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  • American Ancestors Magazine Spotlight

  • Researching the Lives of 19th-Century New England Mill Workers

    by Judith A. Rana

    The textile industry brought the Industrial Revolution to the United States. A nation of farmerswas transformed into one that included factories and bustling mill cities such as Lowell,Massachusetts, and Manchester, New Hampshire. As the first employer of large numbers ofwomen outside the home, the textile industry changed individual lives and societal expectations.

    In 1775, the American Manufactory at Philadelphia,Pennsylvania, introduced to North America the spinning jenny, a machine for spinning thread. In 1814,a Waltham, Massachusetts, factory became the site of the first power loom for the mechanized weaving of cloth. During the nineteenth century, textile manufacture became the largest American industry, employing millions of people. Many Americans today — whether they know it or not — can claim ancestors who worked in the mills.

    From time immemorial, at least in Western cultures,the spinning of thread has been performed by women and children. Accordingly, the earliest U.S. factories,such as the Slater Mill in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, were spinning mills employing mostly children. Child labor was generally accepted in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, since children were already accustomed to working long hours on their families’ farms. In the early republic, men’s physical strength was needed for farming and construction. People believed that machinery made textile mill work “easy” enough for women and children to provide most of the labor, under the supervision ofmale overseers. Nonetheless, some of the working and living conditions — such as twelve- to fourteen-hour workdays six days a week for both adult and child workers;low wages; deafening noise; dangerous machinery;unhealthful, fiber-laden air; and overcrowded housing— prompted growing criticism of workers’ exploitation as the century progressed.

    Many nineteenth-century towns in the Northeast possessed one or two textile mills. In smaller towns,especially in southern New England, the “family system” of labor, in which entire families labored in the mills and purchased their necessities from factory stores, prevailed. The larger mill towns and cities drew workers from near and far. Among the most flourishing mill cities were Chicopee, Fall River, and Lowell,Massachusetts; Manchester, New Hampshire; and Biddeford and Saco, Maine.

    The mill cities initially employed Yankee farm men,women, and children attracted by steady wages and the social and cultural advantages these places offered, such as shops, libraries, lectures, museums, evening schools,and ballrooms. Well into the nineteenth century, racial segregation often prevailed in mill work. African Americans were restricted to service occupations, such as laundress and housekeeper. Nonetheless, there is evidence that some mixed-blood Native people worked in the mills. Beginning in the late 1840s, immigrant workers,particularly Irish, French Canadians, Portuguese,and Greeks, replaced many of the Yankee workers.

    In the early to mid-nineteenth century, young women typically toiled for only a few years in the mills during their late teens and early twenties before marrying and leaving the factories to start a family. Other women,however, such as widows, spinsters, and poor immigrants,could work for many more years. During a stint in the mills, younger women can disappear from their hometown records. When I was researching the life of Betsey (Guppy) Chamberlain of Wolfeboro, New Hampshire, I met a gentleman through the Genforum website who had been tracking the Chamberlain family in the Wolfeboro area but could not account for Betsey Chamberlain after 1830. During my research on the Lowell Offering (1840–45) and the New England Offering (1847–50), magazines produced by female mill workers in Lowell, I had found the widowed Chamberlain living, working, and writing in Lowell from 1831 to 1850. Following clues in Chamberlain’s periodical pieces, I had uncovered evidence in land,church, and vital records of her mill employment first in Newmarket, New Hampshire, and then in Lowell during the 1830s and 1840s. Putting our discoveries together, the gentleman and I were able to fill the gaps in Chamberlain’s life story.

    Federal censuses

    In the major factory towns with corporation-owned boardinghouses, censuses show mill workers residing in large households headed by a middle-aged woman or man and sometimes members of the boardinghousekeeper’s immediate family. Anywhere from fifteen to fifty workers boarded in one house. Bedrooms accommodated six to eight individuals sleeping two or three to a bed. A private bed was a luxury unknown to many nineteenth-century people. The 1840 and earlier federal censuses list only the names of heads of households,such as boardinghouse keepers. Boardinghouses appear as households with large numbers of young people.

    In federal censuses from 1850 onward, boarders’names, ages, occupations, and sometimes birthplaces are given. Census takers often obtained information from boardinghouse keepers during the day when boarders were at work in the mills, so specific details can be inaccurate. It is common to see individuals sharing a surname — often sisters or cousins — dwelling in the same house. A female worker’s occupation may be cited as operative, spinner, weaver, or mill hand,but occupations are sometimes unidentified. A male worker may be similarly described, although occupations such as machinist or overseer are always held by men, except for the rare female “petticoat overseer.”

    City directories

    For the larger mill towns, city directories are important sources of genealogical information. A directory often contains data gathered during the previous year.Besides listing the names of inhabitants, city directories often include material about the municipality’s history, government, demographics, businesses,social life, etc. Listings of manufacturing corporations,houses of worship, newspapers, schools,and cemeteries can lead the researcher to other types of records.

    One drawback of city directories is that single women not running businesses were not considered heads of households and might not be listed. In Lowell, female mill workers’ names did not appear in most early directories, with the important exception of the 1836 Female Directory, the full text of which is freely available on the Internet Archive website. Additional Lowell directories can be seen by clicking on the “Lowell City Directory” link at the bottom of the Center for Lowell History’s website. Directories for other cities can also be found through the Internet Archive. In the “Search” box, enter the city — for instance, “Fall River” — followed by“directory”; choose “Texts”; and click “Go.”

    Corporation records

    Some nineteenth-century corporation records are available to the public. These are widely scattered among historical societies and libraries,sometimes but not always in the vicinity of the original mills. In general, more records relating to mill management and business operations have been preserved than material concerning employees, although genealogically significant records on workers can be found. Available collections include those of the Appleton Manufacturing Company (Lowell) and the Essex Company (Lawrence, Massachusetts) held by the Osborne Library at the American Textile History Museum in Lowell. This library houses some 90,000 additional items, including books,manuscripts, postcards, trade literature, images,and periodicals.

    The Lawrence History Center holds Essex Company records dating from 1847, as well as city and population records. The Manchester Historic Association Library holds extensive material from the Amoskeag Manufacturing Company, which includes some early payroll records. MHA also owns a large collection of Amoskeag employee cards from 1910 to 1935.The Massachusetts Historical Society holds some employee records for the Boston and Roxbury Mill Corporation (1794–1912). The Maine Historical Society holds material from the Robinson Manufacturing Company (1823–1994) of Oxford, Maine.

    The Archive at the Slater Mill, Pawtucket,Rhode Island, has payroll books from the Lorraine Manufacturing Company (Pawtucket), the Samuel Lord Company (Pawtucket), and the Seekonk Lace Company (Pawtucket and Barrington, Rhode Island).More Rhode Island corporation records can be found at the Rhode Island Historical Society in Providence.The Thomas J. Dodd Research Center at the University of Connecticut, Storrs, holds material from several Connecticut textile manufacturers and other businesses. The preceding list is not exhaustive, but suggests the kinds of institutions holding mill records.


    Genealogical research can, of course, involve much more than names, events, and dates. Researchers can seek to understand the historical and cultural context of their ancestors’ lives. Several museums recreate historical working and living conditions. In Pawtucket, Rhode Island, the Slater Mill Museum features three restored buildings: the Slater Mill (1793), the Wilkinson Mill (1810), and the Sylvanus Brown house (1758). On display are antique textile machinery,a working water wheel, and other artifacts. Guides focus especially on child labor.

    In recognition of Lowell’s importance to the American Industrial Revolution, the National Park Service operates an extensive museum in that city,which includes a recreated 1920s weave room in an historic Boott Cotton Mill building.Due to the high volume of noise (which is lower than the noise of nineteenth-century weave rooms), the Park Service supplies visitors with ear plugs. Nineteenth-century boardinghouse conditions have been recreated in the “Mill Girls and Immigrants Exhibit” at theMogan Cultural Center, 40 French Street, which also includes displays on Lowell’s working people.

    In Manchester, New Hampshire, the Millyard Museum has been installed in a renovated textile mill.This museum houses a permanent exhibit, “Woven in Time: 11,000 Years at Amoskeag Falls,” illustrating the story of Manchester and its workers. Displays explain the development of the Amoskeag Manufacturing Company, which became “the largest textile producing company in the world, employing over 17,000 people,including immigrants from many countries.” Also on view are looms, an animated illustration of the workings of water power, and “a re-creation of Elm Street on a Thursday night — complete with lighted arches,‘cobblestone’ pavement, [and] a variety of stores.”

    Online sources

    The Center for Lowell History regularly adds primary records and secondary sources to its website. Especially useful website features include Mill Life in Lowell, 1820–1880, a collection of links to specific topics; the Lowell Corporation HospitalAssociation Registry of Patients, 1840–1887; and the LowellInstitute for Savings Bank Records, 1829–1992.

    The Harvard University Library, through its Open Collections Program “Women Working, 1800–1930”, makes freely available page images of published texts, manuscripts,and images — a number of which relate to the textile industry and its workers. Titles include factory women’s periodicals, such as the Lowell Offering (1840–1845)and the Operatives’ Magazine (1841–1842) (under “Magazines”).Also available are workers’ memoirs(under “Diaries and Memoirs”)by Frederic K. Brown, Salome Lincoln, Harriet Hanson Robinson, and Lucy Larcom. The “Books and Pamphlets” category includes many secondary titles relating to textile workers.While in general it is true that fewer records exist for working-class and poor ancestors, these individuals can be traced. And with persistence one might get lucky— some personal papers, including mill workers’ letters and diaries, have been preserved in local libraries and historical societies.

    Judith A. Ranta, PhD, has written books and articles about nineteenth-century American mill workers, including Women and Children of the Mills (1999) and The Life and Writings of Betsey Chamberlain: Native American Mill Worker (2003). She can be reached at


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