A Letter About Old Maids
A Letter About Old Maids
Source: Betsey. "A Letter About Old Maids." in The Lowell Offering. Lowell, Mass.: A. Watson, 1840.
About the Author: Betsey was a female factory worker in the textile mills in Lowell, Massachussetts, during the 1840s.
The social legacy of the Old Maid and Spinster is steeped in tradition. Originally, spinsters appeared as widows (young and old), orphans, and young unwed girls who performed tasks of spinning, weaving, and the making of clothes within the home. As technology and industry developed, these women moved from the home to the factory and, once there, their social role began to take a different character.
In the United States, particularly New England in the 1820s, the first wave of industrialization was underway, and textile mills heavily recruited young women. Young women were deemed ideal candidates for textile work because these new factory tasks were not drastically different from what they were doing at home. Within their homes, women were already spinning cotton, and other fibers, into thread to weave into cloth, and they were the primary creators of clothing and other textile products. In addition to sewing and weaving, women regularly worked in the fields as part of farm labor, and they were known to do "outwork." Outwork consisted of making goods that could be sold for cash or bartered. Sometimes outwork is also called "piecework," but the second term really refers to a later period when women would be contracted to sew clothing that would then be bought by factories and larger companies.
The mills and factories of this period were sexually segregated operations. Men held supervisory positions, and women worked the spinning wheels and sewing machines and handled the cloth and cloth products. These divisions stem from social expectations on the relations between men and women, and they derived from the fact that sewing, spinning, and weaving were traditionally deemed "woman's work." These women often considered factory work to pay well, especially in light of the fact that much of their work within the home was unpaid. Letters and fiction from the first wave of mill employees shows a great deal of pride in their work and financial independence.
Just as these women took pride in their financial independence and work, they also grappled with the issue of being a single working girl and wanting to get married. The mills in Lowell, Massachusetts—one of the earliest factory towns in the United States—set up boardinghouses for their female employees. They did this as a way to accommodate society's expectations that women would (and should) get married and stay within the home, and that men earned the family income. But, a growing population, advances in technology (like Eli Whitney's cotton gin in the late 1790s), and a need for increased production of goods caused many women to continue to work in mills and factories. More importantly, a growing number of women did not get married. They remained spinsters, and social dichotomies created lively and intense discussions, writings, and debates on the role of the female—particularly the spinster—in society.
These spinsters, most often, did not intend to become Old Maids. Rather, they were young girls who entered factories looking for a bit of financial gain, independence, and pride. Women like Betsey, the author of the letter excerpted below, aptly captured their dismay at, and sometimes disdain of, society's scornful attitude towards them. Betsey wrote her letter in 1840, when local and state governments were being forced to examine working conditions, women began organizing protests against their employers, and society was facing the reality that more and more women were not getting married.
I am one of that unlucky, derided, and almost despised set of females, called spinsters, single sisters, lay-nuns, etc., but who are more usually known by the appellation of Old Maids. That I have never been married, is not my own fault, for I never refused an offer in my life, neither have I by disdain, coldness, or indifference, kept my male acquaintance at a distance. I have always had, and still retain, a great respect for the marriage state, and for those of my friends who, from right motives, have entered into it. I believe, what I presume will not here be doubted, that it is an institution ordained by the All-wise Disposer of human affairs, for the promotion of the happiness of mankind in general; but I think it was apart of that wise design, that there should be Old Maids.
The first reason I shall give in support of this opinion, is, that they are not only very useful, but even extremely necessary; for how many homes are rendered happy, after the departure from them of sons and daughters into the wide world, by the continuance of the old maid?—she who is now to he the light, life, and joy of those who would otherwise be sad and solitary. How many parents are cheered and consoled, in the decline and departures of life, by her who remains to repay their care of her early years, by the constant and much needed attentions which can only be rendered by the old maid! How many married sisters, when trial and sorrow come to their homes and hearts, look for help and consolation from the one of their number who remains free from such cares, the ever ready sympathizing old maid! How many widowed brothers have, with perfect confidence, consigned their motherless children to the love and care of the trusty old maid! Oh, many a little orphan has never felt its mother's loss, while sheltered by the kindly affection of some soft-hearted old maid! And who is usually the nurse in sickness, the friend in affliction, the help in every time of need, but the old maid?
These have ever been her duties and her pleasures; but in later times, old maids have taken a more conspicuous part. They form a large proportion of our authoresses; they are the founders and pillars of Anti-Slavery, Moral Reform, and all sorts of religious and charitable societies; and last, (though not least,) in country towns where no weekly sheet is published, they are extremely useful in carrying the news.
Single women, like Betsey, represented then, and continue to comprise, a significant sector of society. They enabled industry and society to grow and flourish through their labor, helped establish roles for women outside of the home, and paved the way for future female activists. The Betseys, spinsters, and Old Maids of society provided role models for future generations of women who chose (or were forced to assume) lives other than the standard expectations of marriage and keeping a traditional home. Instead of remaining passive, the words and actions of these working women who remained unmarried,—in eras when marriage was the normal course of a woman's life—paved the way for the liberation movements of the late twentieth century.
Amireh, Amil. The Factory Girl and the Seamstress: Imaging Gender and Class in Nineteenth Century Fiction. New York: Garland, 2000.
Isreal, Betsy. Bachelor Girl: The Secret History of Single Women in the Twentieth Century. New York: William Morrow, 2002.
Moran, William. The Belles of New England: The Women of the Textile Mills and the Families Whose Wealth They Wove. New York: St. Martin's Griffin, 2004.
Robinson, Harriet Hanson. "The Lowell Mill Girls Go on Strike, 1836." History Matters, 〈http://historymatters.gmu.edu/d/5714/〉 (accessed March 24, 2006).
Sun Associates. "Lowell Mill Girls Webquest." 〈http://www.sun-associates.com/mercer/handouts/millgirls.html〉 (accessed March 24, 2006).