Melville and the Mill Girls

“At rows of blank-looking counters sat rows of blank-looking girls, with blank, white folders in their blank hands, all blankly folding blank paper.”

Thus, Herman Melville bemoaned the fate of female papermill employees in his 1855 “Tartarus of Maids.” Melville criticized the industrialization that was moving so rapidly, workers were sacrificed for profit and progress. He describes a trip to a papermill in New England, where he sees the “girls” performing their tasks like “mere cogs to the wheels.” They sacrificed family life, living in perpetual “maid-dom,” to produce goods for their employer. They become almost indistinguishable from the machines themselves. The girls, like the rags used to make paper, are collected and ground down into blankness.

Herman Melville (Illustration by Carson Ellis)

But that’s not how the Lowell mill girls felt about themselves. Like the mill described by Melville, Lowell Mill wanted to employ unmarried women who wouldn’t be beholden to the demands of a family (or need the pay necessary to support one). The paper mill offered young women the ability to attain economic independence: a rarity in the United States at that point. In her autobiography, Loom and Spindle, Harriet Robinson describes the economic security she found after moving to Lowell with her widowed mother. She received an education in the tight-knit community and was an inspiration to other girls in her rural hometown.

Harriet Robinson

Robinson’s autobiography also includes selections from The Lowell Offering, a magazine produced by and for the Lowell girls. The publication contained poems, ballads, essays, and fiction all written by the girls. The girls’ literary production, printed on paper, sharply contrasts the blankness Melville casts on them.

Lowell mill girls would paste poetry and essays on the walls of the factory to help pass the time.

Melville was not, however, entirely wrong about the situation for female workers. Their wages, between $3-5 per week, were about half what a male employee made. The Lowell mill girls would eventually strike in 1834 after a proposed cut to their pay. Unfortunately, that strike was unsuccessful, and the girls returned to work for the lowered wage. But, in 1836 when a rent hike was proposed, the girls were confident in their ability to organize and formed the Factory Girls’ Association to advocate for the female employees. This time, thanks to increased support, the strike was successful!

The Lowell mill girls formed the first female labor union in the country. When their wages were slashed, they went on strike.

This summer, I am working at the Labor Center to help create the Iowa Women in Trades Network. This group is designed to support women at all stages of their careers in the construction trades and help them navigate the unique challenges they face in these fields. Though the skilled trades offer a living wage without needing a degree, women make up only about 3% of that workforce. I often think of the Lowell mill girls as I read the stories of women who paved the way for others in the construction trades: women who faced set back and harassment, just to earn the right for financial independence. Unlike the Lowell mill girls, many of these women did have families and children to care for.

The history of women’s labor is a history full of triumph and heartbreak, perseverance and setbacks. From the Lowell mill girls to today’s women working in the construction trades, female labor has been the site of reform and liberation, though progress is far from over. When you think of the history of women’s labor, don’t dwell on Melville’s unfeeling cogs; think instead of this female worker’s passion for justice and independence, published anonymously in Factory Tracts:

“That our rights cannot be trampled upon with impunity; that we WILL not longer submit to that arbitrary power which has for the last ten years been so abundantly exercised over us.”