Have you heard of the Mill Girls? Sounds like a singing group from the 1940s, doesn’t it? In reality, “the Mill Girls” refers to female employees of the New England textile mills during the early 19th century. The young women ranged in age from ten on up, with most in their early twenties.
Industrial textile mills began opening in the U.S. in 1814, with the first one located in Lowell, MA. The setting was bucolic, not urban, and took advantage of power created from streams and rivers. Most of the first employees were young women from the rural countryside. They worked hard, generally seventy hours a week in difficult conditions. They lived in boarding houses with strict rules for behavior. In return they received daily cash wages, above what they could achieve in most other employment.
The Mill Girls are direct contributors to the craft of American quilting. Their stories are fascinating, and over time I will tell you a few of them. Pioneers in the industrial revolution, in the labor movement, and in women’s rights, they broke ground on many fronts.
With an exhausting work schedule and few entertainments, the Mill Girls found amusement where they could. In 1840 the Lowell Offering began publication. It was a monthly magazine written and published by female employees.
The first selection I read is a sentimental piece entitled “The Patchwork Quilt,” by Annette. Published in November, 1843, the essay is an ode to a well-loved quilt. The tiny bits of fabric that composed it carry memories of family times, personal growth, and broken dreams.
Annette takes pride in her learning, joy in the simple notions, like the strawberry pin cushion, and the brass thimble, a gift from her father. How many of us look at our tools around us and feel the same gratitude?
As she grows in her skills, she adds more scraps and more memories. Fashions, friends, and the possibility of love all made their way into her quilt.
Sacrifice of this beautiful memento, however, was easy. With a younger sister marrying, and no prospects for herself, Annette lovingly devoted the quilt to another, “for my baby sister was to be a wife.”
Read for yourself the full text, which can be found here, as an image of an original magazine. At the bottom of each page you can find an arrow to advance to the next page.
Our craft and our tools are different, or are they? Our lives are different, but how much? We still strive for excellence, for meaning, and for love. We still rejoice and mourn.
The Mill Girls pioneered textiles in America and so much more. “The Patchwork Quilt,” though written in a sentimental style not favored today, tells more of our commonalities than our differences. In truth, we are connected to that past in ways large and small.