Larcom, Lucy

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Born 5 March 1824, Beverly, Massachusetts; died 17 April 1893, Boston, Massachusetts

Daughter of Benjamin and Lois Barrett Larcom

Lucy Larcom grew up in the seaport town of Beverly. Her father was a retired shipmaster; her mother raised a family of 10 children, of which Larcom was next to the youngest. The events and experiences of her early childhood are vividly described in her autobiography, A New England Girlhood, Outlined from Memory (1892, latest reissue 1986). This work remains one of our most important authentic descriptions of the daily experience of a young working woman in the 19th century. Remarkably unsentimental, Larcom captures the sights and sounds of a bustling port town and relates the reactions of a growing girl to her social environment.

When Larcom was nine years old, her father died; having no other means of support, her mother moved the family to the mill town of Lowell, Massachusetts, where even the children could earn enough to contribute to the family income. Her mother ran a boarding house for the factory girls, and Larcom herself went to work in the mills at the age of eleven, as a "bobbin girl," changing the bobbins on the spinning frames. The hours of work were from 5:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. daily.

Despite this use of child labor, the Lowell mills were considered an enlightened advance over the sweatshop conditions of European industry. Young women workers were encouraged to seek "self improvement" through various educational opportunities provided for them, such as the night schools and a special lecture series, the Lowell Lyceum.

Larcom and her sister Emeline initiated a series of biweekly journals to which they and other women in their boarding house contributed creative pieces. Larcom's own contributions were mainly poetical, following a bent she had developed in early childhood. By 1840 creative works of the mill women were being published in two literary magazines, the Lowell Offering and the Operatives' Magazine. In 1842 these merged as the Lowell Offering, edited by Harriet Farley and Harriot Curtiss. It continued until 1847 and at its height had a subscription list of 4,000. Larcom contributed regularly to this journal, which is now recognized as a unique literary expression of working-class women.

In A New England Girlhood, Larcom reveals some of the attitudes these women shared. She resists class prejudices, urging we not consider a woman's station or occupation but rather her character: "It is the first duty of every woman to recognize the mutual bond of universal womanhood." Larcom observes that many of the mill women were there so a less talented brother could be sent to school. Larcom also notes the concern of the mill women for the problem of slavery; petitions for its abolition were circulated each year among the workers and received thousands of signatures. Larcom herself was a strong abolitionist and wrote many antislavery verses. Her experiences in Lowell are further described in "Among Lowell Mill-Girls: A Reminiscence" (Atlantic Monthly, Nov. 1881).

At age sixteen Larcom was transferred to the position of bookkeeper in the Lawrence Mills. There she had more time to study and to write. In 1846 she moved with her sister Emeline's family to Illinois, where she graduated in 1852 from the Monticello Female Seminary in Alton. She then returned to the East and in 1854 began teaching at the Wheaton Seminary in Norton, Massachusetts. That year she published her first book, Similitudes from the Ocean and the Prairie, a series of prose parables, which she later dismissed as an immature work.

During this period she published poetry in newspapers and in the Atlantic Monthly. In 1862 she resigned her teaching position and in 1865 became, along with Gail Hamilton (Mary Abigail Dodge) and J. T. Trowbridge, an editor of Our Young Folks, a leading juvenile magazine. In 1868 she was named sole editor. Larcom never married, mainly because she wished to remain independent enough to pursue her career as a writer.

Her first collection of verse, Poems (1868), was reissued in 1885 in the popular "household edition." Larcom's most important poetical work was An Idyl of Work (1875), a long poem in blank verse, which dealt with the Lowell factory women she had known in the 1840s.

Larcom edited several anthologies with her friend John Greenleaf Whittier. These included Child Life (1871), Child Life in Prose (1873), and Songs of Three Centuries (1875). These collections were all published under Whittier's name, but it is clear she had the major hand in their creation from the fact that he split the royalties with her. In the preface to Child Life in Prose, Whittier acknowledges that Larcom did most of the work. Works by both Larcom and Whittier were included in these collections. She also herself compiled several popular books of collected poems.

Larcom's reputation today rests not so much on the popular verse which brought her fame in her own day, but rather on the straightforward, unsentimental picture of her life and times she has given us in her prose works.

Other Works:

Lottie's Thought-Book (1858). Ships in the Mist, and Other Stories (1860). Leila Among the Mountains (attributed to Larcom, 1861). Breathings of a Better Life (1866). Childhood Songs (1875). Roadside Poems for Summer Travellers (compiled by Larcom, 1876). Hillside and Seaside in Poetry: A Companion to 'Roadside Poems' (compiled by Larcom, 1877). Snow Bloom, and Other Poems (circa 1880). Wild Roses of Cape Ann, and Other Poems (1881). Wheaton Seminary: A Centennial Sketch (1885). The Cross and the Grail (1887). Easter Gleams: Poems (1890). As It Is in Heaven (1891). At the Beautiful Gate, and Other Songs of Faith (1892). The Unseen Friend (1892). Beckonings from Every Day: A Calendar of Thought (1895). Lucy Larcom: Life, Letters, and Diary (edited by D. D. Addison, 1895). Letters of Lucy Larcom to the Whittiers (edited by G. F. Shepard, 1930).

The papers of Lucy Larcom are at the Essex Institute, James Duncan Phillips Library in Salem, Massachusetts.


Conway, J. K., Written by Herself: Autobiographies of American Women: An Anthology (1992). Eisler, B., The Lowell Offering (1971). Gray, J. and Bigsby, C. W. E., She Wields a Pen: American Women Poets of the 19th Century (1997). Marchalonis, S., The Worlds of Lucy Larcom, 1824-1893 (1989). Myers, B. J., "Moving About in Worlds Unrealized"—A Look at the Life of Lucy Larcom" (thesis, 1986). Robinson, H. H., Loom and Spindle; or, Life Among the Mill Girls (1898). Selden, B., The Mill Girls: Lucy Larcom, Harriet Hanson Robinson, Sarah G. Bagley (1983). Shapazian, K., "The Poetry of Lucy Larcom: Nineteenth Century Woman of Letters" (thesis, 1984). Walker, C., American Women Poets of the Nineteenth Century: An Anthology (1992). Ward, S. H., ed., The Rushlight, Special Number in Memory of L. L. (1894). Westbrook, P. D., Acres of Flint, Writers of Rural New England 1870-1900 (1951).

Reference works:

AA. AW. DAB. FPA. NCAB. Norton Book of American Autobiography (1999). NAW (1971). Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the United States (1995).

Other references:

Women's Studies (1973).