Larcom, Lucy (1824-1893)
Lucy Larcom (1824-1893)
Author, teacher, and mill worker
Childhood. Lucy Larcom was born in Beverly, Massachusetts, where she spent the first nine years of her life. As the second youngest in a family of ten children she was often left free to play outdoors and to read, her favorite activities. She began her schooling under the tutelage of an aunt, a schoolteacher, at the age of two and was reading before she was three. Later she. went to private school with her sisters and progressed rapidly. At eight, she wrote her first poem and shortly thereafter stitched together her own illustrated book of tales. Her family encouraged her precocious love of words.
Lowell Mills. Her father died in 1835, deep in debt, and the Larcom family moved to Lowell, where the mills had earned a reputation for providing steady, profitable, and respectable work for young women. Within a year Lucy joined her older sisters in the mills. She was a doffer, like many other children, a position that required little attention, simply changing the bobbins every half hour. For three months of the year she was sent to school, and at thirteen she was ready for high school but was not able to attend because her family needed her income from the mills. So Larcom labored hard as a spinner (a woman’s job), twelve hours a day, six days a week for $1.75 a week. But the long hours and noise of the machines took their toll. She wrote of the machine on which she worked: “I felt as if the half-live creature, with its great groaning joints and whizzing fans, was aware of my incapacity to manage it, and had a fiendish spite against me.” Within three years she moved on to a job as bookkeeper, which allowed her more time to study and write. She contributed many poems to The Lowell Offering, the magazine produced by the mill girls, and some of her poems were reprinted in other periodicals. More than one reviewer foresaw a bright future for Larcom, and although she taught for many years before establishing her literary career, she went on to become the most famous product of the Lowell mills.
Independence. While most girls worked at the mills for a few years, saving up money before marriage, Larcom spent ten years in Lowell and became determined to live an independent life. When her sister Emmeline and her husband decided to move west in 1846, Lucy joined them and began teaching, one of the few respectable careers open to women. She first taught in a small school in a prairie community, then at Monticello Seminary near Alton, Illinois, for three years, finally returning east in 1854 to teach at Wheaton Seminary in Norton, Massachusetts. Throughout these years she also began to develop a career as a writer. While her writing alone never made her financially secure, combined with her teaching and later editing they allowed her to maintain an independent existence. She never married.
Fame. Larcom received her first success in 1854 when her poem “Call to Kansas” won a national contest and was widely printed. In the same year she published her first book, Similitudes from Ocean Prairie. Her collection, Poems (1869), solidified her fame and was republished in 1884 in a “Household Edition” by Houghton, Mifflin, a sign of its popularity. Larcom’s name was a household word along with those of John Greenleaf Whittier, Helen Hunt Jackson, and other poets of her generation. But her most famous book was A New England Girlhood (1892), a memoir of her early years in the Lowell mills. When she died the following year, Boston newspapers carried headlines of her death. Beloved as a poet, she was also remembered as representative of a generation of young women who grew up in the Lowell mills and discovered there the promise of an independent life, a promise that she fulfilled.
Shirley Marchalonis, The Worlds of Lucy Larcom, 1824-1893 (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1989).
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