Larcom, Lucy (1824–1893)

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Larcom, Lucy (1824–1893)

American author and educator. Born on May 5, 1824 (some sources cite 1826), in Beverly, Massachusetts; died on April 17, 1893, in Boston, Massachusetts; daughter of Benjamin Larcom (a sea captain) and Lois (Barrett) Larcom; graduated from Monticello Seminary in Godfrey, Illinois, 1852; never married; no children.

Selected writings:

Ships in the Mist (1859); The Sunbeam and Other Stories (1860); Poems (1869); Childhood Songs (poems, 1873); Wild Roses of Cape Ann and Other Poems (1881); A New England Girlhood, Outline from Memory (1889, reprint. ed. 1924, 1986); Easter Gleams (1890); As It Is in Heaven (1891); The Unseen Friend (1892); At the Beautiful Gate and Other Songs of Faith (1892).

Lucy Larcom was born in Beverly, Massachusetts, on May 5, 1824, the ninth of ten children of Benjamin and Lois Larcom . The Larcoms had lived in Beverly for generations, and Lucy grew up in the Puritan tradition that was a family hallmark. Her father, a sea captain with a strongly religious nature, was a marked influence on the young girl. His death in 1835 left the family without sufficient income, so they moved to Lowell, Massachusetts, where Lucy's mother supervised a dormitory set up by a textile company to house its female workers, called "mill girls." With the family still in need of further income, the older girls quit school to become mill girls themselves; soon, at age 11, Larcom did the same.

Although she was a fairly popular writer in her day, Larcom is now known primarily for her autobiographical A New England Girlhood, Outline from Memory, part of which describes the life Larcom and others lived as factory workers in the Lowell mills in the late 1830s and early 1840s. It is considered a classic portrayal of small-town life, as well as a valuable insider's look at mill life. Textile mills were a vital part of the Industrial Revolution, and the mill girls, many of whom at the time came from local farms and were the first in their families to leave the land, were an illustration of how that revolution changed (and would continue to change) society. Larcom's sisters became leaders in the mill community, and founded the Operative Magazine, in which Larcom's first poems were published. She also published poems in the Lowell Offering, another magazine produced by and aimed at mill girls. Mill girls established evening classes and lectures for their own educational improvement; Larcom participated in a German class and a botany class, and also in an "improvement circle" at which members' essays were read aloud. Work in the mills occupied most of their time, however (in 1846, lawmakers in Massachusetts would refuse to sign a law mandating a maximum ten-hour workday). Many years later, Larcom would recall with regret that she had not been allowed to leave her work to see Charles Dickens when he visited the mills. Although those were the years that saw the beginnings of movements to organize workers and bargain for better conditions, such as the Lowell Female Labor Reform League led by Sarah Bagley , Larcom did not participate in those movements, and for the most part A New England Girlhood portrays mill life favorably.

In 1846, Larcom quit the mills and moved to Illinois with her sister Emeline Larcom . She taught school in Looking Glass Prairie for three years and then, using the money she had saved, enrolled in Monticello Seminary in Godfrey, Illinois, in 1849. She graduated in 1852, and moved back to Beverly; in 1854, she won $50 in a poetry contest for her "Call to Kansas." From 1854 to 1862, while continuing to write poetry, Larcom taught English literature and rhetoric at Wheaton Seminary (now Wheaton College) in Norton, Massachusetts, where she revolutionized the school's teaching methods by using lectures and discussions rather than the standard approach of reciting from textbooks. She also suggested improvements for courses and founded the college newspaper.

In the years after 1862, Larcom divided her time between Beverly and Boston while publishing books of prose and of poetry. She was an editor of a children's magazine, Our Young Folks, from 1865 to 1873. A friend of John Greenleaf Whittier, she edited without credit three volumes published under his name, including Child Life (1871) and Songs of Three Centuries (1883). Her work became quite popular and was also published in magazines including St. Nicholas, Youth's Companion, and The Atlantic Monthly. She wrote a good deal of work aimed at children, although she did not have children of her own. Larcom's intense Christian faith was the most important inspiration for her poetry, which, in common with much Victorian art, was intended to "do good" for the reader. She had a particular fondness for the beauty of nature, seeing it as an expression of the divine, and many of her poems detail rural scenes of the people and environment of New England. Lucy Larcom died in Boston on April 17, 1893, and was buried in an unmarked grave in Beverly.


Buck, Claire, ed. Bloomsbury Guide to Women's Literature. NY: Prentice Hall, 1992.

James, Edward T., ed. Notable American Women, 1607–1950. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971.

McHenry, Robert, ed. Famous American Women. NY: Dover, 1983.

Karina L. Kerr , M.A., Ypsilanti, Michigan