Factory Labor and the Domestic Sphere in the Lowell Offering

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In 1822, a group of Boston merchants and traders began their campaign to transform a riverbank below the thirty-foot falls of the Merrimack River into "the greatest textile manufacturing establishment in the country." These capitalists dug and improved the Merrimack canal, constructed machine shops, and built housing for mill executives, foremen and operatives. The cotton mills of Lowell, Massachusetts, and other New England sites began to employ the first female industrial labor force in the United States. Almost twenty years later, factory workers wrote and edited the Lowell Offering, a literary magazine showcasing the virtues and talents of the female operatives in verse, essays and short fiction (Eisler, 13-22). This ESSAY discusses the female Lowell factory worker as portrayed in the Offering. Although the magazine never expressed an overtly feminist view of the factory girls' condition, nor invoked a working-class consciousness similar to later labor expressions in Lowell, there is evidence of a narrative strategy and ideology speaking both to the factory women and the middle-class readership outside of the mill town. The paper's short stories, epistolary narratives and commentaries seek to legitimize an operatives' role within the feminine ideal of domesticity. In conforming to the norms of feminine literature, the Offering reconstructs the operatives' character. It subordinates the evidence for independence or autonomy to relate stories of familial or sentimental ties binding the factory girl to the world outside of factory life. The magazine sought to provide an answer to this question: given her new liberties, what kept the "factory girl" from losing contact with her moral sentiments? To a great degree, the economi... ... middle of paper ... ..., 1820-1865. Columbia Studies in American Culture Series (New York: Columbia University Press, 1942): 13-14. Cott, Nancy F. The Bonds of Womanhood: "Woman's Sphere" in New England, 1780-1835. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1977. Dublin, Thomas. Women at Work: the Transformation of Work and Community in Lowell, Massachusetts, 1826-1860. New York: Columbia University Press, 1979. Dublin, Thomas. "Women, work and protest in the early Lowell Mills: `the oppressing hand of avarice would enslave us.'" Labor History 16(1975): 99-116. Eisler, Benita. The Lowell Offering: Writings by New England Mill Women (1840-1845). New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1977. Welter, Barbara. "The Cult of True Womanhood." The Many-Faceted Jacksonian Era: New Interpretations. Contributions in American History, number 67, Edward Pessen, ed. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1977.
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