Lowell, Mass., was famous in the 19th century for its textile industry, including the use of “mill girls,” Yankee women who came from farms in New England to the big city to work in the mills. The Osborne Library here in the American Textile History Museum owns a number of mill girl letters, written to friends and family about the work of the mill girls, their homesickness, the city and other matters.
Somewhat less common are letters from “mill guys” or men who worked in the mills. The library has recently acquired two wonderful letters written by Charles Lucius Anderson who worked in the Lowell Machine Shop (a textile machinery manufacturer). Both written in 1853, Anderson describes his work, comments at length about family and friends, and makes a number of comments about life in Lowell that are illuminating, amusing and just rich in history.
In his letter dated October 6, 1853 (nearly 150 years ago!), Anderson writes to his parents in West Windham, N.H. (just over the state line from Lowell) concerning—among other matters—his change in his boarding place. Unlike many of the mill girls who lived in company-owned boardinghouses, Anderson was living in a private house, renting a room. However, the situation was not to his satisfaction, as he explains:
“Since I saw Father I have changed my boarding-place to Mr. George Fiske’s in Appleton Street… The reason why I removed was because the “Old Lady” put a young man into room with me, which I would not room with; so I picked up my duds and left. This boarding at a place and being obliged to room with any-body and every-body that may come along is not what I like, and I made up my mind that when I did move I would have a room to myself if it cost me $3.00 per week for board.”
The “Old Lady” was his former landlady and a prior letter from Anderson makes clear he was not happy with her accommodations. He found a better room, just for himself, for the princely sum of $2.50 a week, with a clothes closet and “every thing convenient with a splendid view of the South Common from my window.” Appleton Street, where his new boarding place was located, lies two blocks south-east of his place of work. The Lowell Machine Shop included a number of buildings sandwiched between the Merrimack Canal and the Pawtucket Canal, basically across the street from the current location of the ATHM.
Anderson then goes on to ask some advice as to obtaining new clothes for the winter. He needs a new “outside-coat” and possibly a new undercoat. He also needs an everyday vest of some kind and possibly a new pair of nice pants but maybe he can get through the winter with the old ones. He then makes the pithy comment that “I should much rather live in a city if a person was not obliged to dress quite so much.” City life is good but it does require some dressing up!
But Anderson does not spend his entire letter talking about domestic matters, as charming as they may be. He notes that there is “a great amount of talk and excitement about the Ten hour Rule of labor; I suppose you have heard the Factory Girls have got the eleven hour Rule.” Female textile workers in Lowell organized the Lowell Female Labor Reform Association in 1845 and had been petitioning the state legislature for years to reduce working hours from twelve a day to ten. Pressure from the FLRA and the New England Workingmen’s Association succeeded in reducing hours by 30 minutes in 1847, and finally to 11 hours in 1853.
“The Job Hands in this shop got a notice from Head Quarters requesting them not to go out to Tea untill Bell-Time. It made a great noise among them and there are but very few now in the Shop but would go for 10 hours with whole Souls & Bodies.”
It would take more than 20 years before the ten-hour movement became law in Massachusetts, as the legislature did not pass the law until 1874. Anderson did not live long enough to see it, as he appears to have died around 1865 (only Mrs. Charles L. Anderson is listed in the 1866 directory). Although he is not listed in either the 1853 or 1855 Lowell city directories, he does appear in 1859 as a bookkeeper for the machine shop, a position he seems to have maintained until his death. But his rich description of life in Lowell is a treasure to read a century and a half later, something he surely did not think about as he penned this very ordinary letter to his parents.
Jane Ward, Assistant Librarian