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Lowell Offering

LOWELL OFFERING


The Lowell Offering, a literary magazine written and edited by factory workers in the cotton mills of Lowell, Massachusetts, from 1840 to 1845, stands at the intersection of early industrial capitalism in the United States and changing modes of authorship, literary production, and gender identity. In the mid-1800s, Lowell, Massachusetts, developed into an urban center with large cotton mills operated by a group called the Boston Associates. The transition from rural life and labor in the region of Lowell to an early urban-industrial order was accompanied by a reconception of young womanhood. Daughters, rather than working on local farms or staying in rural communities, left home to become wage earners in vast industrial enterprises. The Lowell Offering, both as a general proposition and in its specific contents, used the idea of literary work to ease the cultural tensions associated with the movement of rural women from the family to the factory.

Young women were not the only laborers to move into factories in this early stage of America's industrialization, but their presence in this mode of production raised particular sorts of gendered problems. Factory labor removed women from the supervision of their families during young adulthood, at a moment when conventional patterns of courtship and marriage stood on the near horizon; it separated these wage earners from the economic unit of the family and their dependence on it; factory work also threatened to turn young women into "wage slaves," a class of chronically poor and abused industrial laborers that critics insisted was already visible in England's urban industrial economy. The mills at Lowell and the money earned at them provided potentially unpalatable personal freedoms to young women, even as they simultaneously threatened to compromise the femininity of those who came to be called "mill girls" by pushing grueling and unprecedented kinds of commercially driven work upon them.

LITERARY CULTIVATION AND "THE PLEASURES OF FACTORY LIFE"

In order to recruit their workforce for the mills in Lowell, the Boston Associates presented their enterprise less as the organization of young women into a potentially defeminized or proletarianized workforce and more as the congenial extension of the home life the factory girls had already been leading. The strategy was multi-pronged. The Boston Associates built boardinghouses, instituted codes of moral behavior that applied in and out of work, and paid supervisors of the residences to watch over the activities of the "factory girls." In addition, they sponsored a variety of social and cultural activities, including lectures, readings, and other events designed to uplift and educate their operatives in ways that could only be seen as desirable. Finally, the Boston Associates financed the publication of the Lowell Offering, a publication, as its title page reported, "written exclusively by females employed in the mills."

While scholars generally agree that the contents of the journal were, indeed, written by workers in the factory—usually under pen names, without clear attribution, or only signed by initials—the controlling, or at least influential, hand of those who owned and managed the mills is readily apparent. The Offering typically portrayed the girls and women working at the factory as inextricably bound to the rural families they had left behind, as workers who earned wages primarily so that they could bring or send them home to their families. Other stories highlighted the cultural activities and responsible supervision of the girls provided by management.

From 1840 to 1845 in the pages of the Offering the town of Lowell and the mills burgeoning along the river running through it became places for young women to have the paradoxically idyllic experience of independence monitored and constrained by a paternalistic company that stood in for rural parents. Workers at the mills' machines packed the earliest issues of the Offering with poetic, fictional, and autobiographical accounts of coming to Lowell and finding splendid opportunities for exposure to culture's finer forms in lectures, reading groups, and performances sponsored by the Boston Associates. Sarah Bagley, one of the most prominent contributors to the Offering, put it this way in her revealingly titled "The Pleasures of Factory Life":

Let no one suppose that the 'factory girls' are without guardian. We are placed in the care of overseers who feel under moral obligations to look after our interests. . . . In Lowell, we enjoy abundant means of information, especially in the way of public lectures. . . . And last though not least, is the pleasure of being associated with the institutions of religion. . . . Most of us, when at home, live in the country, and therefore cannot enjoy these privileges to the same extent; and many of us not at all. (Offering, December 1840, pp. 25–26)

The mill town, here, far from taking daughters spiritually away from home, replicates home and its values in urban-industrial space, adding possibilities for education and increased attention to piety that are unavailable in the hinterlands.

LITERARY AND INDUSTRIAL CONFLICTS

At the same time, the Offering tended overwhelmingly to avoid accounts of the long and grueling days that operatives spent in drearily repetitive work at machines, but, during the years of the Offering's publication, operatives regularly worked twelve-hour days six days a week. The Offering also seldom hinted at any problems of adjustment with the move from rural rhythms and customs to those of a relatively small but booming industrial city. If, however, one turns away from the Offering and toward other publications and personal correspondence, one finds powerful, very direct evidence of dissatisfaction among the mill girls with the demands of factory and even urban life.

THE FACTORY GIRLS DEFEND THEIR WOMANHOOD


An opinion extensively prevails, not merely beyond the limits of Massachusetts, that the manufacturing city of Lowell is a nucleus of depravity and ignorance.

Confessedly, wherever there exists any depravity or ignorance, there is too much of it. We have this to testify, however, that they who know least of the people of Lowell, including the Factory Operatives, entertain the most unworthy and unjust opinions of them. Close personal observation has satisfied us, that in respect of morality and intelligence, they will not suffer in comparison with the inhabitants of any part of moral and enlightened New England. We shall have occasion to speak of this subject at considerable length hereafter. We shall note the unsur-passed (if not unequalled) advantages of education enjoyed by our population; and the extensive means of information and piety furnished by popular lectures and religious institutions. We shall note the absence of theatres and kindred abominations; the care taken to exclude unworthy persons from the Corporations, &c.

("Editorial Corner," Lowell Offering, October 1840, p. 16)

"She has worked in a factory, is sufficient to damn to infamy the most worthy and virtuous girl." So says Mr. Orestes A. Brownson [editor of the Boston Quarterly Review]; and either this horrible assertion is true, or Mr. Brownson is a slanderer. I assert that it is not true, and Mr B. may consider himself called upon to prove his words, if he can. . . . And whom has Mr. Brownson slandered? A class of girls who in this city alone are numbered by the thousands. . . . girls who generally come from quiet country homes, where their minds and manners have been formed under the eyes of the worthy sons of the Pilgrims.

("Factory Girls," signed "A Factory Girl." Lowell Offering, December 1840, p. 17)

By the last years of its run, as mill operatives increasingly favored a reduction to ten-hour work-days, even the Offering acknowledged, sometimes only quietly, conflicts between management and the so-called factory girls and the generally difficult working conditions that prevailed. In 1844 one writer, describing her first experience of working at a mill in a series of published letters, noted the tremendous din of the factory. The noise of the machines affected her hearing and, after leaving the building, "it seemed as though cotton-wool was in my ears." At first, the racket bothered her, but "now I do not mind it at all. You know that people learn to sleep with the thunder of Niagra in their ears and the cotton mill is no worse." She added that "it makes my feet ache and swell to stand so much, but I suppose I shall get accustomed to that too" (Offering, June 1844, p. 170). Perhaps even more troublingly for the mill owners, the Offering, which in 1842 stated that "with wages, board, &c, we have nothing to do," by 1845 included an editorial in support of the ten-hour workday. Also in 1845 Sarah Bagley, who had earlier elaborated for readers on "The Pleasures of Factory Life," declared in the July issue of the pro-labor Voice of Industry that the Offering was effectively censored, or, in her words, "controlled by corporation influences" (quoted in Foner, p. 61). Not surprisingly, with these conflicts becoming more and more visible, the Offering ceased publication in 1845 and the Voice of Industry, a far more explicitly politicized periodical that received no support from the Boston Associates, became the main vehicle for the literary expression of factory workers.

This short history of the Offering suggests some of the more apparent reasons that historians and liter-ary scholars have found it a noteworthy publication, despite its brief life and the absence of any individually canonized literary voices in its pages. The Offering makes clear some of the ways that corporate owners and managers sought to present the shifts to urban industrial life as palatable, and even desirable, to a growing industrial workforce unsure of early industrialism's virtues. It also shows the extent to which the laborers themselves could be brought into the process of imagining their work in ways that made it consistent with a preexisting sense of selfhood. Finally, with the publication's demise in 1845, the Offering also suggests that even in a publication so originally and apparently in sympathy with the advent of industrial labor and production, it is possible to look for ambivalent resistance to the process and for the persistent presence of rhetorical and material conflict between laborers and owners.

Even more intriguing from the perspective of those interested primarily in the history of literature and authorship in the United States, the Offering displays some of the important meanings attached to cultural activities such as reading and writing in the mid-1800s, particularly for women. Authors in the Offering did not typically imagine themselves as liter-ary geniuses and on many occasions said so specifically. They wrote, for the most part, in very imitative modes, echoing the language of feeling so central to the sentimental fiction and poetry of the period while making no claims to powerful originality. They wrote (at least in the early years) in ways that self-consciously reinforced a model of femininity grounded in feeling, in piety, in what some historians have called a "cult of true womanhood" and tried to reconcile this vision of the pure and angelic woman with the factory labor they performed. It was largely through their professedly modest engagement with the literary and their attendance at events such as educational lectures that these young, female industrial workers were imagined as beings higher and more spiritualized, more appropriately feminine, than would otherwise have been possible. The Offering and literary work, in other words, rhetorically removed the factory girls from the ranks of a proletarianized working class. It made them feminine; it aligned them with an idea that privileged literary cultivation over industrial production; it preserved the notion of attachment to rural families and moral codes over young women's moneymaking and potential independence from family.

The irony, of course, is that this use of the literary relied precisely upon and did nothing to contest a fundamental cultural polarization between the literary and the industrial. The Offering changed little about the perception of industrial work itself but served as a kind of beautifying garnish intended to dress up the object of anxiety that industrial work had become. This persistent polarization of the literary and the industrial shone through in the Offering again and again and sometimes highlighted by implication the drudgery of industrial work even as it sought to elevate the operatives who performed it. The Offering, for example, had as its epigraph on title pages a passage from Thomas Grey's "Elegy in a Country Churchyard" (1751):

Full many a gem of purest ray serene
The dark unfathomed caves of ocean bear;
Full many a flower is born to blush unseen,
And waste its sweetness on the desert air.

The passage undoubtedly points to the literariness of the factory girls. They know and quote Thomas Grey, and, thus, must not be debased industrial workers. In addition, the passage seems to position the operatives themselves as "gems" and "flowers" in possession of literary light and blossoms. In both of these ways, the engagement with the literary separates the operatives from ordinary industrial workers. But this passage also suggests that the mills themselves are dark caves and deserts seeking to obscure the expressive powers, the finer yearnings, of the operatives working in them. In order for the language of literary elevation to work, it must implicitly be contrasted with the drudgery of industrial labor that the girls engage in twelve hours a day in cavelike factories.

The final point about the Offering, then, is not that it collapsed when the material interests of the workers and the Boston Associates came too much into conflict, although that is a crucial part of the Offering's history. Equally important is that built into the very idea of the Offering was the notion that industrial and literary labors opposed one another, that literary work was a higher, more spiritual, more appropriately feminine calling, especially when done in an imitative, sentimental mode. Given such a starting point, no one should have been surprised that the long-term showcasing of the mill girls' "literary" talent would be untenable as a defense of the factory floor and industrialization. Such a use of authorship assumed from the beginning that factory work was, in its nature, debasing.

See alsoAgrarianism; Factories; Female Authorship; History; Labor; Urbanization

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Primary Works

Eisler, Benita, ed. The Lowell Offering: Writings by NewEngland Mill Women (1840–1845). Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1977.

Foner, Philip S., ed. The Factory Girls. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1977.

Robinson, Harriet Jane Hanson. Loom and Spindle: or, Life among the Early Mill Girls. 1898. Rev. ed. with an introduction by Jane Wilkins Pultz. Kailua, Hawaii: Press Pacifica, 1976.

Secondary Works

Alves, Susan. "Lowell's Female Factory Workers, Poetic Voice, and the Periodical." In The Only Efficient Instrument: American Women Writers and the Periodical, 1837–1916, edited by Aleta Feinsod Cane and Susan Alves, pp. 149–164. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2001.

Dublin, Thomas. Women at Work: The Transformation ofWork and Community in Lowell, Massachusetts, 1826–1860. New York: Columbia University Press, 1979.

Husband, Julie. "'The White Slave of the North': Lowell Mill Women and the Reproduction of 'Free' Labor." Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers 16, no. 1 (1999): 11–21.

Michael Newbury

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