While U.S. politicians established the country’s new government, U.S. entrepreneurs revolutionized the economy. In the 1790s, a few enterprising men returned from England with plans for new steam-powered machinery. By the 1820s, steam-powered textile mills were popping up all over New England. The U.S. Industrial Revolution was born.
The Industrial Revolution would forever change the nature of work for women in the United States. Before the arrival of steam-powered machines, most women of the lower classes worked in their homes under the control of their fathers or husbands. Many women took in work spinning thread or weaving cloth. Any money made by women at home was the lawful property of their male guardian, and it was often used to support their family.
The steam-powered machinery used in textile mills was much faster than individual women spinning and weaving in their homes. The machinery was also very expensive and could not be run efficiently by a single family. For the first time, women were encouraged to leave their homes and work in factory settings. Some lived away from home in dormitories with other women workers. The money they made was their own. These “mill girls,” as they came to be called, were examples that women could function outside of the protective bubble of home and family.
Life in the textile mills was not easy, however. The work was difficult and dangerous. Women were expected to work up to 14 hours a day for a fraction of the pay male workers received. Although they were free from the oversight of male family members, the companies that employed mill girls tried to control every moment of their lives to maximize production. But for the first time in U.S. history, women gathered together to share their dissatisfaction and organize themselves to demand better living and working conditions. Their experiences formed the foundation of the labor movement in the United States.
This broadside is a recruitment poster seeking women to work at mills in Lowell and Chicopee, Massachusetts. Lowell was one of the most successful and famous planned textile mill cities in the early United States. This broadside provides valuable information about the expectations companies had for mill girls and how the workers were recruited.