Bagley, Sarah (b. 1806)

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Bagley, Sarah (b. 1806)

American labor leader. Born Sarah George Bagley in Meredith, New Hampshire, on April 29, 1806; died after 1847 (date, place, and cause of death unknown); daughter of Nathan (a farmer and entrepreneur) and Rhoda (Witham) Bagley.

Entered the Hamilton Manufacturing Corporation as an operative (1837); was founder and president, the Lowell Female Reform League 1844–47); active in the Ten-Hour Day movement (1844–45); was founder and member, Lowell Union of Associationists (1844–47), vice-president (1846); organizer of the Lowell Industrial Reform Lyceum (1845); edited Voice of Industry (1846); chosen delegate to the National Industrial Congress, Boston, and the National Reform Convention, Worcester (both 1846); served as superintendent of the Lowell telegraph office and became the first woman telegraph operator in U.S. (1846). Publications: several articles in Lowell Offering, Factory Tracts, and Voice of Industry.

Sarah Bagley was born in Meredith, New Hampshire, on April 29, 1806, the daughter of Rhoda and Nathan Bagley, a farmer and small businessman. Educated in local schools, Sarah lived in the nearby towns of Candia and Laconia, New Hampshire, before heading for Lowell, Massachusetts, at age 31. When New England agriculture was in decline and the country was in the midst of a severe economic depression, she entered one of the weaving rooms of the Hamilton Manufacturing Company in the fall of 1837. The mill owners, known collectively as the Boston Associates, operated their mills in a paternalistic manner. At the time, it was most unusual for a woman to live outside of a family, potentially threatening her moral reputation. Therefore, the mill owners required all women workers to live in corporation boarding houses, obey a curfew, and attend church every Sunday. Despite these parameters and a 12-hour day, many women still found time to attend lectures, visit local libraries, and shop for the latest fashions—activities unavailable in the rural farm communities they had left behind. With the backing of the mill owners, the "mill girls," as they were called, even established their own newspaper, the Lowell Offering, in 1840. Sarah Bagley was a frequent contributor. Apparently, she was initially pleased with her life in Lowell, indicated by one of her pieces entitled "The Pleasures of Factory Life."

Yet, beginning in the early 1840s, there came a growing discontent with mill work as wages declined at the same time that speed-ups—increases in the pace of production—occurred. Simultaneously, women's boarding fees grew, and the number of women went from four to six, sometimes eight, per room. Many, including Bagley, could no longer find pleasure in factory life. As discontent turned into an organized movement, Sarah Bagley emerged as one of its most articulate leaders.

In December 1844, she founded the Lowell Female Labor Reform League which joined with the New England Workingmen's Association in demanding a ten-hour day. Having presented a petition with over 2,000 signatures, her own at the top, Bagley testified before the Massachusetts legislature in February 1845, citing her own declining health as an indication of the harsh conditions of factory life. Soon, she left her mill job and became a full-time organizer, helping to establish Female Labor Reform Leagues in Waltham and Fall River, Massachusetts, as well as in Dover, Manchester, and Nashua, New Hampshire. In print, Bagley attacked not only the mill owners but also those workers who appeared to cooperate with the paternalistic system. Particularly outraged by the pro-corporation stance of the Lowell Offering, she called it and its editor, Harriet Farley , "a mouthpiece of the corporation."

Interest in the Offering dwindled in 1845 at the same time the much more radical Voice of Industry came to Lowell. Published by the New England Workingmen's Association, the Voice became the property of the Female Labor Reform League in March 1846, and for several months Bagley served as chief editor. Feeling that most of the lectures in Lowell were also sponsored by the mill owners, Bagley organized the Industrial Reform Lyceum in 1845. Topics included women's rights, abolitionism, and labor reform; speakers included Horace Greeley and William Lloyd Garrison. However, in spite of this increased awareness of labor's demands, the Massachusetts legislature turned down the mill workers' request for a ten-hour day. After that decision, in March 1846, the mill owners felt free to attack the ten-hour movement by accusing one of the male leaders of immoral behavior. Bagley, while not involved, was tainted by association and slowly moved out of the New England labor movement.

In 1846, Bagley briefly ran a dressmaking and millinery business with another woman in Lowell. She also took a job as a superintendent in Lowell's recently established telegraph office, thus becoming the first American woman telegrapher. No longer so involved with the cause of labor, Bagley devoted more of her time to the Lowell Union of Associationists, an organization based on the utopian social thought of Fournier. She had helped establish the Lowell chapter in 1844, and in 1846 she became its vice-president. Perhaps for financial reasons, Bagley returned to the weaving room at the Hamilton mill in 1848. After only five months in the mill, the now 42-year-old woman was called home to Laconia, New Hampshire, to help care for her father who was dying of typhus.

When Sarah Bagley left Lowell in 1848, she also left the historical record. Historians have found no trace of Bagley after her departure. Yet, in a few short years, she had established herself as an articulate advocate for the cause of labor reform. Her accomplishments are even more impressive given that, in her day, it was deemed inappropriate for women to speak in public, much less speak out against the power of the Boston Associates. Nonetheless, Sarah Bagley had accomplished the goal she expressed in the Lowell Offering: to show the world "that there is 'mind among the spindles,' but also to show that the minds here are not all spindles."


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

Selden, Bernice. The Mill Girls: Lucy Larcom, Harriet Hanson Robinson, and Sarah G. Bagley. NY: Atheneum, 1983.

Kathleen Banks Nutter , Department of History, University of Massachusetts at Amherst