In is a great example of several aspects

In the antebellum years, American cities grew. Find out why and what it was like to live in New York, Philadelphia and other Northern cities in the middle of the 19th century.

Daily Life of a Mill Girl

Photo of a young woman working in the mill
Mill Girl Photo

The year is 1835.

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You are 17 years old and live on your family’s farm in rural Massachusetts. You have no suitor that seems ready to propose marriage. You could stay home and let your father continue to support you and make decisions for you. But you’ve heard about an opportunity in a nearby town called Lowell. A factory there hires girls your age to make cotton fabric. You can pay to live there in a dormitory and earn a little money of your own. At night, they have free classes and lectures, too, so even if you can’t realistically go to college, you can get a bit of an education.

After convincing a friend to get a job too, you pack up and head for the Lowell Mills.

Bell schedule for the Lowell Mills
Bell Schedule

It all sounded so good, but take a look at this bell schedule! Twelve hours a day pulling the same lever up and down, up and down. But, you can’t let your mind wander; that could be extremely dangerous! If your skirt got too close to that power loom, it wouldn’t just ruin your dress; it could kill you. Let’s see how the life of a Lowell Mill Girl is a great example of several aspects of life in the North in the antebellum era – that is, the decades just before the Civil War.

Urbanization and Immigration

Although a majority of Americans still lived in rural or semirural areas, there was tremendous growth in urban areas, called urbanization, partly as a result of movement from farms into towns, like the mill girls, but also due to immigration. In the mid-1800s, more than half of Ireland’s population came to the United States, due largely to the so-called Potato Famine, a massive crop failure that left the Irish people starving.

* Nearly all of them arrived penniless, unable to move out of the cities where their boats landed. More than a million Germans also immigrated for various political and economic reasons, but by contrast, they could often afford to move inland to Midwestern cities like Cincinnati, St. Louis and Milwaukee. By 1860, there were 45 cities with a population of 20,000 people or more, compared to just two when the nation was born.Compared to the immigrants, Lowell Girls had it pretty good. They slept in decent, safe dorm rooms and had plenty to eat.

Life in the port cities was much more difficult because the infrastructure couldn’t handle the explosive growth. Desperately overcrowded, wooden apartment buildings frequently led to deadly fires, like the Great Fire of New York in 1835, which destroyed 17 blocks of lower Manhattan. Diseases like cholera, typhoid and yellow fever also spread rapidly due to the overcrowding and sanitation problems. There were no sewers, animal waste covered the streets and in New York and Philadelphia, the aquifers and wells were polluted with sewage. An outbreak of cholera in 1832 killed tens of thousands of people in cities worldwide, including 1.5% of the population of New York City.

Other types of air and water pollution also lowered life expectancy and quality. Anthracite coal became the primary fuel source for industrial power, but burning so much coal led to poorly understood environmental and health consequences. Similarly, rivers were often polluted by industrial waste, but regulations to ensure clean air and water didn’t exist until after the Civil War.

Illustration of the Great Fire of New York in 1835
Great Fire of New York Illustration

Industrialization and the Rise of Labor Unions

The drudgery of a mill girl’s work is also a good snapshot of urban employment. Family life was disrupted when one or more people began working for wages away from the homestead. Factory jobs were tedious, boring and dangerous, and the hours were unbearably long.

At Lowell, for example, the girls started work at 4:30 in the morning and clocked out at 6:30 in the evening, five days a week. At least Saturdays were a little shorter! Unlike today, there was no sick leave or vacation time, no limit to the number of hours your boss could make you work in a day or a week, and no minimum wage he had to pay you.When a rent hike was imposed on the Lowell Girls in 1836, the employees banded together in a ‘turn-out’ – what we’d call today a strike – protesting that an increase in their room and board was a violation of their contract. After weeks of lost productivity, the factory owners agreed to absorb the increasing cost of living.

This, too, signaled a rising era in Northern cities: the labor movement. In an era with very little business or labor regulations, workers had few rights or protections from their employers. And thanks to plentiful immigration from Ireland and Germany, corporations could simply fire workers who got too demanding and hire a new batch of poor, hungry immigrants who didn’t complain about having a job. Southerners often referred to such economic exploitations as wage slavery, insisting that their model was better since they at least paid to feed and house their workers. But by forming unions, workers (especially those in skilled trades) could refuse to work under certain conditions.

For example, Boston construction tradesmen went on strike in 1835 to win a 10-hour workday.

Nativism and Northern Racism

Just like the Lowell Girls, many Northern workers lost their jobs to lower-paid immigrants. Unskilled urban employees found their livelihoods threatened by the sudden rise in population and responded with fierce, organized anti-immigrant sentiment. Nativists on the East Coast were also generally hostile to Catholics, since a large percentage of the new Irish and German immigrants belonged to that religion, and many nativists felt that loyalty to the pope was disloyalty to America.Nativist clubs sprang up throughout the Northeast in the 1840s with strict admission requirements: typically white, American-born, male and Protestant. Members of New York City’s secretive Order of the Star Spangled Banner were also called the ‘Know-Nothings’ because they refused to admit any knowledge of the organization.

Eventually, they organized into a political entity called the American Party, which ran former president Millard Fillmore as its candidate in 1856. These groups gave speeches, published magazines and even resorted to violence.Several nativist riots became destructive and deadly in the antebellum era. In Philadelphia, for example, riots in 1844 resulted in at least 20 deaths and more than 100 injuries, as well as the destruction of two churches, a convent and most of an Irish neighborhood. The tension had been brewing for decades, of course, but came to a head the previous year.

In the 19th century, schoolchildren in Philadelphia read the Bible each morning. A bishop had asked that Catholic children be allowed to read the Douay Bible, which was a Catholic translation. But by the spring of 1844, rumors were circulating that the Catholic Church was trying to end all Bible reading in school. Violence erupted in two separate incidents, which went unchecked by local officials. Two positive results of the nativist riots were that national attention to the anti-immigrant groups brought about condemnation of their ideas, and the city of Philadelphia implemented a professional police force.Likewise, nativists and immigrants alike were concerned by the increasing population of African Americans in Philadelphia and other cities.

Though Baltimore boasted the largest number of free blacks, those in Philadelphia were known for their tendency to help runaway slaves. Despite a growing abolition movement, there was apprehension about African American equality in the North, partly due to racism and partly to competition for low-paid jobs. Blacks in many places, but especially Philadelphia, faced segregation, were forced out of skilled trades and, in 1838, even lost the right to vote. Like the Catholics, blacks faced mob violence on a regular basis, losing homes, businesses, property and sometimes even their lives.

Lesson Summary

In the antebellum years, the life of a Lowell Mill Girl was a pretty good snapshot of life for a lot of people in the North. She, like many urban employees, had moved from the countryside into the city to find work.

Likewise, urban populations also increased due to massive immigration. Irish immigrants tended to stay in the port cities where they landed, while more affluent German immigrants often moved to the Midwest. Such rapid urbanization led to deadly fires, disease and pollution. Workers had few rights or protections from their employers, so they began banding together in unions. When everyone refused to work, the employers would sometimes relent to their demands.

But, unskilled workers were easy to replace thanks to the plentiful immigration.Nativists were anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic Americans who resented this competition in the job market. Riots became problematic in some cities, such as Philadelphia, causing death and property damage.

In the same way, many whites resented the free blacks in the cities who also competed for jobs. Though Baltimore had a larger African American population, Philadelphia was a hotbed of racist riots, harassment and even disenfranchisement.’*There are various means to calculate the percentage of the population that emigrated from Ireland in the 19th century, depending on which census is used as the ‘before’ and how many years are taken into consideration. The population of Ireland in 1848 is estimated to be around 8 million people, and British sources suggest that two million people went to the United States between 1846 and 1854. That would suggest roughly ¼ of the population having left in 8 years.

But, taking a larger period of time into account (for example, from 1821 when the fungus first starts appearing and going through the start of the Civil War), averaging the total population over that time frame rather than using a single year as a reference point, add in the estimated 1/7 people who died while crossing the Atlantic and those who immigrated through Canada, the estimate is over half.

Learning Outcomes

After watching this lesson, you should be able to:

  • Define urbanization and understand its causes
  • Discuss the negative effects of urbanization
  • Summarize working conditions in the cities and why ‘turn-outs’ didn’t always work
  • Describe some of the nativists’ violent actions
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