light on inequality. You’re my champion, my hero!

    Oh my gosh, I can’t imagine having dead mice raining down on my head!!! That is the worst job I’ve heard of anyone having. I don’t blame you for still having nightmares about it.

  19. Hi Catslady………thanks for stopping by. I always love seeing your name come up. Yes, you’re right about the unions. They have been a godsend. If not for them and some government regulations I can’t imagine the working conditions. Sounds like you had some awful bosses. A lot of men love to “lord” over a woman, especially if he has any kind of power. But thankfully, they can no longer treat a female employee badly without some consequences.

    Hope you have a wonderful day!

  20. My worst job was hoeing cotton 10 hours a day for $3.00 per day. I decided them I did not care for farm work and needed a high school education to get an office job. I had an office job until eleven years ago when I retired.

  21. Thanks for another interesting post.

    My husband’s father’s family is from Lowell-Methuen, MA. The mills do dominate the downtown area. Not sure I could have worked under those conditions, but as we all find out, it is amazing what you can do if you have to. I just found out our last trip that there is a National Park about the mills in Lowell. We didn’t have time to go, but I will make sure we have time next visit. (of course, the Robert Frost Farm is at the turn for his cousin’s house in Derry, NH and we still haven’t gone. It never seems to be open.)

    My husband’s grandparents came over from England around the turn of the century to work in the mills. Unfortunately his grandmother was quite old when I got to meet her and she passed away before we got to talk much. She was very petite and one tough lady. Hearing of some of her exploits, she was of the same stock that settled this country.

    My worst job. That is easy. One summer during college, I waited tables at an inn in Lake Placid, NY. People stayed there for a week at a time and had assigned seats, eating three meals a day there. All the employees lived in bunkhouse type rooms. We had to be in the kitchen by 6 AM for breakfast and ready to serve by 7. Once breakfast was done, we cleaned the dining room and set for lunch, served lunch, cleaned up and set up for dinner, served dinner, set up for breakfast. During peak season, we worked straight with breaks to eat. They also had us doing the entertainment on weekend evenings. That was 7 days a week, with little or no breaks from 7 AM to 9PM. Tips were pathetic. I was lucky to make $15 a week for 3 meals a day to 6 to 8 parties ranging from 2 to 12 people. We were charged room and board – $25 a week I think. (This was the mid 1960’s so I don’t remember if it was a week or a month.) I think I was lucky if I cleared $25 a week to put aside for school. The first week I called home in tears. My shoes were just regular sneakers and my feet were bleeding. Those who could, left for other jobs. They could make more in tips in one day than they did in over a week at the inn. They were breaking labor laws even then. They figured our salary on an 8 hour day/40 hour week and never paid overtime. College students were a dime a dozen and easy to replace if we complained.
    At the end of a very long summer, I had barely enough to cover my books and other expenses. Lucky I had a tuition scholarship and lived at home or I never would have managed.

  22. Hi Goldie……..I never did any cotton hoeing but my parents and older brother and sisters did in addition to pulling boles. I was sure glad I was too young. It looked like awful hard work for just a little bit of money. But just coming out of the Depression they took what work they could find. Not particular at all. I’m glad you got an education and a job that agreed with you. Thanks for stopping by.

  23. Hi Patricia B………..Oh my! What an awful job. Some employers really take advantage of high school and college kids. Those were horrible working conditions. I wish you could’ve toured the Lowell Textile Mill. You could’ve told me a lot more about them. Even with the little I read about them my imagination took flight. All kinds of story ideas are popping in my head.

    Thanks for stopping by. I hope you have a wonderful day!

  24. That Summer….The Summer of Raining Mice…I came home everyday coated in grease and my sister was working in a different factory that built House Trailers. She’d come home coated in saw dust.
    We had an ongoing discussion about who was more miserable.

  25. hi Linda, what wonderful information! I can’t even imagine such conditions…the heat, the steam, no fresh air, breathing in cotton. Yikes. All in all, I’m just a giant spoiled baby.

    I think the worst job I ever had was for a few months, I sat in one of those little Fotomat booths. But it was close to home, the money wasn’t bad, and I got to ride my bike to and from. Sounds lame today, though.

    Thanks for another good one, filly sister! xoxox

  26. Mary, I’m sure you and your sister had some interesting conversations. It was probably a toss up who had the ickiest job. Personally, I think it was you. A little mouse told me. LOL

  27. Hi Tanya…….Hope you had a great time on your trip. The pictures of that mountain were simply breathtaking. Glad you enjoyed my blog. I think a job in a Fotomat booth would be pretty boring. A person doesn’t have to have a health-ruining job for you to hate it. I’m sure at the first those women thought they’d landed in the land of milk and honey. Three dollars and fifty cents was a fortune to them. And their families probably didn’t complain too much at the amount they were sending back home.

    Have a great evening! Looking forward to your blog tomorrow.

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