Mill Girls: The Power of the Pen

by Connie Egan
Grade 5
Essential Question:
How do you build a nation that fosters unlimited economic opportunities for newcomers?
Guiding Questions:
Did working in the mill lead to better living conditions for mill girls and immigrants?
How did the lessons immigrant workers learned effect their lives in areas outside of work?
How did immigrants assert political power in Lowell?
Massachusetts History Frameworks
5.27 Explain how American citizens were expected to participate in, monitor, and bring about changes in their government over time, and give examples of how they continue to do so today.


In this unit we will examine how girls and young women left the farms of New England to work in factories that made cloth for clothing, far from their homes. Many of the mill towns grew into cities and the women became instrumental in changing the way workers were treated by the factory owners there.

Sarah Bagley was born in New Hampshire. Her family was poor and she had to find work. She really wanted to go to school and study, but she decided that if she couldn’t do that she would find interesting work. Eventually she came to Lowell, Massachusetts, to work in the mills.

We will see pictures of the newspapers women like Sarah wrote about working at the mills.
Workers like Sarah Bagley worked 6 days a week for 11-14 hours each day. You will investigate the lives of three majors groups that had opinions about the factory system.
  • factory worker
  • newspaper publisher
  • state legislators

Using research gathered from primary and secondary sources you will participate in a debate about working conditions in the factories.


The class will be divided into groups. Each group will have a task to research and report to the whole class. You will use pictures of the flyers the factories sent to hire girls from the farms and the original newspapers the women wrote and published.
Flyer image “75 Young Women” from front page of The Mill Girls National Park Service
These are called Primary Sources. You will also use books about the times (1840-18550) written recently by authors who studied the lives of the “mill girls.” You will also have some photographs and folders of information. You will use the Internet for specific items and for short times.

Lesson Process

Task 1

Initially, you will work with your group to discuss the lives of girls and young women on the farm.
  • What did they do there?
  • Can their families support them?
  • How can they help their families?
  • What kinds of work can they do?
  • Where could they make money to help their families pay the bills?

You will use journals and books available for your research including writing by Sarah Bagley. Your groups will role-play a family discussion when the daughter brings home a flyer for jobs in the Lowell mills. You will use your research to help family members argue for or against the daughter’s going to Lowell. Make sure you can defend the arguments for a lively discussion.

The Mill Girls
The Ten-Hour Movement: Women and the Early Labor Movement. Pamphlet; Tsongas Industrial History Center, Lowell, MA

Task 2

Your group will be using pictures of journals the young women wrote during the time they worked in the mills and the newspapers they published. You can also use books from our collection. Your goal is to publish a newspaper that tells what working in the mill is really like.
  • How long is your day?
  • Where do you live?
  • How/where do you eat?
  • Do you have time to go to school?
  • How is your life different from your life on the farm?

What is the difference between these two newspaper publications?
Prospectus for the Voice (1845 - 1848)

Boston Globe (1872 - present)

You will present your newspaper to the class and read some of the articles you wrote.
Voice of Industry
The Offering http:library.uml
The Voice of Industry
Documents of Mill Life

Task 3

You will become biographers to write the story of Sarah Bagley’s life. Why is she important in the story of women in Lowell? What was her early impression of working in the mill? How did it change? What organizations did she help to start? What did she think would help the mill workers most?
You will find information in our folder about Sarah Bagley and in book that we have. See if you can find a picture of her and her friends on the Internet or draw some pictures to illustrate your biography.

Listen to a podcast about Sarah Bagley's working life
Engines of Ingenuity - Episode 1245

Jeff Levinson, editor. Mill Girls of Lowell. Boston, MA Perspectives on History: HistoryCompass reprints of the Offering include on signed SGB, Sarah Bagley’
Classroom books and Wikipedia

Task 4

Find out about the work actions or strikes- often referred to as turn-outs in the journals. You will use our folder about the struggles for a shorter work day. How did workers try to improve their conditions? What actions did other workers in the country take to try to improve things? What was the Bread and Roses Strike and where did it happen? Discuss your information and make a five-minute play about how some of the mill girls decide to “turn-out.” Make signs to show what changes you want.

Previously mentioned sources

Task 5

Workers in Lowell formed the Female Labor Reform Association in Lowell. They made a petition to the Massachusetts Legislature to say they needed shorter hours of work. They testified before a committee. Find this information in our files and make up a play for the whole class to act out. Include the parts of the women testifying (including Sarah Bagley.) Include the legislators and make up questions for them to ask. Use our documents to find the women’s answers.

Ten-Hour Day pamphlet and other sources above.
Voice of Industry

Task 6

Who was William Schouler? What part did he play in the testimony to the legislature? What did he do to make the mill workers angry? Even though women couldn’t vote in 1847, they were responsible for his defeat. How did this happen? Chose a person to play Schouler’s part and a person to be Sarah Bagley. Find their words and have them debate each other.

Most information is in the Ten-Hour pamphlet
Primary sources listed in Levinson.

Task 7

If you were coming to Lowell from another country, would you want to work in the mills? Why or why not? Look at our primary sources about the famine in Ireland and what the mill girls did to help. Would you think that the mill girls would be friendly to immigrants? Do you think the immigrant workers would join the struggle for better conditions or just try to please the factory owners? Would they get the same pay that the original mill girls got? What do you think people who worked in the mills learned about how to improve their lives at work?
Assemble your findings in a booklet to be presented to the class. You many also prepare a survey of your classmates about the difficulties of being a worker from another country.

Voice of Industry April 9, 1847 and April 30, 1847

Mill girls response to the famine


We have examined the lives of girls and women in Lowell, Massachusetts as they went from the farms to the manufacturing mills. You have seen how conditions changed in the country in the 1830’s and how the Industrial Revolution created a new class of work. The women who worked at the mills wanted safer, better conditions. They wanted shorter hours and a good wage. They began to see workers from other countries coming to work in the mills. This period was the beginning of labor movements that grew over the years until finally there was a ten-hour day, and eventually an eight-hour day.


Student will be able to...
explain how life changed for farm girls in 1830's when they became mill girls

Students can give only disorganized scraps of information concerning the reasons for and effects of leaving the farm for the mill.
Students can identify 3 reasons girls left the farms to work in cities. Students can explain 4 ideas about working in the mills and living in the boarding houses.
Students can describe at least 3 reasons that girls left the farm to work at the mills. Students can explain working and living conditions of mill girls.
Students can provide detailed descriptions of causes and effects of migration to Lowell. Students are able to assess the financial situations for families and mill girls and describe life as a mill girl.
describe ways women in the mills tried to make conditions better, including the mill owners ideas and actions.

(Sarah Bagley)
Students can describe only conditions in the mill.
Students can describe two ways women tried to improve conditions and two reasons mill owners did not try to improve conditions.
Students can describe the role of the mil girl and the working conditions. They can elaborate on the means workers used to try to improve conditions. They can explain the owners reasoning.
Students can explain how mills worked and what the difficulties were for the mill girls. They can cite the role of the mill owners and directors to maintain profits. Students can present the argument for the 10 hour day.
illustrate ways women "stuck" together and supported each other and Irish victims of famine

(Irish letters)
Students can describe only that mill girls work in the mill.
Students can tell about how mill girls helped people starving in Ireland and how they could stick together.
Students can explain how the mill girls supported people in Ireland who were starving. Students can give examples of how mill girls supported each other.
Students can outline and explain mill girls response to famine in Ireland and give examples of how they supported each other and sometimes why they did not.
discuss how the coming of immigrants may have changed the lives of the mill girls
Students can only describe that mill workers work in the mill.
Students can describe why immigrants took jobs in the mill.
Students can describe why mill work seemed good to immigrants and mill owners.
Students can explain and debate positions of natural born immigrants and mill owners.


Voice of Industry


Dublin, Thomas. Women at Work:The Transformation of Work and Community in Lowell, Massachusetts, 1826-1860. Second Edition. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.

Eisenberg, Susan. Blind Spot. Omaha, Nebraska: Backwaters Press, 2006.

Levinson, Jeff, Ed. Mill Girls of Lowell. Boston, MA: History Compass, 2007.

Macaulay, David. Mill. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1983.

McCully, Emily Arnold. The Bobbin Girl. New York: Dial Books, 1996.

Moran, William. The Belles of New England: The Women of the Textile Mills and the Families Whose Wealth They Wove. New York: Thomas Dunn Books, 2002.

Patterson, Katherine. Lyddie. New York: Puffin, 1992.