Lucy was eight years old when her father died, leaving his widow with 10 children and little to live on. To survive, Lucy’s mother sold her house in Beverly Farms and moved inland, to the new manufacturing city of Lowell.
Lowell, wrote Lucy, ‘had a high reputation for good order, morality, piety, and all that was dear to the old-fashioned New Englander’s heart.’ Her mother ran a boardinghouse for the Lowell mill girls.
In the early days of the textile factories, mill girls were carefully supervised, their morals closely guarded. They could advantage of Lowell’s many cultural offerings: lending libraries, self-improvement societies, concerts and lectures by philosophers such as Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson.
“We learned no theories about ‘the dignity of labor,’ but we were taught to work almost as if it were a religion,” Lucy wrote in her book, A New England Girlhood, Outlined from Memory. It is now used as a reference for historians on early American childhood.
Lucy Larcom was born in 1824 in Beverly Farms, Mass., the ninth of 10 children. Her mother’s decision to support her family by running a boardinghouse reflected the limited choices available to women at the time.
Lucy first worked as a doffer, a job for the youngest girls. Doffers took full bobbins from the spinning frames and replaced them with empty ones. They worked from 5 in the morning to 7 in the evening with a half hour for breakfast and for dinner. “It has taken nearly a lifetime for me to make up the sleep lost at that early age,” wrote Harriet H. Robinson, Lucy Larcom’s good friend in the mills.
It was a pity, wrote Lucy, a ‘that we were set to hard work while so young.’
In the few hours the mill girls had to themselves in the evenings, they avidly pursued their education and self-improvement. In 1840, the pastor of the First Universalist Church started the Lowell Offering, a magazine of fiction and poetry written by the Lowell mill girls. Eventually its scope broadened to include works such as one of the first published criticisms of the treatment of Indians by the U.S. government.
Lucy Larcom and Harriet Robinson contributed their poems and stories describing life in the mill. Wrote Lucy:
I defied the machinery to make me its slave. Its incessant discords could not drown the music of my thoughts if I would let them fly high enough.
Lucy’s poems caught the attention of poet John Greenleaf Whittier, and her story about life in the mills was published by The Atlantic Monthly.
Both girls would publish poems and books. Harriet would become a leader in the suffragist movement. Lucy would teach school in Illinois, then return to Boston to edit a children’s magazine that became St. Nicholas Magazine. A local literary magazine in Beverly is named for her, as is a mountain in New Hampshire, a dormitory at Wheaton College and a park in Lowell, Mass. She died in 1893.