Women at Work: The Transformation of Work and Community in Lowell, Massachusetts, 1826-1860

by Thomas Dublin

Paperback, 1981




Columbia University Press (1981), Edition: 2nd, 312 pages


In this prize-winning study, Thomas Dublin explores, in carefully researched detail, the lives and experiences of the first generation of American women to face the demands of industrial capitalism. Dublin describes and traces the strong community awareness of these women from Lowell and relates it to labor protest movements of the 1830s and '40s.


½ (4 ratings; 3.9)

User reviews

LibraryThing member mdobe
Excerpted as "Factory Employment as Female Empowerment" in Gary Kornblith, ed., The Industrial Revolution in America (1998)

In the 1830s and 1840s the mills at Lowell Massachusetts attracted young women from the New England countryside. The mill girls, who came from middle class farming families,
Show More
experienced this employment as a temporary station in their lives, not as a permanent reduction to "proletarian" status. This was a phase in their lives before getting married which allowed them to save for a dowry or college, or to buy nice clothes. The evidence (drawn form women's diaries, mill records and town records of the towns the girls came from) does not lend credence to the image of the mill girls popularized by the official Lowell Mill Paper, entitled The Offering. Contrary to The Offering's official portrait of selfless women laboring to help poor sick parents, the majority of these girls seem to have been attracted to the mill to gain a measure of social and financial independence from their farm families and to enjoy some of the good things in urban life before settling down to life on the farm. Nor did mill employment disqualify women for marriage, as some critics have argued, as most of the 15-30 year old women who worked in the mills got married after working there.

Dublin Ch. 1-4 and 8

Dublin does for the women of the working class what Ryan does for women of the middle class. (Livingston asks how do I correlate the two?) The importance of this study is that it places the limelight on one group of working women, those employed in Lowell, MA textile mills, in order to illuminate the impact of larger social and economic changes during the first half of the 19th century on women and on the institution of the family.

Since Dublin can establish that these women were predominantly young, single, and native-born daughters of rural New Hampshire, they can be studied as products of the old paternalistic household economy encountering the laissez faire society of urban capitalism. For these working-class women (as for the sons of the middle class in Ryan's account of the crisis at mid-century, and even the earlier founders of such cities as Rochester in Johnson's account) family connections are stretched but not severed. The family emerges as a remarkably resilient institution.

The increasing commoditization of agriculture at the beginning of the century was already making women's work in the home less integral to the success of the family farm in rural New Hampshire (p. 40). Though Dublin demonstrates that they did not go to the mills in an effort to support their families back home, their financial independence did have the effect of lessening the financial burden on their families. By going to the city of Lowell, these small town girls left behind the values of the small town and often stayed in the city after marriage (pp. 53-5).

The experience was in many other ways, however, decidedly not one of individuation. Sisters recruited each other for mill work and then worked together in the mills (p. 48). Additionally, the experience of homogeneity and shared experience in the workplace fostered cooperation which enabled these women to organize early labor strikes and other collective forms of protest (p. 71). The family is thus refined, but its outline as a structure of support is sustained.

All of this was occurring in the 1820s and 30s under the watchful eye of a corporation which paternalistically extended the values of the corporate household over the young and vulnerable women they employed (p. 142). This management paternalism broke down in the 40s and 50s, with the increasing competition in the textile market and the influx of cheap labor in the form of Catholic Irish immigrants (p. 138). Mill work became less and less attractive to young Yankee women, and they comprised an increasingly smaller portion of the labor force in the mills during those years.

As the surrogate family of the corporation housing decreased in importance, private lodging in the tenements accounted for more of workers' housing. It is interesting that this corresponded with an increasing reliance on family employment (p. 144). With the retreat of the middle class into their own "private sphere" and away from the associations of moral reform, as noted by Ryan, who would ensure the morality of these workers?
Show Less


Original language


Physical description

312 p.; 5.88 inches


0231041675 / 9780231041676
Page: 0.2961 seconds