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.
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?