Richard Reeves

We Are All Factory Girls Here

SAG HARBOR, N.Y. -- I'm not working much these warm and sunny days near the water, so I'm thinking about work. That's what good and true Americans do in their spare time -- if they are not headed for a second job or a third.

It is very hard to disengage when you are serving the greatest economy in the world. Most of us get only a lousy two weeks off a year -- if we're lucky enough to have to work at only one job -- compared to the five or six or seven weeks of vacation in other developed but poorer countries. It's a disgrace, really, but our real second job (or third or fourth) is buying and borrowing to keep the big American wheel turning.

Sitting here on the porch last Friday, trying to throw out the papers that accumulate over a year, I came across a selection of articles from The Lowell Offering, a literary magazine published in Lowell, Mass., from 1840 to 1845 under the banner: "This Number Wholly Written by Female Employees in the Mills."

These females, country girls and then Irish immigrants, were soldiers of the Industrial Revolution, the first wage-earning women in the country, working in textile mills and living in nearby boarding houses. The pay was $4 a week for a 70-hour, six-day week.

There were some, probably relatives or friends of the mill owners, who thought the system was utopian, bringing "ignorant" girls into progressive citizenship and even into their own churches and Sunday schools on their one day off. There were some, too, particularly in Boston, who called the whole thing "white slavery." Much of The Lowell Offering was devoted to that heaven-or-hell argument, and, at least in the pieces I've read, the mills were indeed close to heaven on Earth -- which may have had something to do with the owners' financing the magazine.

In one 1845 issue, "Miss B" says: "A factory girl's work is neither hard nor complicated. There can be no better place for reflection, when there must be toil, than the factory ... The patronage which newspapers and periodicals find in our city, our well-worn libraries, evening schools, crowded churches and Sabbath schools, prove that factory operatives use leisure as the means of improvement both in mind and heart."

In my favorite piece, "A Week in the Mill," the anonymous author writes: "The Sabbath has made her heart and her step light, and she is early at her accustomed place, awaiting the starting of the machinery. Everything having been cleaned and neatly arranged, she has less to occupy her on Monday than other days; and you may see her leaning from the window to watch the glitter of the sunrise on the water...."

The sunrise! It was a long day, ending at 7 p.m. The observer goes on, talking about how much the girls are able to do for themselves before bedtime at 10 p.m. She, if it is one of the girls who wrote this, concludes: "There is very little variety in an operative's life, and little difference between it and any other life of labor. It lies 'half in sunlight -- half in shade.'"

Putting that down, I picked up the day's Wall Street Journal. The story on the left-hand side of page one appeared under the headlines:

"In 24-Hour Workplace, Day Care Is Moving to the Night Shift ... Parents Drop Off Their Kids at Dusk-to-Dawn Sites; The Future of Baby-sitting."

The reporter, Barbara Carton, reports on around-the-clock, day-and-night care centers in a half-dozen states where parents are working night shifts in hospitals, nursing homes, auto factories, computer companies and gambling casinos. She focuses first on a 9-year-old girl in Nevada named Najah Finch, doing cartwheels at 3:30 a.m. while her mother works nearby as a dealer.

I guess you could call that the American way. We are all the children of the mill girls of Lowell.

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