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Exploring Mill Life in the Industrial Revolution: An Integrated Unit

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Author: Tamara Cooley, Barre Town Middle and Elementary School
Grade level: 4-6
Length of lesson: Six 40-minute lessons during Social Studies block and nine 90-minute lessons during reading/writing block (Note: some of these lessons can be done independently, but if you do them as a unit you may need more time)

Historical Context

Students will gain an understanding of how the Industrial Revolution changed the country and how it affected Vermont. They will engage in guided reading and Literature Circles to learn how to discuss stories to foster an understanding of life during this period in history. Students will look at primary and secondary sources to learn to analyze resources for their reliability. Students will learn about the role of the industrial revolution in women’s rights. Students will also hone their writing skills by taking part in writing activities aimed at assessing what they have learned, including a report that describes a day in the life of a millworker. The students will also write and illustrate an informal procedure piece showing the making of cloth from the plant to the finished product. Students will engage in writing constructed responses throughout the unit as well. The knowledge of how the Industrial Revolution made life easier for many will be evident throughout the study and activities in this unit.

The following lessons focus on helping students understand how the Industrial Revolution unfolded. They will read fiction and non-fiction texts to aid their understanding of people and events that shaped this time period. Students will explore primary sources, such as letters written by mill workers who migrated to Lowell, Massachusetts during the 19th century to their families back in their hometowns in Vermont. They may also explore census data from their local community. Their understanding of their community’s role in the Industrial Revolution will help them understand the effect of this time period on the country and world. Students will engage in literature circles and discuss various texts in whole group and small group configurations. They will also engage in examining secondary sources and compare the content and relevance to the content and relevance of primary sources. The importance of the labor movement and its effect on the working conditions of the mill workers will be explored by looking at some primary sources and conducting activities related to this movement. Many of the lessons will lend themselves to informal assessment, (questions and discussion ideas provided) while others can be formally assessed using tests or, in the case of the report, the rubric provided.

The Industrial Revolution of the 19th century began an era of great change. During this time, industry presented a new type of labor quite different from work on the farms. In the 18th and early 19th centuries, most mills were owned, operated, and often built by local farmers who were assisted by local carpenters or millwrights. At that time most of the mills processed grain and lumber for local clients. The development of rural mills was the catalyst for small villages to form. The presence of a gristmill might cause a farmstead to evolve into a small village consisting of several houses, a general store, blacksmith, church, and a post office. Eventually, larger mill complexes attracted businesses, and ultimately grew into towns and cities.

While this pattern spread across the United States, the majority of the larger mill communities were concentrated in New England and the Mid-Atlantic states, where mills typically were a community’s largest employer. Often the owners also owned general stores, real estate, and residential properties. Mill owners also established and directed local banks, and were benefactors of local churches and public schools. They held positions such as deacons, vestrymen, and trustees. This was the time when Lowell, Massachusetts became a flourishing industrial city.

United States factories were powered by thousands of streams, with falls capable of driving the machinery. In cities like Lowell, this was realized by the building of a massive canal system. Even while steamboats and steam railroads carried most of the passengers and freight, waterwheels continued to drive the factory system. American industry relied on waterpower well into the 1860s. It wasn’t until the time of the Civil War that steam power began to gain dominance in the United States. England, by contrast, was using steam power by the late 18th century.

The owners of the mills believed the workers should show proper reverence to their employers and comply with all demands put upon them. Democracy was not a word heard on the factory floor. This was very evident in the Lowell mills. Mills in Lowell specialized in the making of cotton cloth. In 1836 Lowell comprised twenty mills with 6,000 workers. Eighty-five percent of the workforce was composed of single women between the ages of 15 and 29. These young women lived away from their families in mill owned and run boarding houses. The rules that governed the mills carried over into boardinghouse life. The girls were expected to attend church every Sunday and use proper manners; the use of foul language was strictly forbidden. There were also strict evening curfews, believed to be in the best interest of “moral deportment and mutual good will.”
By the mid 1830s hundreds of mills were springing up in the hopes of attracting markets for cotton goods in the Southwest, the Caribbean, and various U.S. cities. This competition caused prices and profits to fall. Many mills had no choice but to adopt cost-cutting measures. These consisted of the installation of new and faster machinery, a sped-up pace for machinery, more machines assigned to individual mill girls, and lower rates paid to each girl for the piece work they completed. After a few years the output per worker nearly doubled, but wages only slightly increased.

In 1834, 800 women walked off the job to protest a 12.5% wage reduction. While this only represented one sixth of the workforce in Lowell, and only lasted for a few days, emotions still ran high. This strike failed but another one in 1836 had a different outcome. The 1836 strike came in response to mill owners raising the price of boardinghouse rates. Approximately 1500-2000 workers walked off the job and succeeded in getting the companies to rescind the higher rates.

In 1837 and again in 1840, Lowell’s mill women, with the country in the midst of a depression, were forced to live with further wage cuts. In December of 1844, feeling much pressure to increase productivity without increased pay, Lowell’s women workers founded the Lowell Female Labor Reform Association (LFLRA). They also joined other labor reform groups to organize a campaign to get the Massachusetts’s Legislature to limit factory work to 10 hours a day. It was typical for a workday to be between 12 and 14 hours. Leaders of the association testified at hearings about the polluted air in the mills and the minimal amount of time allowed for meal breaks. They declared that a 10-hour day would improve their health and enhance their “intellectual, moral, and religious habits.” With the introduction of the steam-powered printing press, the LFLRA began to publish 3-6 page pamphlets that spoke of the repressiveness of factory owners. Not all women workers shared the same feelings in regards to mill owners, however. These women in turn, published a company-sponsored journal titled The Lowell Offering. This publication shone a more favorable light on mill owners. By the mid 1840s native-born Yankee women began leaving the mills and were replaced by Irish immigrants. This ended the Lowell community’s formative period.

Lowell continued to be one of the nation’s leading textile manufacturing centers well into the 20th century. As more and more Irish immigrants arrived in Lowell, however, the once beautifully kept boardinghouses began to be replaced by crowded slums. Founders of Lowell began to retire and the new regime regarded workers as commodities that could be bought and sold. Workers were also put in danger from the combination of high-speed machinery and the use of steam power, which by now had replaced much of the waterpower. Female workers in the Lowell textile mills frequently wrote home about co-workers who had lost fingers, limbs, and sometimes their lives by becoming entangled in the gears and moving parts of the machines. All of this—without any health insurance—meant doctor’s bills came out of wages. While workers could petition employers for compensation, this often proved futile, as the companies were notorious for blaming accidents on workers.

In 1852, legislation was established by the federal government to regulate private enterprise in the interest of public safety. This was the beginning of powerful regulating agencies such as the Interstate Commerce Commission, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the Civil Aeronautics Board, and the Environmental Protection Agency.

The industrialization of early 19th century America on the farm and in the factory helped shape what is now a 21st century industrialized nation. The Lowell mill girls’ tenacity and work ethic were an integral part of the Industrial Revolution.

**For more information about Lowell, Massachusetts and its role in the Industrial revolution see The Early Industrial Revolution: An Overview from the Tsongas Industrial History Center available at:

Vermont standards addressed

    1.3: Reading Comprehension
    1.4: Reading Range of Text
    1.8: Reports
    4.6: Understanding Place
    6.4: Historical Connections


  • Lyddie, by Katherine Patterson (class set, along with the copy of lit circle questions and activities for the book, listed under Websites)
  • The Bobbin Girl, by Emily Arnold McCully
  • Cotton, Now and Then: Fabric Making from Boll to Bolt, by Karen Bates Willing & Julie Bates Dock
  • The Lowell Mill Girls, by Alice K. Flanagan
  • Farm to Factory Workers, by Thomas Dublin. (make overhead copies of selected letters and artifacts to share with whole group).
  • Lowell: The Story of an Industrial City from the Division of Publications National Park Services Handbook 140

Primary and Secondary Sources:

    • 1845 Petition from Lowell Mill Workers to the Massachusetts Legislature
    • Testimony on Working Conditions in the Lowell Mills, given to the Massachusetts Legislative Committee on Manufactures on February 13, 1845.
    • The Decision of the Committee on Manufactures, March 12, 1845.
    • Resolutions Denouncing Report of Committee by the Female Labor Reform Association.

    Secondary Sources:

    • Emily Nutter’s Workday on the Farm and in the Mill
    • Historical Background of Lowell Mills


    1. Using Materials from The Ten- Hour Movement: Women and the Early Labor Movement curriculum packet:

    • Comparing Farm to Factory and use of primary and secondary sources. (Emily Nutter)
    • You Are There! Re-creating the Legislative Hearing to Consider Information and Arguments for and Against the Ten-Hour Day, 1845.

    2. Literature Circles with the book Lyddie.

Other materials needed: Reader’s notebooks, overheads of rubrics, assembly line chart, Emily Nutter activity, artifacts and letters from Farm to Factory Workers, optional Town Census report.

Vocabulary: industry, textile, spindle, loom, locomotive, blacklist, labor, boardinghouse, dowry, doffer (vocabulary from the ten-hour movement)


**Note: As they are completing the various lessons they should be collecting any worksheets or writing activities in a folder, so they will have the items to refer to for later writing activities.

Day 1:
Reading Block--This lesson will be conducted to help kids gain some background about the Industrial Revolution. Before beginning this lesson form reading groups in whatever way you normally group students. One suggestion would be to have higher readers work in literature circle groups of three or four students while struggling readers work as a group with the teacher or an IA, in a guided reading format. Later discussions can take place as a whole group with various groups reporting out their thinking. Begin by giving some background about the Industrial Revolution. Read all or some excerpts from the historical background included earlier. Introduce the book Lyddie, by Katherine Patterson. Have students look over the book individually then turn and talk about what they think, and finally have students share what they discussed and put on chart paper to revisit. Assign Chapters 1, 2, and 3. Leave about 15 minutes at the end for students to respond to a pre-chosen (by you) question in their reader’s notebook. This is appropriate for younger students. For older students give them a copy of the handout titled Literature Circle: Lyddie (available from website listed in resources). Go over the types of questions with them and have each group come up with one of each type of question. Ask them to make a prediction for the next day’s reading, as well.

Social Studies block—This lesson is designed to give some historical background of Lowell, Massachusetts. Use a copy of Lowell: The Story of an Industrial City from the Division of Publications National Park Services Handbook 140; read aloud page 15, paragraphs 1-4. Show students photographs on preceding pages (descriptions on page 15). Have them discuss in partners what they think about Lowell at that time. Share as a whole group. Pages 36 and 37 can be read aloud (all or part) to help explain how the transportation system was changed with the innovations of industry. On photo page 53, the four places mentioned can be looked at on a map of Vermont, to show students where some of the girls were recruited from. Read from last paragraph page 52 and the next two ending on the word blacklist on page 55; discuss why the workers were unhappy with their life in the mills. On pages 78-81, show pictures and read about what types of industry were happening in Lowell. If there is time have students discuss any connections they may have to what they read in the book Lyddie earlier.

Day 2:
Reading Block— Spend the first 45 minutes working in Lit Circles and Guided reading with Lyddie. Begin session by sharing observations in reader’s notebook from last session. Assign chapters 4, 5 ,6, and 7. End by answering another question in their reader’s notebook. For older students have them come up with questions in their groups. Have students add another prediction into their notebooks. Read aloud Bobbin Girl, modeling comprehension strategies, such as interpretation and analysis, inference, and prediction. After reading have students respond to their choice of one of the following three questions in their reader’s notebook in the form of a constructed response:

  1. Why would workers want to strike? Give at least three reasons in complete sentences.
  2. Why do you think the mill owners forbade reading and studying?
  3. Would you have wanted to work in the mills at that time? Why or why not?

Social Studies block: Using the Ten Hour Movement packet, begin by giving students a copy of the packet. Read the historical background (student source 5) together. Discuss any questions that arise. Read student source 6 together and discuss vocabulary, and orally have some students analyze and share the meaning of the passage in their own words. Read through source 7 together. For older students, make three groups and explain during the next social studies block they will hold a mock hearing that represents the actual hearing that happened in 1845. Younger students will complete this activity with the teacher.

Day 3:
Reading block—Read aloud Cotton Now and Then. Students will then show the procedure of plant to cloth in their choice of format.* As you read have the students help you put the basic steps in order on the board. When finished the students will have a visual to go by but remind them they need to elaborate on the steps needed. They should also be encouraged to write a short introduction and conclusion to their piece and add illustrations. You can choose the format or let the students choose. Some suggestions might be a large (poster sized) paper with each section representing one step, a written piece organized like a procedure, drawings with a caption for each, any type of web (circular, square, line, etc). This activity may continue past this block, so it can be worked on when students have free time. These activities can also be done in small groups, with each group choosing how they want to present their procedure.

*Note: I was able to go to Lowell and obtain a cotton boll, spindle, and finished piece of cloth, which can be shown during the reading of the book. This would also help students have a visual for when they write the procedure of cotton to cloth.

Day 4:
Reading Block—Spend the first 40 minutes working in Lit Circles and guided reading groups. Begin session by sharing observations in reader’s notebook from last session. Assign chapters 8, 9, and 10. End by answering another question in reader’s notebook. Divide students into 3 groups. One group may consist of struggling readers whom will work with the teacher reading letters home from mill workers. Teacher’s group will read the Abbott brothers letters, one group will read the Sarah Bagley letters, and last group reads John Wood’s letters. Stress to the students that they should pay attention to the dates of the letters and read them in order. Spend about 20-25 minutes reading the letters then come together and discuss what the groups learned. If time, compare the different emotions felt by the writers.

Social Studies block—Revisit student sources from The Ten-Hour Movement packet. For older students read over source 7 and make sure students know what to do. Younger students can do this preparation as a whole group with guidance from the teacher. Fill out the arguments for and against together, then write what each worker would say when they had to testify. When finished ask how convincing they think our statements are. Read source 9 to see what the decision of the committee was and discuss if the students think the reasons were fair and just. Follow-up with source 10 and discuss vocabulary. (Add the vocabulary to a word wall and encourage students to use the words as they work on the various response activities). Older kids can work in groups to prepare the hearing, while the teacher will mill around and help where needed. There may not be time to hold the hearing at this time, but it can be incorporated into the reading block tomorrow.

Day 5:
Reading block—Spend the first 45 minutes working in Lit Circles and Guided reading. Begin session by sharing observations in reader’s notebook from yesterday. Assign chapters 11, 12, and 13. End by answering another question in reader’s notebook. If you are teaching older students, hold the mock hearing. With younger students look at and discuss artifacts from Farm to Factory Workers (choose a few ahead of time and make overheads) Suggested pages: Map before Introduction on page 1, page 11, 14, 49, 50, 55-57.

Social Studies block—Use student source 3 and copies of the Mary Paul letters to complete the chart and discuss the questions on source 4. The Mary Paul letters can be passed out to the students who can take turns reading them to the class. Since there are nine letters you can group students so that better readers can read them aloud. Have them spend a few minutes reading them in their groups first for practice. For younger students it may be good to have the letters on overheads so they can follow along as others read.

Day 6:
Reading block: Spend the first 45 minutes working in Lit Circles and Guided reading. Begin session by sharing observations in reader’s notebook from yesterday. Assign chapters 14, 15, and 16. End by answering another question in reader’s notebook. Compare and contrast primary and secondary sources. Have all primary and secondary sources available for students to analyze in groups of 3 or 4 for about 20 minutes and then come together and discuss their thoughts about the reliability of primary and secondary sources. Make sure to aid them in understanding the difference between the two.

Social Studies block—Read aloud Lowell Mill Girls. Compare to other texts read so far. Use a Venn diagram or other comparison chart to discover what is similar and what is different from The Bobbin Girl or Lyddie.

Day 7:
Reading/Writing Block: Spend the first 45 minutes working in Lit Circles and Guided reading. Begin session by sharing observations in reader’s notebook from yesterday. Assign chapters 17, 18, 19, and 20. End by answering another question in reader’s notebook. You can then bring students together and read aloud the last 3 chapters to them. If there is time, introduce what will be the last entry in their notebooks. They will work on completing this in the last 2 or 3 sessions. For the last entry in the notebook, have students describe the character of Lyddie in a paragraph consisting of a topic sentence, three details, and a concluding sentence. For younger students model explicitly, while older kids can do this independently. This will be a practice for the report assessment they will do later as they will need to be writing complete, coherent paragraphs in their report.

Example: Lyddie was a very determined girl. She showed her determination when she…. Another way she showed she was determined was when….Finally Lyddie’s determination showed when….Lyddie was determined in every thing she did. (This would be a good way to scaffold for struggling writers. You might have them find the page(s) where they found the ways she was determined, in order to help them learn to go back to the text. If they cannot find them independently you can model how to do this).

Social Studies block—Print enough pages of the “in-line skate” page (page 9 of the “Working on the Line” lesson from the Tsongas Education Center Curriculum materials) for each student, plus about 20 more for the “factory” part of the activity (see Websites below). Let students try the “craft” of “skate-making” individually, and then divide the tasks as the activity directs and let the students try “working on the line”. Have students fill out questionnaire comparing the two methods of production.

Day 8 & 9:
Reading/Writing block—Students will write a report to the prompt: Describe the daily life of a mill worker. Use specific examples from all of the resources we have studied. Hand out a copy of the rubric (see below) to the students, and go over each section with them. For younger students, help them come up with a focus statement for their report. Suggestions: The life of a mill worker in the 19th century was difficult and unrewarding. Have them write a report with an introduction, two body paragraphs each relating to one of the points (difficult-unrewarding), and a conclusion in which they might state their personal feelings or beliefs about millwork. Students who have trouble sustaining writing could be assigned one body paragraph. Make sure students have all resources available.

**Note: Students who finish each section should conference with you before moving on, and can work on the Lyddie character traits paragraph if they have to wait.

Assessment/Rubric: Report Rubric.jpg

Follow up/Extension activities: Obtain some copies of several census records from your town or city (recent and older). Have students study them and talk about what kinds of things they can learn from them. If you have access to computers it would be great to check out some ancestry websites that are easy for kids to navigate. (The hope will be that they find some of their own relatives in the census). Use My Family Tree Workbook (see reference list) Packet and Bio-poem planner. Have the students complete the Family tree packet (this will probably be a week-long activity, since it is mostly homework). You will have to make your own timeline of when you want to finish it. When they have completed their booklets have them write their Bio-poem. They can also make a collage of pictures from old magazines to go with their poem. These can then be displayed in the hall for all to see.

Reference List:

  • Chorzempa, R.A. (1982). My family tree workbook: Genealogy for beginners. New York, NY: Dover Publications, Inc.
  • Division of Publications National Park Service. (1992). Lowell: The Story of an Industrial City (Handbook 140 ed.) [Brochure]. Washington, D.C.: National Parks Service.
  • Dublin, T. (Ed.). (1993). Farm to factory: Women's letters, 1830-1860. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.
  • Flanagan, A.K. (2006). The lowell mill girls. Minneapolis, MN: Compass Point Books.
  • Maier, P. (Ed.). Inventing America: A History of the United States. (2006). In Worker Worlds in Antebellum America (2nd ed., Mew York, NY: Vol. 1). W.W. Norton and Company.
  • McCully, E.A. (1996). The bobbin girl. New York, Ny: Dial Books for Young Readers
  • Paterson, K (1991). Lyddie. New York, NY: Scholastic, Inc.
  • Tsongas Industrial History Center. (2002). The ten-hour movement: Women and the early labor movement [Brochure]. Lowell, MA: Eastern National. (See website below.)
  • Willing, K.B., & Dock, J.B. (1996). Cotton now and then: Fabric making from boll to bolt. Ashland, OR: Now and Then Publications.

Web Sites:

Curriculum materials:

Workers on the Line Activity (free download):

Literature Circle for Lyddie (free download):

Mary Paul letters:
Jonas Abbott letter:

Sarah Bagley letters:
Ten-hour Movement Curriculum Packet (for sale on website):

Flow of History
c/o Southeast Vermont Community Learning Collaborative
P.O. Box 300
Brattleboro, VT 05302