The Lost Museum Archive

Factory Tracts. Factory Life As It Is, by an Operative, 1845

Though the historical record has better preserved the writings and actions of white middle-class reformers, they were by no means the only reformers who understood and acted upon grievances in human rights. In 1845, women factory operatives organized the Lowell Female Labor Reform Association and within the next year had 2,000 to 5,000 names on their petitions to the state. This excerpt from their publication, Factory Tracts, describes working conditions for the operatives and urged both operatives and their supporters to concrete action to change them.


. . . It is not enough, that like the poor peasant of Ireland, or the Russian serf . . . she must still continue to toil on, long after Nature’s lamp has ceased to lend its aid—nor will even this suffice to satisfy the grasping avarice of her employer; for she is also through the winter months required to rise, partake of her morning meal, and be at her station in the mill, while the sun is yet sleeping behind the eastern hills; thus working on an average, at least twelve hours and three fourths per day, exclusive of the time allotted for her hasty meals, which is in winter simply one half hour at noon,—in the spring is allowed the same at morn, and during the summer is added 15 minutes to the half hour at noon. Then too, when she is at last released from her wearisome day’s toil, still may she not depart in peace. No! her footsteps must be dogged to see that they do not stray beyond the corporation limits, and she must …be subjected to the manifold inconveniences of a large crowded boarding-house, where too, the price paid for her accommodation is so utterly insignificant, that it will not ensure to her the common comforts of life; she is obliged to sleep in a small comfortless, half ventilated apartment containing some half a dozen occupants each, but no matter, she is an operative —it is all well enough for her; there is no “abuse” about it; no, indeed; so think our employers,—but do we think so? time will show. . . .

Reader will you pronounce this a mere fancy sketch, written for the sake of effect? . . . It is a real picture of “Factory life;” nor is it one half so bad as might truthfully and justly have been drawn. . . . we would call upon every operative in our city, aye, throughout the length and breadth of the land, to awake from the lethargy which has fallen upon them, and assert and maintain their rights. We will call upon you for action—united and immediate action. . . . there is in this city an Association called the Female Labor Reform Association, having for its professed object, the amelioration of the condition of the operative. Enrolled upon its records are the names of five hundred members—come then, and add thereto five hundred or rather five thousand more, and in the strength of our united influence we will soon show these drivelling cotton lords, this mushroom aristocracy of New England, who so arrogantly aspire to lord it over God’s heritage, that our rights cannot be trampled upon with impunity; that we WILL not longer submit to that arbitrary power which has for the last ten years been so abundantly exercised over us.

Do you ask how that aid can be administered? We answer through the Ballot Box. Yes! if you have one spark of sympathy for our condition, carry it there . . . and see to it that you send to preside in the Councils of each Commonwealth, men who have hearts as well as heads, souls as well bodies; men who will watch zealously over the interests of the laborer in every department . . .

Source: History Matters: The U.S. Survey on the Web