The 1840s in New England was a time in the Unites States where various movements, both religious and secular, were stirring the pot of the new Republic. As a former student used to say to me—“Let stir the pot and see what bubbles to the top.”
Spencer knew how to stir that pot in class. Sometimes, it surprised him what bubbles popped and where the splatter touched.
Bubbles are not always a favorite sight. This is especially true when a male-dominated society feels its power is being challenged by the audacious young women who have forgotten their place in the hierarchy—always subject to their male superiors in all matters.
In the prosperous mills of New England the owners sought out workers. The majority of these were young women from the bucolic villages and towns—farm girls dreaming of living in the big city.
As John G. Whittier referred to them:
“Acres of girlhood—beauty reckoned by the square rod, or miles by long measure! The young, the graceful, the gay—flowers gathered from a thousand hill-sides and green vallies of New England..”
One of these New England flowers was Sarah George Bagley. No one would have assumed this young lady would become a force to be reckoned with in a few years.
At first she became part of the corporate fabric of the mills. She found living in the Waltham-Lowell System housing to her taste where their lives were totally controlled.
“Let no one suppose the ‘factory girls’ are without guardian. We are placed in the care of overseers who feel under moral obligation to look after our interests.” -Sarah Bagley, 1840 Lowell Offering
However, she became disenchanted with the working conditions of the mills, especially the long hours each day, as she saw the effect on her co-workers. As she wrote in 1847,
“I am sick at heart when I look into the social world and see woman so willingly made a dupe to the beastly selfishness of man.” -Sarah Bagley, 1847 Letter to Angelique Martin
The acres of girlhood produced as the owners reaped the profits, built their estates and indulged in their lifestyles of the rich and famous. In 1844 Sarah Bagley and others took a stand against the owners.
She was the first president of the Lowell Female Labor Reform Association. Sarah was viewed as a troublemaker and called much worse by both men and women of her generation.
As history indicates, when young women speak, the male dominance in the corporate, political, and religious realms turns a deaf ear to their pleas and demands. One has to wonder if women are viewed this way because of some illogical nonsense about the perceived myths of the enemies of the divine order, Eve and Pandora, adopted by men to enjoy their status of the supposed superior sex in the divine scheme of the cosmos.
In the references below, there is a remarkable story about this woman who took a small step for her gender. On this Labor Day in the USA it is appropriate to remember Sarah and all of those who followed her.
G. D. Williams © 2018
Sarah George Bagley
In December 1844 she organized and became president of the Lowell Female Labor Reform Association, whose program called for improved working conditions and a 10-hour day and whose immediate object was to influence an investigation of Lowell conditions by a committee of the Massachusetts legislature. Despite petitions, pamphlets, and other pressures extending over a period of a year, the legislature declined to take any action.
Between 1837 and 1848, Sarah Bagley’s view of the world around her changed radically. While much of her life remains surrounded by questions, the record of Bagley’s experiences as a worker and activist in Lowell, Massachusetts, reveals a remarkable spirit. Condemned by some as a rabble rouser and enemy of social order, many have celebrated her as a woman who fought against the confines of patriarchal industrial society on behalf of all her sisters in work and struggle.
Fog Smith recognized a kindred spirit in Bagley. He hired her out of the mills to run the Lowell telegraph office. Bagley spent a few weeks studying the electro-mechanical system and then went to work. Years before, she’d written an article for The Offering in which she told how the “complicated, curious [factory] machinery” opened up one’s mind. She was more than just comfortable with new technology, she found it stimulating.
The local press treated Lowell’s new telegraph line as a joke. One paper wrote, “The maximum of the magnetic attraction [of humbug] is always at the center [of humbug].” Another, skeptical about women in the telegraph office, asked, “Can a woman keep a secret?” And so for a salary of around $400 a year, the first woman telegrapher set about to make this new workplace a plausible one for women — cleaning the batteries every night, acting as information headquarters for Lowell. A vocation, which might well have turned all-male, went to both men and women just because of Bagley.
Sarah Bagley was a famous labor leader in Lowell during the 1840s. And she—as a labor leader, she at one point published the Voice of Industry, which was an important newspaper in that labor movement. She corresponded with a lot of important political figures and reformers. And this is part of her correspondence. This is one of the people she corresponded with—Angelique Martin. Angelique Martin was a Fourierist, that’s a social utopian reform movement. And Angelique Martin had taken an interest in the Lowell factory women who were struggling to get a 10-hour workday in the factories.
Miss S. G. Bagley, of Lowell, a lady of superior talents and accomplishments, whose refined and delicate feelings, gave a thrilling power to her language and spell-bound this large auditory, so that the rustling of the leaves might be heard softly playing with the wind between the intervals of speech.
She spoke of the Lowell Offering,—that it was not the voice of the operatives—it gave a false representation to the truth— it was controlled by the manufacturing interest to give a gloss to their inhumanity, and anything calling in question the factory system, or a vindication of operative’s rights, was neglected.
The Factory Girls of Lowell by John G. Whittier
Acres of girlhood—beauty reckoned by the square rod, or miles by long measure! The young, the graceful, the gay—flowers gathered from a thousand hill-sides and green vallies of New England..
The Waltham-Lowell System
The success of the early spinning mills of southern New England in the years before 1810 and the uncertainties of shipping led the son of a leading Boston merchant family, Francis Cabot Lowell, to seek a haven for his fortune in manufacturing. Having developed the country’s first working power loom, Lowell, with fellow Bostonians Patrick Tracy Jackson and Nathan Appleton, established the Boston Manufacturing Company along the Charles River in Waltham in 1814.
To attract the necessary work force to his plant, Lowell established an innovative labor program. He hoped his program would prove an alternative to the system of child labor that had long been in use in Britain and also prevailed in New England textile mills. Called the Lowell System, or the Waltham System, farm girls and young women who came to work at the textile factory were housed in supervised dormitories or boardinghouses and were provided with educational and cultural opportunities. Lowell believed that by providing safety in the workplace, comfortable living conditions, and a socially positive living and working environment he could ensure a steady supply of labor.
United States Department of Labor –Women Bureau
Women In Labor Timeline
History of Labor Day