A Week in the Mill
Much has been said of the factory girl and her employment. By some she has been represented as dwelling in a sort of brick-and-mortar paradise, having little to occupy thought save the weaving of gay and romantic fancies, while the spindle or,the wheel flies obediently beneath her glance. Others have deemed her a mere servile drudge, chained to her labor by almost as strong a power as that which holds a bondman in his fetters; and, indeed, some have already given her the title of "tbe white slave of the North." Her real situation approaches neither one nor the other of these extremes. Her occupation is as laborious as that of almost any female who earns her own living, while it has also its sunny spots and its cheerful intervals, which make her hard labor seem comparatively pleasant and easy.
Look at her as she commences her weekly task. The rest of the sabbath has made her heart and her step light, and she is early at her accustomed place, awaiting the starting of the machinery. Every thing having been cleaned and neatly arranged on the Saturday night, she has less to occupy her on Monday than on other days; and you may see her leaning from the window to watch the glitter of the sunrise on the water, or looking away at the distant forests and fields, while memory wanders to her beloved country home; or, it may be that she is conversing with a sister-laborer near; returning'at regular intervals to see that her work is in order.
Soon the breakfast bell rings; in a moment the whirling wheels are stopped, and she hastens to join the throng which is pouring through the open gate. At the table she mingles with a various group. Each despatches the meal hurriedly, though not often in silence; and if, as is sometimes the case, the rules of politeness are not punctiliously observed by all, the excuse of some lively country girl would be, "They don't give us time for manners.
The short half-hour is soon over; the bell rings again; and now our factory girl feels that she has commenced her day's work in earnest. The time is often apt to drag heavily till the dinner hour arrives. Perhaps some part of the work becomes deranged and stops; the constant friction causes a belt of leather to burst into a flame; a stranger visits the room, and scans the features and dress of its inmates inquiringly; and there is little else to break the monotony. The afternoon passes in much the same manner. Now and then she mingles with a knot of busy talkers who have collected to discuss some new occurrence, or holds pleasant converse with some intelligent and agreeable friend, whose acquaintance she has formed since her factory life commenced; but much of the time she is left to her own thoughts. While at her work, the clattering and rumbling around her prevent any other noise from attracting her attention, and she must think, or her life would be dull indeed.
Thus the day passes on, and evening comes; the time which she feels to be exclusively her own. How much is done in the three short hours from seven to ten o'clock. She has a new dress to finish; a call to make on some distant corporation; a meeting to attend; there is a lecture or a concert at some one of the public halls, and the attendance will be thin if she and her associates are not present; or, if nothing more imperative demands her time, she takes a stroll through the street or to the river with some of her mates, or sits down at home to peruse a new book. At ten o'clock all is still for the night.
The clang of the early bell awakes her to another day, very nearly the counterpart of the one which preceded it. And so the week rolls on, in the same routine, till Saturday comes. Saturday! the welcome sound! She busies herself to remove every particle of cotton and dust from her frame or looms, cheering herself meanwhile with sweet thoughts of the coming sabbath; and when, at an earlier hour than usual, the mill is stopped, it looks almost beautiful in its neatness.
Then approaches the sabbath-the day of rest! If the factory girl keeps it well, it must be at church; for there are some in every boarding-house who find an excuse for staying at home half the day at least. One of her room-mates is_indisposed; another says she must write a letter to her friends; another has to work so hard during the week that she thinks she ought to make this literally a "day of rest," so that retirement and meditation are out of the question. But in the sabbath school and sanctuary her time is well spent. No one is more constant at church, or earlier in her seat, than the operative who has been trained to know the value of the institution of the gospel. The instructions which she receives sink deep into her heart, giving her a fund of thought for the coming week. Her pastor and her sabbath school teacher are felt to be her best friends; and their kindness is a strong allurement to her spirit, often keeping her long from her less-favored home. If it is said that many a one has here found a grave, shall it not also be said that many a one has here found the path to Heaven?
The writer is aware that this sketch is an imperfect one. Yet there is very little variety in an operative's life, and little difference between it and any other life of labor. It lies
"half in sunlight--half in shade."
Few would wish to spend a whole life in a factory, and few are discontented who do thus seek a subsistence for a term of months or years.
Source: Lowell Offering, Vol. V (1845): 217-218Return to History 316/316Z Syllabus