The Lowell Crisis

By Margret Brown, 1845


LOWELL, MASSACHUSETTS– From the outside, Lowell Massachusetts looks like a haven for young ladies looking for work. While that is partially correct, it is not the whole truth. Look further into the mills and the stories of the girls running it, and you will find the whole truth. The mills are like traps, traps that ensnare the girls and take away their freedoms. When I visited the now-famous mill, what I saw was shocking. The girls lived in incredibly cramped conditions, both in the mill and in their dormitories, with four to six girls per bedroom.1 The girls working at the mill spent nearly every waking hour at the mills or in the nearby area. The women work about 73 hours per week, with only Sunday off, for an extremely low wage.2 However, It wasn’t always like this. When the Lowell mill first opened, the girls’s cost to board was much lower and the wage that they earned was much higher than it is now.3 The ladies living situation had taken a toll on their outlook on life. One young woman that we interviewed, “Marcia”, said, “I work in Lowell I shall begin to grow poorer and weaker. I never was better in my life nor weighed so much and if I work Lowell I cannot actually have the privilege of looking out into the pure light of heaven. Tis the hardest work and the most absolute confinement from one week end to another.”.4 Marcia’s comment reflects what many other girls are feeling. They work hard for low amounts of pay and are constantly confined to their small corner of the world in Lowell.
Most of the girls working at the Lowell mills are doing so only to support their families with any extra cash that they can possibly earn. Lucy Ann, a veteran worker, said, “I must go home, like a dutiful girl, and place the money in fathers hands, and then there goes all my hard earnings, within prison walls, my sleepless nights and gloomy days, and all for what, to benefit mother, to make her, or any member of our family happy?–No!… my loss of strength and energy are spent in vain.”. 5 Miss Ann is not alone in her feelings. Many of these young ladies labor away for a small sum of money, only to be forced to give it up to support their families. It was a bad enough situation for the girls already, but after months of the mills pumping out high amounts of textiles, the demand for textiles went down. Because of this, the mill lost money, and changed owners6, which meant that they couldn’t–or wouldn’t–pay the girls as much. This was in 1834, and it was bad news for the workers. As a result, the ladies decided to form a union and protest the wage cuts by striking. Although this was a brave attempt, it did not work, and the wage cuts were made.7 Just two years later, the mill owners proposed yet another change, except this time, they were going to raise the price to board at the mill boarding house. The ladies formed yet another union and went on strike once more, but they again failed to change the mind of the owners.8 One owner went as far as saying, “I regard my work people just as I regard my machinery.”9 The owners of the Lowell mills are greedy, and are still showing this behavior today.
Today, in 1845, the conditions of the mills are continually worsening and worsening, with no clear end in sight. The hours of the work day are lengthening, and the pay is getting smaller. With these poor circumstances, the ladies are finally taking a stand, and hopefully, this time, it will work. The women are setting up a labor union named the female labor reform association.10 The goal of this union is to get the attention of the government and get a law passed that limits working hours. These ladies desperately need to win this conflict. Is America the land of the free or not? The women who work at these mills are not free, and it needs to change. The fate of their future, and the future of generations to come depends on it.


Girl at Loom. American Textile History Museum , Lowell.


  1. Thomas Dublin, Women at Work: The Transformation of Work and Community in Lowell, Massachusetts, 1826-1860, 2nd ed. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993), 91,
  2. Ibid.
  3. “What Was the Lowell System Used in the Lowell Mills?” History of Massachusetts. February 08, 2017. Accessed April 25, 2017.
  4. Marcia to Charles P. Wardell. 1849. Lake Village, New Hampshire .
  5. Lucy Ann to Cousin Charlotte. June 29, 1859.
  6. “What Was the Lowell System Used in the Lowell Mills?” History of Massachusetts. February 08, 2017. Accessed April 25, 2017.
  7. Alan Brinkley, An Unfinished Nation; a Concise History of the American People. New York: McGraw Hill 2014, Print.
  8. Ibid.
  9. “What Was the Lowell System Used in the Lowell Mills?” History of Massachusetts. February 08, 2017. Accessed April 25, 2017.
  10. “What Was the Lowell System Used in the Lowell Mills?” History of Massachusetts. February 08, 2017. Accessed April 25, 2017.

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