The statement is frequently made that “the Americans have everywhere been driven out of the factory.” It is true that they have almost universally quitted the lower grades of work in cotton-mills, but it must not be hastily assumed that they left in any such manner as would justify the use of the expression that they were driven from it. To say that they were driven seems to imply that if their departure were not actually compulsory, it was at any rate an experience which would not have come to them had their social and national life developed in an orderly way. The phrase would also warrant the inference that the movement out of the factory was downward, towards a less satisfactory condition and towards inferior sorts of labor.
It should not be said that the Americans were driven, if it can be shown that their passage into the factory, through it and away from it, was due to a spontaneous and a measurably successful effort to accomplish results and obtain objects which they desired. The entire process then takes its place among those oscillations of the masses which conduce to the healthy growth of society. The matter is worthy of conscientious study, since the world is beginning to demand that all institutions shall have a moral as well as an economical or political justification for existence. If it be found that a people are inevitably degraded through mill service, and that they are nearly certain, in the course of succeeding generations, to sink rather than to rise, then the factory must be condemned by all persons who believe that the purpose of being on this planet is ethical, and that it is immoral to foster practices and methods which deteriorate the human race. If, on the other hand, an examination of the subject shall lead to the conclusion that certain classes of mill people have not been vitally injured by their life, it will become proper to inquire into the causes which have preserved them, in order to learn whether their salvation be due to their association with the factory, or whether it is consequent upon particular characteristics which they have themselves brought into that association. The student must also be careful to remember that if the latter be the case with any race or class which is sharply distinguished in its nature from other classes, some of these different races or classes, not possessing the same preservative qualities, might be less favorably affected by factory life, and might be finally moulded into a very dissimilar shape by experience of that mode of work and existence. The study of the subject is the more valuable, as it may serve to suggest that if the factory is not always wholly harmful to all its workers, it might be possible, by intelligent effort, to render it less harmful to any laborers. It may prove that this object is to be attained through some modification of the system, which will help the operatives to surround themselves with such influences as will tend to develop in them the characteristics which have been efficacious in elevating other classes. There is need of such effort, for even if every body of factory employees have not suffered vitally because of their connection with the institutions of manufacturing, moreover, even if some of them have been able to rise through that connection, it still does not follow that these institutions have ever been rendered as innoxious or as beneficial as they might have been had they been founded, or were they now administered, with conscientious reference to ethical laws.
We do not suppose we can throw so much light, in this paper, on the relation of the Americans to the mill as would solve all question about the function of the factory in civilization, but we hope to present some facts which may at least point in the direction of perfect knowledge, and that wisdom which is the fruit thereof. Factory life to-day differs in many respects from factory life fifty or more years ago, and it is hard to draw correct inferences from one about the other. Still, the understanding of the earlier condition may help to the full comprehension of the other. The modifications which the system has undergone are due partly to moral and partly to material causes. The history of the future will probably be marked by changes also due to both these kinds of causes. Any discovery in science, in the utilization of physical forces, which should have the effect of encouraging the dispersion of labor, rather than its concentration in cities and in large establishments, would alter many aspects of the laborer’s present attitude toward life, and that world wherein, it is supposed, he has a soul to nourish as well as a stomach to fill. On the contrary, should the present disposition to economic centralization continue, it is still impossible to forecast all its phases, or to decide beforehand how they may greatly affect its moral tendencies. But at bottom the relation of human beings to each other is ethical, and material powers alone will never furnish all the elements necessary to solve moral questions. Under all conditions of science and all conceptions of political or economical law, and under every sort of institution, men will hurt or help each other according to the presence or absence in them of a controlling sense that they owe a duty to each other: the employer to the laborer, the laborer to the employer, and each one to his fellow. All problems resolve themselves finally into the struggle for personal righteousness.
In an earlier paper, treating of the village system, I have briefly sketched the history of the Americans in connection with cotton manufacturing. I propose now to consider the subject in greater detail. In the first part of the century, all the operatives were natives. This state of affairs lasted without important modification for nearly fifty years. The history of the male operatives was such as I have indicated in the former paper. Those of ordinary ability lived and died in the service. The more capable ones in each generation rose to be overseers, superintendents, and manufacturers. At first the weavers were all women. At that time hand-mules were used, and these, of course, were run by men, and they required more operators to a given number of spindles than the present machinery necessitates. The old dressing-frames took more hands to do the same work than are now needful, and these were all masculine hands. In the carding and picking rooms, also, more men and boys were then employed. The young men of that period, I am informed, despised weaving as a business, and did not think it worth while to learn to do it. The wages were too small to suit them, and then, as now, the less lucrative employments were passed over to the feminine portion of the working corps; it being accepted among the principles of practical if not of theoretical economics that no wages are too small for women. When the foreigners came to this country, the men began to take looms to run. It would be a forced conclusion to maintain that the entrance of men into the trade helped to cause the rise in the wages paid to weavers, but the history of this branch of labor is rendered rather curious by the fact that it is one which in this country was first entirely relegated to women, and which has been better paid since the other sex have shared in it. In most kinds of work, the men have been the first laborers, and women have come in later; and sometimes their advent has been opposed, lest it should lower the wages.
The careers of the mill women naturally differed from those of the men. There was no promotion for them in the factory. Their way to rise was to marry out of the necessity for continuing to work in it. Men began to be weavers in Rhode Island about 1848 and 1849. The day of labor was much longer than at present. General Butler has lately given the figures for Massachusetts. They do not differ essentially from those applicable to the smaller State, except that in the latter commonwealth the enactment of a ten-hour law was delayed several years after it had been adopted in the former. I am told by a man who for many decades has been a superintendent that he was in a cotton-mill in 1826, and worked from fourteen to fifteen hours per day up to 1833 or 1834. Then the hours began to lessen. After 1850 the time was twelve and eleven and a half hours, till 1862, when it was reduced to eleven. This remained the established number for more than twenty years, till the ten-hour law was finally adopted in Rhode Island. In any attempt to estimate, from these figures, the comparative hardship of the operatives lot at different periods, it must be remembered that although, in bygone years, the day of labor was longer than it is now, the machinery was much less rapid in motion, and consequently the strain on the person who tended it was not so unremitting as at present. All the mechanical changes, however, have not been of a nature to increase the drain on the operative’s strength. A superintendent of large experience once told me that the hardest work done in the mill, in proportion to the strength of the worker, was performed by girls thirteen and fourteen years old. Some alterations in the machinery have, in recent years, rendered easier this particular process in the manufacture.
The wages were of course smaller in former days, from four to six dollars a week for weavers, while at present they range from six to twelve dollars. Overseers in 1850 received from nine shillings to ten shillings sixpence a day, and now, for rooms of the same size, they are paid sixteen to eighteen shillings, and work two hours less a day. The shilling is sixteen and two thirds cents.
When, at the beginning of the century, the cotton business arose, it afforded the girls of New England the first opportunity to find occupation outside their homes sufficiently important to affect the destiny of any large number of them. They rushed into the new opening, not dreaming that they were precipitating their sex into the maelstrom of modern industry, or that they were merely the advance guard of a great army of female workers, whose disadvantageous attitude towards economic forces is one of the most fruitful sources of suffering in our social body. It was not the stupid girls who, in that early day, broke away from the monotony of farm life, or the still worse helplessness of existence with parents too poor to be farmers. It was the bright, eager young women, who went to the mills to earn money, and free themselves from the semi-servitude engendered by dependence on relatives. The story has often been told of the Lowell factory girls who published a paper, and in time settled to no meaner avocation than that of author or social reformer. There are legends also of a generation of Yankee mill girls who sent to Preston S. Brooks the suggestive tribute of thirty pieces of silver, after his assault upon Charles Sumner. But the careers concerning which these stories are related belong to a late period in the history of the Americans’ connection with the manual part of cotton manufacture, and some of them were exceptionally striking. Still, such incidents indicate something which it is important to understand, and that is that the nice girls of New England for many years became mill operatives. Of course I do not mean that such labor was ever aristocratic, but that it possessed a certain social sanction which it does not now command. A consideration of the average fortunes of the native help leads to the same conclusion. The mill girl had worldly superiors then as the dressmaker, the typewriter, the telegraph operator, the common-school teacher, has now, but she was from exactly the same stock, and was herself just the same sort of girl, as are the ones who now follow these different vocations. She maintained her dignity while in the mill, and if she left it before she grew old it was because she wanted to leave it, — usually because some man wisely wanted to marry her. Her marriage was generally sensible, and sometimes brilliant. In studying the traditions of the whole period, one finds occasional hints of that romance which attaches to all history, as amid the homely details one catches now and then a glimpse of ideal beauty, and comes upon the trace of some girl whose loveliness attracted a fate quite different from that of her village comrades. It is happily due to the purity of New England ethics that this fate is more often found to be joyful than sad.
I suppose it would be impossible to obtain statistics which would tell us much either of the life of the Americans who were operatives, or of the after fate of their descendants. But every person who has been long familiar with the native residents in the older manufacturing towns is necessarily acquainted with many family histories, which reveal the essential features of that former time, when factories were small, and owners and workers were often not only neighbors, but friends. They were all subjected to the ancient New England village tradition of substantial equality. They were of one blood, they held to one religion, and called each other very generally by their Christian names. “Of that early time,” writes a lady now more than eighty years old, “I have many recollections, when the wife of Mr. S—— met the wives of overseers not only in her church work or at prayer-meetings, but in social equality.”
I have received accounts of a Quaker family who, about the year 1820, came from a more rural district to a Rhode Island manufacturing village, bringing with them eight or ten young girls, some of whom were also Quakers. The family established a boarding-house for mill operatives. The girls went into the factory. It is a little difficult to imagine young Quakeresses exchanging their soft “thees" and “thous” amid the din of print-cloth looms, a little hard to fancy their queer, sober-hued bonnets resting during working hours in some not over-dusty corner of a cotton-mill. Yet such things were in that far-off year of our Lord, who in all the course of his brief life on earth uttered few maxims that seem in perfect harmony with orthodox political economy. These girls went to “meeting” on “first days,” — one’s pen writes almost involuntarily the beloved Quaker dialect, — but history records not what they did about the fifth-day meeting, or whether they freed themselves from toil once in a while on the fourth day of the week, so that they might attend the monthly gatherings of their sect for religious edification. Doubtless the Spirit was with them, even though they were obliged to pass the solemn hours within factory walls, and we will trust they heard its holy whispers sound through the buzzing of the machinery. There have been many since their day whose. ears that buzzing has deafened to all such whispers.
The girls who belonged in the place, the daughters of old established country families, called on the daughters of the boarding-house keepers, whom they had seen at “meeting.” Very likely there were those who would not or did not call, either through indifference or because some slightly aristocratic notion, but those who went held good positions in such society as existed in the neighborhood. One of the visitors still remembers sitting with her youthful companions in the big room into which they were ushered, while the women of the house brought in and introduced one by one all their boarders who had become factory girls. I have been able to learn the subsequent history of several of these young women, and indeed often visited the home of one of them, after she had become a lovely old lady. They married well, most of them well even in a worldly sense. But there is no evidence going to show that they were influenced to make their marriages by any feeling that they stood, as operatives, in any special need of altering or bolstering up their position. They led refined, honorable, and presumably satisfactory lives in after years, as the wives of business men, some of whom were cotton manufacturers. Their descendants to-day are prominent and educated members of society in the towns and cities where they live.
Of course, in dwelling on the prosperity in affairs which attended so many of these people, I do not mean to imply that their acquisition of property settles the whole question as to whether they were helped or hindered in growth. by their connection with the mill. It is an old truth, yet one of which each new generation needs to be reminded, that increase in wealth and elevation in society are not always accompanied by a commensurate spiritual, moral, and intellectual development. Still, after investigating the history of many families of tradesmen, mechanics, merchants, and manufacturers who are immediately descended from operatives, my impression is strong that this portion of the American race accomplished, on the whole, a healthy growth in all directions during the first half of the century. They were a sturdy and worthy folk, who merely passed through the factory in the course of a natural transformation from a rural into a town and city population. This transformation was rendered inevitable, at that time, by the general development of the country, its resources, and its national character.
Sometimes the rustic operative left the mill and returned to his native fields. Even now, in one of the shore towns of Massachusetts, an old woman lives and dispenses hospitality to summer boarders, and is called “aunt” by all the neighbors, who in 1825, at the mature age of fourteen, left her home on the seashore, and went with another girl on a coasting vessel to Providence. Her mother was a widow, possessed of eight children, and need there probably was for every one to venture early into the world. After serving awhile at a boarding-house in the town, this girl strayed up the Blackstone River to a manufacturing village, whose noisy growth not only disturbed the quiet meadows, but in time necessitated the building of a dam, which caused some of the best farming land in the vicinity to be overflowed and lost to agriculture. Here our young damsel worked in the mill till her health failed, under the confinement and fatigue of the long laborious days, and she was obliged again to become a housemaid. Later, however, Fall River, which was then beginning to take a prominent place among factory towns, attracted her and all her family into its busy life. She grew to womanhood amid the spindles, but she married at last a man from her old home, and returned to the seashore.
The career of one girl, which came long ago to my knowledge, presents in a curious way elements both vulgar and exceptional.
In the following brief narrative of her experience, I will assume that her name was Caroline. She sprang from a very poor and not very reputable family. Her father died in prison. She was one of nine brothers and sisters, and when a child she was not sent to school nor taught to read. Here certainly seemed to be fine material for the making of another “Margaret, the mother of criminals;” but there was some stuff in the girl’s character, some element in her soul, which preserved her from such a fate. Her widowed mother moved from a rural district to a small manufacturing village about the year 1830. Caroline was put into the factory, but at what age I cannot tell; probably, however, while still in her early teens. She went to church, and I am unable to say positively whether she had ever been in the habit of going to church when the family abode in the country, but the person to whom I am indebted for her story thought she had not there been accustomed to attend any religious services. It was in the little village meeting-house that the girl began her education. She used to commit to memory the text from which the minister preached, doubtless availing herself therefor of his welcome repetitions of it during the sermon. There was an old Bible in her home, and she would repeat the text to one of her mill comrades who could read, and get her to find it for her in the treasured volume. The sentence being found, she would study the words, comparing their appearance with her recollection of them as first, second, and so on in the text, till she knew how each looked, and could distinguish it in other places on the mysterious printed pages. The more she learned, the more she wanted to know. One day, when she was nineteen years old, a woman grown, whose thoughts might naturally have turned to lovers, or to pleasant household images amid which her own young self should have leave to walk, the desire for knowledge crystallized into decisive action. She put her work in the mill in charge of some one else, one noon-time, and started along the road that led through the village to the next town. She stopped at every house on the way, and asked at each the same question: Would the mistress take her in and give her board, and let her have time to go to school, if she would do housework in all her leisure hours? She went on in this search for more than a mile, till she found a Quaker woman who accepted her terms. She lived in that family for some time, and attended a small private school, where the other pupils were very little children. I do not know whether the teacher gave her the tuition, or whether she had saved money enough to pay the fees. The latter hypothesis seems less likely in view of the fact that, as she was a minor, her wages had always belonged to her mother. The need of that mother to exercise her full prerogative is quite apparent when it is considered that not only was Caroline one of nine offspring, but that the widow, after they came to the factory village, had married a widower, who was also blessed with nine sons and daughters, and that three additional infants were in the course of time born into this composite family.
Caroline continued her service as housemaid and her attendance at school till whatever resources she had had, either of money or clothes, were exhausted, and she was compelled again to become a wage-earner. She then returned to the mill. About this time the business passed into the hands of new owners, whose families took up their residence in the village. Caroline applied for help to one of the ladies, who she thought would be interested to aid her in her studies. She asked to do housework, live in her family, and receive a small compensation, and expressed the hope that her mistress would teach her. Her requests were granted, and she proved to be “the most eager scholar I ever saw,” said the lady, in after years. The girl insisted on knowing the meaning of every word that she learned to spell, and her eyes would grow prominent with excitement as she added one fact after another to her store of information. She took a lesson every day, till circumstances again led to her return to the mill. Later, however, her mistress procured her the opportunity to enter a small country boarding-school, where she paid her way with work, until she had finally acquired a fair amount of what is called an English education. The end of her story is disappointing. It suggests the baffling and mysterious nature of that spiritual mystery which lurks behind the average human existence. It is sometimes the hardest phase of life to understand, and it may be that comprehension of it is most necessary to one who would form any true theory, not only of social life as it is and as it should be, but also of the essential character and destiny of the soul. It is the old puzzle, Why should man prefer to hitch his wagon to a donkey rather than to a star? An elderly man, of extremely miserly habits, proposed to Caroline, and she married him. I have no means of knowing whether either before or after marriage he was ever able to inspire her with any affection. He did not look like a man whom a woman could love, but it may be that she did care for him. Still, when she told her friend, the manufacturer’s wife, of her intention to marry him, she stated as a reason for her decision that he had three thousand dollars, and she thought that if she united herself to him, and should have children, they need not grow up in ignorance, as she had done, for she should be able to send them to school. Pathetic prescience of the womanly heart! Fortunately, it was justified, and one of her daughters took a normal school course and became a teacher. Caroline herself was left a widow in middle life, with sufficient property to insure her comfort. I do not know that she ever sought to cultivate her mind beyond the point at which her hardly gained schooling left her, and some doggerel verses which she once wrote and showed to a friend proved that her mental life was very meagre.
As the century advanced, the West began to be known to enterprise. The gold mines of California attracted young men thither, while in New England much new business developed; and many of the operatives had by this time acquired habits or capital which prepared them to seize firm hold of these new and tempting opportunities. Women also found chances for other employment. The girl who could become a school-teacher or a telegraph operator had no mind to be a weaver. She even came to prefer to be clerk in a store, or to work in a thousand manufactures more dainty than that of the cotton mill. But this very cotton business shared in the great impetus which was pulsing through the material life of the whole country, and its importance grew. More mills were built and larger ones, and more hands were needed than ever before, just in the very years when the Americans were seeking other avenues of labor. A shrewd observer of that period writes me: “There were not so many Americans left the mills as you would suppose. The mills increased in size and numbers. Then the foreigners rushed in, and it made it look as if the Americans had all gone.” My own knowledge of particular cases leads me to the opinion that the way in which the natives “left the mill” was something like this: There came a time when the parents, who either had been or still were operatives, did not put their children into the factory, but started them in other and more desirable pursuits. Thus the supply of American help failed for lack of new recruits, rather than through desertion on the part of those already in the service, except such desertion by the grown females as had been always the customary consequence of marriage. Most of the men who in 1850-60 were mill workers probably remained such to the end, but their sons took up other labors and sought other careers. There would thus have been a great gap left in the factory but for the incoming of the Irish. It is curious to see how these waves of movement in the American and the Irish national bodies fitted into and supplemented each other. The foreigners were stimulated to come here by the accounts they received of the wonderful opportunities offered by this young and rapidly growing country, and they were urged and pricked on by their circumstances at home. They came just as the Americans began to tire of factory work. The door of the mill stood wide open. The foreigners had no time, no means of support, to enable them to seek other employment or to test other roads to fortune. The Americans had stood so long in the factory shelter—such as it was—that they had had time to study the resources of their country and the possibilities of their situation. So they walked out of the mills, or rather the younger generation refused to enter, and the foreigners, who must go somewhere and do something immediately, walked in, and filled the great inclosures with their voices and with the clang of the machinery which they guided.
The Irish were not, in the true sense of the word, imported by the manufacturers. They were not sent for, and they were not taken, as has been sometimes carelessly alleged, for the sake of lowering wages. They came of their own accord, and the general tendency of wakes has been upward, during the last eighty years. The mill superintendent whom I have already quoted, and whose experience of factories began in 1826, says, “The help have made more money since 1840 than they ever did before.” He adds that he has never known of manufacturers sending “over to the old country after help to work in mills,” “but” he has “known them, when a family had a son or daughter here, to advance a sum to bring the whole family out here, and let them work out the advance, but” “they always paid them the same price that they did others for the same work.” Such occasional loans to persons who wanted their relatives to join them here cannot be classified as concerted efforts to import foreign help.
Sometimes, an American family that had left the mill returned to the service, and a few of the original native employees lingered on to a very late period. One of the last of these in a certain town was an old woman, who had been retained in some nominal employment long after her usefulness was past. When, finally, she could not even go to the null, she was given room rent, and the town eked out whatever she had saved for her support and that of an aged crone who lived with her. A person who visited her shortly before her death found her room and her attendant rather dreary in appearance. The lower class of Americans is divided into two sorts: one kind is very neat, the other extremely untidy, and old Mary and her familiar were apparently of the latter order. A small, battered brass kettle was the only article of furniture which seemed in any way to connect the women and their belongings to those conditions of New England life whence they had sprung. Everything else smacked of such poverty and such manners as are indigenous to factory tenement-house life. There was nothing especially interesting about Mary, except that she was herself a relic, and that she showed a childish and rather touching glee when some very big oranges were given her, till she spoke of one of the owners of the mill, a young man, scarcely more than a boy, who had died suddenly some dozen years before. His memory was fresh in the heart of the aged dying woman; she “had thought so much of him,” she said. She praised him because he had that kindly manner, which seems so easy to attain that one wonders it is not more common, in view of all the love it is sure to excite. “He always had a pleasant word,” she declared, “for every one, as he went through the factory.” And then she spoke of the Sunday morning in April when he died. “They told me,” said she, “as I was comin’ out o’ meetin’ that he was dead, an’ I hurried home, an’ I come up-stairs, an’ I didn’t stop to take off my bonnet an’ shawl, but I throwed myself, as I was, right down there on the floor, an’ cried.”
It has been said that the reason why rich and poor can so seldom help each other is because their difference in condition renders each unable to really understand and sympathize with the experiences, both of joy and sorrow, that come to the other. Love alone can bridge the gulf made by unlikeness, and give perfect comprehension. This aged creature of poverty and of toil, that spring day, entered into the same mystery of grief whose shadow lay on the home of those who owned the mill where she worked and the tenement on the floor of which she lay sobbing. But unfortunately the sort of love which is actual personal affection is rare between persons who belong to classes widely distinct from each other. Perhaps it is quite as often felt for the higher by the lower as the other way. Nor is this very strange. Undoubtedly, people of culture, of refined and dainty ways, are more calculated to inspire personal love in their inferiors than they are to feel it themselves for natures and characters more rudely moulded. Can no sympathy, then, be established between the higher, who are not always the richer, and the lower, who are not always the poorer ones of earth, which shall constitute the bond of a vital relation between them all? I think there is a love which, if less personal, is not less genuine than any love between equals, which the superior can feel for the inferior, and which can supply the necessary medium through which kindness may pass without hurtful or offensive condescension. The divine love which has been the hope and solace of the world through the ages is of this character, and it has been the yearning desire of humanity to see it incarnated beyond the possibility of mistake in a human being. He who will bend his soul to the task of cultivating in himself this love for those who need it will not find any true culture of brain or any real refinement of nerve a hindrance to its growth. It is the finest force that the heart can generate, and no fineness is antagonistic to it. All that opposes its development, however delicate may seem the mental fibre that offers itself in opposition, is, in truth, only the brutal element in man, masking itself under some finical fancy.
The fact that the particular body of people who passed through the factory into other employments generally bettered their condition by so doing does not prevent it from being true that the growth of affairs has of late years developed another class of American workers, who in some respects are quite as badly off as were the factory operatives of that early day. These are certain classes of working girls in the cities. They have more refined associations, it is true, but these very associations must sometimes possess a teasing, tormenting quality, like the oft-quoted waters that surrounded Tantalus. Still, the preference which the American girl shows for an employment which brings her into a sort of contact with things and with customs which she considers elegant or beautiful cannot be wholly condemned or deplored. It argues a desire for something good, even if it does not always show a very clear perception of what is good. The shop girl’s taste for the beautiful may at times be very false, but, such as it is, she has some opportunity to gratify it. On the other hand, no art and scarcely any beauty even of artifice enter into the life that is spent in the factory and the factory tenement. In the village there may be natural beauty, but nature has generally, I believe, less attraction for the uneducated mind than have those productions of man which suggest luxury and adornment. The domestic affections may soothe and delight, but existence in the mill town is to the laborers bare of all that is elevating or refining on the side of the intellect or the æsthetic sense. This fact is worthy to receive serious consideration, beside the opinion which is occasionally maintained that the common human creature needs the alleviation of art, in order to escape from the turmoil of passion and of painful effort into the atmosphere of beauty, even more than the uncommon and superior being needs such alleviation.
Another thing must be remembered. According to the notions of the day, the social position of the shop and sewing girl is higher than that of the factory girl. If she ceased to be the former and became the latter, she might defeat her hope of making a marriage suitable to her views of life. This is not an entirely idle or valueless motive. So long as the feminine nature is harmonious with home life, and is sympathetic to the duties and joys consequent upon wifehood and motherhood, the desire which retains women in occupations which they believe to be favorable to the formation of satisfactory marriages is both healthy and conservative of the well-being of society.
Undoubtedly, the working girl often chooses her avocation from motives of shallow vanity or vulgar conventionality; more often she merely drifts towards some convenient occupation, a helpless straw upon the current of that industrial stream whose direction is determined for her and for all her kind by forces utterly beyond her control. She is a sewing girl, and not a factory girl, because she belongs to this generation, not because she prefers to be the one or the other. To say that she is sometimes governed by trivial motives is simply to affirm that she manifests such frailties and errors of judgment as are inherent in humanity, both male and female. To say that she frequently has no real choice how she shall work, but is obliged to seize the first opportunity which custom presents to such as she, is merely to affirm that she, like the masculine laborer, is a victim to the exigencies of the labor market.
It is, therefore, not probable that any needed relief to the city working girls of American birth is to come through the extended removal of their labor from its present sphere to that of the cotton factory. Still, the events of social movement are so strange that they cannot be foretold; and even while considering the unlikelihood of such a change, my mind is forced to contemplate a possible drift again of the descendants of the Puritans into the mill. There are many natives there now, but they are of recent foreign extraction. As the distinction becomes less marked between this class and that which claims a longer inheritance in the American name, the two may assimilate in the factory as they now share some other avocations. A generation will soon arise whose grandparents only were foreign-born; and when it comes to that, their difference will not be very-clearly defined from their comrades with whom it is a question of ancestry but a little farther removed. The American mill girl will not feel then that her companion is entirely alien to her in blood and breeding.
There are places in all cotton factories, and especially in those devoted to the more complicated processes of manufacture, which require more delicate labor of hand or brain than the merely elemental spinning and weaving, and in the present day an American man is occasionally found employed in them, or a Yankee girl may be discovered in one of the more sheltered nooks in the great industrial structure. There are still American superintendents, and sometimes there are overseers of native birth. Once in a while, on the other hand, the extreme shiftlessness, the hopeless un-thriftiness, which sometimes characterizes the New Englander results in equally extreme poverty, and drives a family into the lower horde of mere machine operators. It may be that it is still an open question whether these exceptional cases are to be regarded as simply survivals of a past order, or as indications of a coming change of attitude towards mill work on the part of the descendants of the people who, many generations ago, occupied the rural districts of New England.
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