Lucy Larcom went to work as a Lowell mill girl at 11 years old to help support her family. The job was one of the best things that happened to her.
That launched her as a published poet who wrote during the intersection of old New England with the new.
Her grandfather had fought in the Revolution and served as sexton of Old South church. Her father was a retired sea captain who ran a store that sold goods from the West Indies.
Lucy described Beverly as an old town that kept up primitive ways in her childhood. They used tallow candles and oil lamps, and cooked on the open hearth. After supper they sat by the dying fire and listened to sailor yarns and ghost and witch legends.
Like good New England Puritans, the Larcoms cooked beans on Saturday so they didn’t have to work on the Sabbath. They didn’t celebrate Christmas, but did enjoy Training Day, when the militia marched to the Common. Election Day in late May also came with election cake. The only other holidays were the Fourth of July, Thanksgiving and Fast Day.
The farmers up and down the shore were as much fishermen as farmers, she wrote, as familiar with the Grand Banks as with their own potato fields.
Her father died when Lucy was e ight. To survive, Lucy’s mother sold her house in Beverly Farms and moved inland, to the new manufacturing city of Lowell.
Lucy Larcom was eight years old when her father died, leaving his widow with 10 children, eight of them girls, and little to live on.
Poverty crept in on the family, and her mother decided to open a boardinghouse in the new 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.’ Because young women worked in the factories, people considered Lowell an experiment.
In the early days of the textile factories, mill girls were carefully supervised, their morals closely guarded. They could take 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 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.”
The Lowell Offering
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, and it published one of the first criticisms of the U.S. government’s treatment of Indians.
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.
This story was updated in 2022.