I came to America in 1842
I came to America in 1842 to escape the hardships of my country and the lack of employment and poor working conditions. I am a 24-year-old Irish girl who found myself in Lowell, Massachusetts.I came across an ad in Boston and took a stagecoach to the Cotton Mills where I could make a high wage for a woman in the 19th century and help the financial struggles of my family back home.
I did not know what to expect. Lowell was a town I had never seen the likes of before. The entire town was built on canals, large factories lined the canals as far as I could see, it was as if the river created them.
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Upon arriving I was introduced to my floor supervisor and signed my one year contract, but since the day was at a close I was instructed to head to my boarding house with the other girls that had answered the ads. From their speech and tones it seemed that the girls we're from all over the world. It was right near the factory so it was easy to find. I was introduced to our house-mother who led me to the third floor as I walked behind her she explained to me the house rules, what chores we're my responsibility, and the name of a woman who would mentor me that lived in my room. I was shocked to find that I had five other roommates, one bed. Immediately I became homesick and wondering if I had made the right decision.
Dinner that night was overwhelming. 40 of us had dinner in a tiny dining room, the food was bland, but hot and filling. I was happy to get a meal. I stood in the corner of the living room trying to take it all in, but the chaos was too much I did my chore of taking kitchen pots outside and getting water from the well so the house-mother could wash the pots the next day. I walked up to bed and fell asleep before lights outs, even though I was sleeping among strangers.
We awoke in the dark at 4:30 am.to the calls of the house-mother and quickly ate our biscuits and I followed the others to work. The building was immense and foreboding, but I knew here I had an opportunity as a woman to make a living. My mentor taught me how to clock in and said, "be ready for the earth to shake!" Having no idea what she meant I was placed in a world that would change my life, both physically and mentally.
The noise was deafening and my first day a nightmare. I was so afraid of having my hand or clothing caught in these power looms my work was slower than the others. It was dark, the windows shut, and hard to breathe as cotton flew around the air. We had a one hour lunch break at noon, where I put two pieces of smuggled cotton in my ear to lessen the noise when I went back, but my mentor quickly pulled them out and said" they will get rid of you if you waste cotton!"As we entered for the evening shift until 7:00 p.m. the supervisor gave me a look and yelled something I did not make out, probably work faster. In 14 hours my first day was done. I was exhausted.
On the way back to the boardinghouse I heard some conversation between several girls in front of me. It was a heated exchange they we're upset with the hour increase from 10 to 14 hours a day (8 on Saturdays), the other girl mentioned she did not feel fair that she had to go to church on Sundays since religion was not a big part of her life. Lastly, the both agreed they wish they could have a drink to ease their tension, but knew the consequence of dismissal if they did.
I ate dinner, did my chores and was back to bed. I found an article on the dresser called the "Lowell Offering", which seemed to be written by workers just like me. My eyes dozed off under the soft candle light as I read a old ballad to George Washington on one of the pages.
This became my routine day in and day out, I made strong bonds with my roommates, became a mentor to new recruits, and became a member of an improvement circle at one of the local congregational churches. Here we would share poems, thoughts, and writings about mill life. We would discuss improvements that should happen within the mill.
For example, one young woman suffered serious injuries to her head and face as her hair became tangled in a loom, another lost her arm. The "cough" became prominent as the inhaling of cotton particles took it's toll on the lungs, and the long grueling hours were leading to more and more of these accidents.
Likewise, our wages we're high for the times, but after half of each paycheck was taken for room and board little was left for leisure activities such as a play, or lecture we could attend. I still was able to send/save much of my earnings home to support my family and as a result of my successes my family sent cousins to join me in Lowell as the famine hit in Ireland in 1845.
I joined the Lowell Female Labor Reform Association in 1845 to help push state government to allow us to have 10 hour work days. We gathered thousands of signatures, but to no avail. However we will continue to push each year so that safety and a better way of life is evident in mill life. We have striked before, and had small successes maybe we will strike again. As I went to sleep thinking how fast the last three years have gone by and if I was destined to die in the mill. I feel like a slave to the labors of the mill. Ironically,something I heard from a girl the other day has stayed in my mind she said, 'the cotton we use to make the clothing in our mills comes from the cotton picked by the African slave of the south.The clothes when completed are sent back to those same slaves for them to wear in the fields."
As I contemplated this I heard my roommate start singing as we lie in bed a song from the strike of 1836.
Oh! isn't it a pity, such a pretty girl as I
Should be sent to the factory to pine away and die?
Oh! I cannot be a slave, I will not be a slave,
For I'm so fond of liberty...
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