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Lowell Factory System: Idealistic vs. Realistic

Created by:
Susan Foreman
Oakcrest High School

Susan Kane
Oakcrest High School

Jim Dunn
Oakcrest High School

Market Revolution

Grade Level:
9 to 12


The Lowell mills were as much a social experiment as they were an economic enterprise. Mill owners recruited young New England farm girls and provided housing for them in company-owned dormitories. The girls' leisure time and working hours was carefully supervised. The girls were required to attend church regularly and lending libraries, lectures, concerts, and recitals were also provided for their moral and intellectual edification. In creating Lowell, the mill owners hoped to enjoy all of the benefits that came with the factory system while avoiding the social consequences of industrialization. Above all, they wanted to avoid the creation of a permanent, degraded working class.

This lesson plan examines the efforts of early American manufacturers to implement the factory system on a large-scale in the town of Lowell, Massachusetts and asks the students to compare the idealized version of Lowell to what actually unfolded in reality. They will do this by viewing a photostory as a class which will express the social vision that guided Lowell's founders, followed by a class discussion. Next, students will examine a primary source in small groups, each group receiving a different document, such as, a diary entry from a Lowell mill girl, a set of boarding house and factory rules, or an excerpt by a visitor's observation of the mill. These will reflect the conditions that existed in the mills once they came to fruition. The students will be asked to answer a series of questions to help them extract the main ideas from the document and then share their document and findings with the class.

In a follow up activity, the students will be asked to apply their knowledge of conditions in a Lowell Mill to complete a RAFT (Role, Audience, Format, Topic) writing assignment. This will challenge the students to write from the perspective of either a mill worker, a factory owner, a mill foreman or the parent of a mill worker, using some of the primary source materials they were exposed to in class.

Historical Context

Francis Cabot Lowell revolutionized the early stages of industrialization in the United States, with his vision of an entire community involved in textile production. Upon returning from a trip to England to observe the Lancashire cotton mills, Lowell was inspired to create a system of textile mills and develop a "paternalistic" working environment of caring for the workers. This setting would attempt to care for the workers while governing their moral reputations. Lowell passed away in 1817 before he was able to see his vision become a reality. The Boston Associates carried on the ideas of Francis Cabot Lowell and opened the first mills in Lowell, Massachusetts in 1823.

The system used domestic labor, often referred to as mill girls, who came to the new textile centers from rural towns to earn more money than was possible at home, and to live a cultured life in "the city". They lived a very regimented life - they lived in company boardinghouses and were held to strict hours and a rigid moral code. Women between the ages of fifteen and thirty-five were recruited to work at the mills. The protective setting, promised by the mill agents, alleviated the parents' fears of letting their daughters leave the farms. The Lowell Mills management offered cash wages, company run boardinghouses and cultural events for the women. The women agreed to a strict set of rules including church attendance and curfews. In the 1800s, job options were limited for women and the Lowell Mills offered them the opportunity to become money earning rather than a money-saving part of the family.

A further benefit to the mill owners was that the young mill girls were willing to work for two or three years at one-half to one-third the wages paid to men for similar work before returning home to marry and start a family. At $2.40 to $3.20 a week, the pay was still more than domestic servants and seamstresses, the two most common occupations for working women. Moreover, the work was not much more difficult than farm labor or home spinning, and most of the female workers enjoyed having more financial and personal independence that they had ever experienced in their paternalistic, male-centered farm households or in the claustrophobic confines of rural villages. The keepers of the Lowell boardinghouses where the women lived did impose strict discipline, with curfews, mandatory church attendance or Sunday self-improvement, and chaperones for male visitors, but the women were more than willing to trade these limits on their freedom for the money in their pockets and the camaraderie of their fellow workers, at least for a few years.

Work routines were strict at Lowell, with a twelve-hour day starting at seven in the morning, and only a half-hour lunch break at midday. Factory bells announced times for leaving and entering the plant, and the employees were fined for lateness as well as other breaches of the rules, including insubordination, profanity, or improper conduct. The work did not demand great physical strength, but it did require constant attention as the women generally tended carding, spinning, and weaving machines, checking for and then correcting broken threads and patters. In winter, work began before sunup and lasted into the darkness, when smoky whale-oil lamps illuminated the interior of the factories. Because cotton thread breaks more readily in dry air, overseers sealed windows shut and sprayed water in the air to keep the humidity high in the six-story factories. As a result, not only were light and ventilation blocked, but the "buzzing and hissing and whizzing of pulleys and rollers and spindles and flyers" became an unnerving cacophony in the enclosed machinery rooms.

It has long been debated by scholars if the intentions of Francis Cabot Lowells' "paternalistic" expectation of the Lowell mills were realized after his death. Through the documentation left by many of the female workers in the mill system, we can see that the hope for a clean, safe and nurturing environment was not always possible.

This activity encourages students to develop an understanding of the expected conditions of the Lowell mills as compared to the reality of the experience. This will be accomplished by exposing students to primary source documents that will show the vast differences between the expectations of the creators of the Lowell System and the experiences of the female workers themselves.


gender, idealism, industrialization, working conditions

Goals and Objectives:

Following this activity, students will be able to:

1. Understand the idealistic goals of the industrialists who financed and built the Lowell mills.

2. Investigate how the expectations of Lowell's founders compared to the reality of life in the textile mills for the young women who comprised the factories' principal work force, using primary source materials.

3. To complete a writing assignment taking on a role from the perspective of a mill owner, mill foreman, mill worker, or a parent of a mill worker within the Lowell Mill System.


STANDARD 6.4 (United States and New Jersey History) All students will demonstrate knowledge of United States and New Jersey history in order to understand life and events in the past and how they relate to the present and future.

STANDARD 6.5 (Economics) All students will acquire an understanding of key economic principles.

Equipment, materials and other technology needed:

Digital Photostory of the Lowell Mills

4-6 primary source documents

Student Worksheet: Living and Working in a Mill

RAFT writing assignment

* All materials can be found in appendices A-I

Details of Activity

Part 1: The Idealistic View of the Lowell Mills ( 15 min.)

Ask students to jot down on paper the images that come to mind when they hear the word "factory." Have a brief whole-class discussion about what these images entail. Students will then examine a photo-story comprised of a series of illustrations that express something of the social vision that guided Lowell's founders. The pictures present idealized portraits of both the factory operatives and the mills (images used in photo story can be found in Appendix A).

After students have viewed the artwork in the photo-story, ask them to participate in a class discussion that includes all or some of the following questions:

1. Do the pictures of the Lowell mills conform to your image of a factory?

2. What do these illustrations seem to suggest about the relationship between the factories and the natural environment?

3. How are the girls portrayed?

4. Describe the setting that the girl on the cover of The Lowell Offering has been placed in (slide 8). What message is the illustrator trying to convey in this drawing?

Part 2: The Realistic View of the Lowell Mills (15 min.)

Divide students into groups of 3-4. Each group will receive a primary source document that provides a different perspective on the Lowell Mills and factory life. Groups will read and analyze the document and complete a worksheet that assists them in extracting important information about life in the mills.

Part 3: Reporting Out (15 min.)

Each group will select one member to share their source with the rest of the class. The primary objective of the "reporter" should be to share conditions that existed in the Mills based on their source, both good and bad. The teacher will compile student responses on the chalkboard.

Part 4: Closure (5 min.)

The teacher will pose the following question to the group: "Do you think the founders of Lowell fulfilled their original goal of creating a benevolent industrial system that benefited factory owners and workers alike?" Students will write a brief response, using explanations from various sources to justify their answer.

Practice and Reinforcement

Follow Up: RAFT Writing Assignment (Homework or Class Assignment)

Students will use the information from class to complete a writing assignment. They will be asked to choose the role of either a mill worker, a mill owner, a mill foreman, or the parent of a mill worker and write from that perspective. Each role will be assigned a corresponding audience, format and topic about which to write.


The instructor can easily differentiate this activity by grouping students homogeneously and providing sources that correspond to their level of ability.


Please see web resources below.

Web Links:
Adaptation of "Lowell and the Factory System"


Excerpts from primary sources

http:// http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/robinson-lowell.html

Harriet Robinson account (Lowell Mill Girl)

Supplementary Materials








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