To honor Labor Day, I thought I’d share a piece of historical fiction I wrote a few years ago for a contest.* It’s about girls working in the Lowell textile mills c. 1834 and THIS, folks, is the reason we celebrate Labor Day.
I hope you enjoy!
*The contest had some very specific writing prompts and a tight word count, so this piece is a bit different than what I usually write. And it’s perfect for this holiday!
Margaret’s hand slipped in shock and the threaded needle jabbed deep. She looked at the older girl in disbelief.
“A fifteen percent decrease in wages? Immediately after they ended the boarding house subsidies? Lydia, are you certain?”
“I wish it were anything but true. I suppose we’ll know for sure tomorrow, as the Mill Agent is due to make the announcement to all the mill girls.”
Margaret set down her mending and crossed between the beds to look out the window at the gray March day. Wishing again that their room had a fireplace, she pulled her shawl closer around her shoulders. She did some quick calculations. Two dollars a week less fifteen percent took her earnings down to $1.70. After the room fees, she would have forty-five cents a week. If she allowed herself five cents for other expenses and spending money, perhaps she could still send forty cents home for Mother and Edward.
“This is the end of it. I’ll never afford school,” Lydia said.
Margaret turned. Lydia sat on her side of one of the narrow boardinghouse beds, her small leather-bound journal open in her lap.
“Don’t say such things, Lydia. There must be a way.”
“Stop it, Margaret. Empty words and assurances—that’s what I expect from the Mill Agents and their kind. We both know better. I’m eighteen this May and out of options. This is the nail in my coffin.”
Margaret shook her head, mute with worry, even as piano music began to float up from the parlor. In the hall, footsteps and voices came closer, perhaps the other girls who shared their room—there were six in all. Some of the girls hadn’t heard the news.
Lydia looked up at Margaret and crossed the room to give the girl’s arm a shake.
“Never mind me, I’m being a goose and a doomsayer. Don’t be alarmed. You have plenty of time, years to save money, and wages may rise again. You won’t be a bobbin girl forever. Why, you’ll probably be a spinner before you’re thirteen! That’s the glory of starting at the mill at such a young age. I wish I’d started when I was ten.”
Lydia made a smile. “As for me, my wages will help my brother Timothy and when he is well-placed, perhaps he’ll introduce me and I’ll make a match with a man of resources who appreciates my poetry. Then I’ll have nothing to do but read and write all day. Won’t that be lovely?”
Word circulated throughout the mill even before the sun rose an hour into their morning shift. Every girl, from the bobbin girls to the weavers, waited for the Mill Agent’s announcement at the lunch break. Girls engaged in frenzied conversations, then fell into tense silence as the floor overseer Mr. Abbott made his rounds. The long morning hours dragged by.
Mr. Abbot’s lecherous gaze roved over the women as he smoothed his hair and strutted across the floor.
“Girls, enough of this sloth!” Mr. Abbot yelled over the din of the machines. He cleared his throat and straightened his waistcoat. “Idle chatter leads to spiritual immorality, which shall not be tolerated on my floors.”
He patted his mustache and continued his path around the machines. Margaret froze as he moved in her direction, then redoubled her efforts with the broom even though sweeping never seemed to make a dent in the cloth threads and fluff hanging in the air.
“Watch your sweeping!” Mr. Abbott scowled as a piece of thread landed on his pants. He carefully plucked it off and dropped it to the floor next to his shoes, which were so shiny they reflected every light.
Mr. Abbott paused next to a nearby spinning frame. He leaned in close to the girl, Elizabeth, a 16 year old with long auburn hair pulled up tightly to avoid the moving machinery. He smoothed his mustache again. His voice was inaudible above the noise of the floor, but judging from the gleam in his eyes and the stiffness of Elizabeth’s body, Margaret surmised he was engaged in his usual improprieties. Spiritual immorality, indeed.
After seven hours of handling full bobbins, sweeping floors, and performing other odds and ends to help the spinners, Margaret’s stomach twisted with both hunger and suspense.
The girls gathered in front of the mill at noon. Up and down the row, Margaret could see the same events transpiring at all the Lowell mills: girls ranging in age from ten to thirty waiting for Mill Agents to announce their fate. After several minutes that shortened their already brief lunch break, the Mill Agent strode out the door onto the front steps. Behind and to the side of him stood Mr. Abbot and the other floor overseers.
“Look at Mr. Abbott,” whispered Lydia. “Preening like a peacock. He looks as if he expects us to worship him.”
“If I might have your attention,” began the Mill Agent. “I hereby inform you as to changes in your contracts with Lowell Manufacturing. Due to increases in the price of raw materials, wages are hereby cut by fifteen percent, effective immediately and retroactively covering this week’s pay. All persons in our employ must maintain the highest level of dedication and proper conduct suitable to the standing of our fine company. Any impudence or captiousness springing from this announcement will be cause for dismissal of the employed person.”
He swept his gaze over the crowd, quelling the rising murmurs.
“Formal notice of this change will be posted. In addition to the wage reductions, overseers will aid in our cost savings by finding inefficiencies and errors in any position of employment.”
He nodded once and turned to re-enter the factory.
“We will not be slaves!”
A clear voice rang from the middle of the crowd. Heads turned.
It was Elizabeth Smith, the girl who had recently been verbally importuned by Mr. Abbott.
“We did not come to this mill as supplicants begging for alms! We do an honest day’s labor, as well as any man, and we expect an honest day’s pay!”
Next to Margaret, Lydia rocked on her feet uneasily as the crowd fell into complete silence.
“Is she yours, Mr. Abbot?” asked the Mill Agent. At Mr. Abbott’s nod, he said, “Then deal with her.” Without another glance, he re-entered the factory, accompanied by the other men.
“Miss Smith!” Mr. Abbott bellowed.
As he stepped forward, Elizabeth stooped to the ground and then threw a clump of dirt that sailed through the air and landed with an audible smack in the center of his waistcoat. Mr. Abbott’s face flushed a livid red.
“You devil!” His voice sounded strangled. He brushed at the dirt on his front and then clenched his fists. “Miss Smith, report to me immediately upon your return. You are all dismissed!”
He stomped through the door and the crowd of girls burst into chatter and movement.
Over the shortened lunch break, the dining room of Margaret’s boarding house verged on chaos, as a crowd of girls centered around Elizabeth Smith. Margaret joined the edge of the group with her bread, cheese, and cold slices of ham.
“I tell you, I’ve had enough,” Elizabeth was saying. “These men, they care about no one but themselves. And yet they call themselves our protectors! They set rules about our moral deportment, they regulate the curfews in our boarding homes, they congratulate themselves on providing us with opportunity. Yet these same men are stripping from us our rightful earnings and the very hours of our lives. Not to mention leading us into direct moral danger, with men like Mr. Abbott implying we might trade our virtue for advancement.”
A girl objected, “If we leave the mills, there is a river of other girls to replace us.”
“My mum relies on my pay and I say that something is better than nothing at all. How much money would you earn if you went back to your farm? The work’s just as hard with no wages at all,” said another.
“If we join together, if we stand strong and resolute with our own sex, these men will be forced to reconsider our demands. We must turn out. Empty their factories. They cannot possibly replace us all. ‘Spindle City’ can’t operate without its spinners.”
Elizabeth swept the room with a glance.
“I’m with you.” A dark-haired girl seized Elizabeth’s hand.
Mrs. Hanson, the boardinghouse matron, interrupted the scene as other girls argued.
“Five minutes until the afternoon shift, girls,” she said. “Rome wasn’t built in a day and none of you will change the world in a day neither. Remember this whole town is built with Company money, from the mills to the boarding houses to the banks. Don’t make yourself the enemy.”
Margaret and Lydia walked back to the mill together. Their boots scuffed up dust to join the bits of thread and cloth clinging to the fabric of their dresses. By the end of the fourteen-hour workday, Margaret always felt that the bits of thread had permeated down to her very soul. She watched them fly away like dandelion fluff when she beat her dresses clean on Sunday afternoons.
“Lydia, do you think there will really be a turn out?”
“I don’t know. Most of us need the work.”
“Elizabeth is right, you know. What they’re doing isn’t fair.”
“Doesn’t matter if it’s fair or not. It’s the way of the world.” Lydia’s voice was so dull that Margaret stopped short.
“But if we don’t change things, then who will? No one else will stand up for us.”
“Margaret, you’ve been at the factory for three months, barely long enough to know how the real world works. If I don’t work and send money home for my brother’s education, then he won’t get a decent position and my whole family will crumble. We’re close enough to financial ruin as it is.”
The girls resumed their walk to the factory. Margaret was deep in thought, worry creasing her brow.
Finally she said, “It’s not right. I’ve seen girls work for fourteen hours until their fingers bleed, then read and study at night, all for barely enough money to get by and a chance of making their lives better. Meanwhile, Mr. Abbott struts around like cock of the walk, preening his feathers and choosing the prettiest girls for promotion.”
“Do you really want to lose your position in some misguided hope that the company will become charitable?”
“I’m not sure.”
“Well.” Lydia paused a long moment. “I’m not sure, either.”
They reached the mill. Margaret took up her station with the lower-ranking spinners, while Lydia climbed the stairs to the weaving room. Margaret watched as Elizabeth Smith came in the door of the factory, still surrounded by a group of girls talking rapidly. Elizabeth separated from them and walked back toward the overseer’s office with her head held high.
Margaret made a split-second decision and followed her. She loitered right outside the office, broom in hand.
“—because of your impudence. Inciting mutiny will not be tolerated. Lowell Manufacturing has no need to keep your sort employed.”
“Nor do I need this type of treatment from an employer,” Elizabeth answered in a clear voice.
“Now, Miss Smith. Elizabeth. May I call you Elizabeth?” The timbre of Mr. Abbott’s voice changed. “I do have a certain influence and I might be persuaded to intervene on your behalf.”
“I do not need your help! I know your price, Mr. Abbott.”
“Are you sure, Elizabeth? I’ve seen the way you watch me on the floor. You don’t need to hide your interest with pretended anger.”
Margaret heard a crash, as if something fell off a desk. She looked around wildly, but the other mill girls were all bent over their spindle looms, working to meet their quotas. Near her, one spinner signaled for a bobbin girl.
Dropping her broom, Margaret knocked on the office door. When she received no response, she knocked again without ceasing.
Mr. Abbott yanked the door open, his face red and glasses askew. “What is it, girl?”
“One of the looms, sir. It’s malfunctioning. They sent me.” Margaret waved a hand toward the back row and hoped her voice was steady.
With a growl and a smoothing of his mustache, Mr. Abbott strode in that direction without a backward glance. Margaret peered through the door.
“Are you all right?” she asked.
“I’m not all right. None of us is all right.” Elizabeth stormed past Margaret onto the mill floor.
The despair in Elizabeth’s voice unwound the knot of anxiety inside Margaret and she began to feel something dangerous and new at her core. It was power.
“Sisters!” Elizabeth yelled.
The machine-noise stopped as the spinners turned to look at Elizabeth.
“Sisters, we must stand as one against these wage cuts! Against unlawful changes to our contracts. We are not slaves! We require real wages for real labor! The Company oppresses our very liberty! I say we turn out. Turn out! Stand with me, sisters, and turn out!”
With that, Elizabeth marched out the door.
Mr. Abbott roared, “Stay in your positions! Any girl who follows that devil in petticoats will never return to this factory!”
The room hung in suspense for a moment. Then Margaret, the youngest on the floor, raised her head and her voice.
“Turn out!” she yelled. Her body surged with electricity. She walked through the aisles of spinning looms, past the girls standing frozen at their positions, and out the mill door. Behind her, she heard the rustle of cloth and growing murmurs. When she was well out in the street, she turned and looked.
Dozens of girls followed her. They began chanting, “Turn out! Turn out!”
The noise roused the upper floor of the mill and Margaret saw girls pointing from the windows, girls streaming out the doors. She looked for Lydia and felt her heart leap when she saw her friend finally emerge. Margaret pushed through the crowd to her side and gave her a fierce nod. They joined hands.
All the girls began walking down the road, between the giant textile mills, to the center of Lowell. In the front, Elizabeth raised her voice to the tune of a popular folk song:
Oh! isn’t it a pity, such a pretty girl as I-
Should be sent to the factory to pine away and die?
Oh! I cannot be a slave,
I will not be a slave,
For I’m so fond of liberty
That I cannot be a slave.
After the first round, Margaret and the crowd joined their voices to hers. As they passed other factories, doors flung open and more girls poured out to join them until there was a river, a tapestry of girls chanting and singing together.