Mill Girls in Nineteenth-Century Print

(January 2016)

At the start of America’s industrial revolution, a large number of young women found employment and a unique form of independence in American textile mills. They first came from small farming towns to make a more lucrative living in places such as Lowell, Massachusetts, the center of the textile industry following initial mill construction in 1821. Later in the nineteenth century, women from Europe and Canada arrived in New England’s industrial towns, seeking what mill owners touted as a balanced life of work and leisure. These “mill girls,” as they came to be known, produced valuable cloth in massive quantity, and what they received in return was something of a double-edged sword. Through the independence offered by self-sustaining employment, they came into contact with commonly oppressive working environments, both dangerous and unfair. Yet, despite the power of the industrial machine and their diminutive name, the mill girls managed to form a coalition and community of their own in response. Though Lowell may be seen as the hub for mill girl culture and activism, the mill girls could be found across the mid-Atlantic and New England regions, where mills producing an enormous variety of product (cotton, wool, silk, canned goods, iron, etc.) sought a cheap and eager workforce.

The popularity of the mill girl, in both word and image, came about in no small part due to their representation in print. This exhibition features items from newspaper and periodical publications, ranging from labor magazines such as the Man to literary monthlies such as Harper’s. Featuring selections both by and about the mill girls, from approximately 1834 to 1870, the exhibition highlights the culture and working conditions of the mills and the actions the women took to better their lives through self-advocacy.

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