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Working in the Cotton Mills

By Beth on January 8, 2014 in Flow of History
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Author: Excerpted from an activity by teacher Christine Smith, Spaulding High School
Grade Level: High School
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Historical Context

Essential Questions: What was working life like in the cotton mills? How were the experiences of four Vermont girls who worked in them similar and how were they different?

Overview
To learn what the living and working lives were like for the girls in the Massachusetts and Vermont Mills, we first examine some documents that inform us about life in the mills, and then examine letters of four young Vermont women who worked in them, exploring the similarities and differences in their experiences. The evidence we examine in Part I comprises primary documents such as posters, poems, time tables, and excerpts of journals. After examining the evidence, we fill out an evidence analysis worksheet, using specific information to confirm our analysis.

In Part II we read and take notes on letters of four mill girls. Mary Paul was a young woman who came from Barnard and traveled to the Lowell Mills in 1845 to escape a life as a domestic. Rebecca Ford and Priscilla Howe left Granville, a small enclave in the mountains of Central Vermont, to work in the woolen Mills of Middlebury, Vermont and Lowell, Massachusetts during the late 1830s to the mid 1850s. Hannah Bundy was just a teenager when she left Bethel to work in Lowell in the mid 1850s. While Mary stayed at the Lowell Mills, Rebecca Ford worked at both places. Hannah returned to Vermont, married, and eventually disappeared from history by the 1870s. A worksheet accompanies the letter-reading activity, which is later used to create a dialogue among the young women.

Activity Plan

Part I: Life at the Mills—Analyzing Evidence

1. Arrange copies of the following primary documents (many of which are available online at http://www.library.csi.cuny.edu/dept/americanstudies/lavender/queslowe.html)

around the room at different stations:

  • 1834 Boston Transcript reports on the Strike
  • Cover of Lowell Offering June, 1845
  • Photograph of Lowell Weavers, c 1860
  • Poem that Concluded Lowell Women Workers’ 1834 Petition to the Manufacturers
  • Time Table of Lowell Mills 1853
  • Excerpt from Voice of Industry, January 2, 1846: Recruitment of Female Operatives
  • Factory Rules from the Handbook to Lowell, 1848 and Boarding House Rules from the Handbook to Lowell 1848 (both available from: http://www.kentlaw.edu/ilhs/lowell.html
  • Songs: Audio of songs Ten and Nine, Work of the Weavers, and Weave Room Blues from Keith and Rusty McNeil, Working and Union Songs. WEM Records compact disc, 1-878360-14-0.

2. Have students read through, listen to, view, and touch the documents/artifacts. Their focus should be to analyze and evaluate each piece of evidence in order to determine and illustrate the varied experiences of women at the Lowell Mills. Have them take notes to highlight the main ideas or describe what is going on. What does each artifact/document tell them about living and working at Lowell?

3. After evaluating the evidence, use the Evidence Analysis worksheet to identify TWO pieces of evidence that support the listed statements. Use specific information from each primary source to confirm your analysis.

Part II: Getting Personal—The Letters Home

1. In groups of four, give each student a collection of letters—one from Mary Paul, one from Hannah Bundy, one from Rebecca Ford, and one from Priscilla Howe. After examining their set of letters, have them complete the letter activity worksheet provided.

  1. Answers must be detailed enough to report findings to group mates.
  2. Students have 45 minutes to read through the letters and fill out their worksheets.

2. Have students report their findings to their team mates. Make sure they discuss working/living conditions, wages, boarding house experiences, and leisure time, comparing and contrasting the experiences of the four young women.

3. Once they have finished discussing their findings, have students assign roles (one person to be Mary Paul, one Hannah, one Rebecca, and one Priscilla).

4. To show what they learned, have students create a 10-minute dialogue between the four girls that follows the attached rubric. Assign them a group number and pass out the Dialogue Activity worksheet. The setup is as follows:

Group One: You are traveling to Lowell from Vermont on a train anxiously anticipating your new experience. In the dialogue, focus on the various push and pull factors of mill work, your fears and what you hope to accomplish or experience while in Lowell.

Group Two: You are sitting around the table at the boarding house. Discuss your work, the conditions at the mill, and the experience of working in a mill as well as life in a boarding house.

Group Three: You are all traveling home to Vermont on the train from Lowell. In your dialogue, compare and contrast your experience as mill workers and why you are returning to Vermont.

Remember to use all the information you have been given in the letters (as well as the primary documents from Part I) and your own creative imaginations. You will be assessed on your dialogue, historical accuracy, relevancy of the information, and your creativity. Show what you’ve learned! Be prepared to perform your dialogue for the class!

Standards
6.4 Historical Connections
6.5 Traditional and Social Histories
6.6 Being an Historian
6.14Forces of Unity and Disunity
6.15 Knowledge of Economic Systems
6.19 Identity and Interdependence

Worksheets

    Evidence Analysis Worksheet.doc

 

    Letter Activity Worksheet.doc

 

    Dialogue Activity Worksheet.doc

Assessments
Rubrics provided in Vermont Girls Rubrics.doc:

Primary Source Rubric
Dialogue Activity Rubric

The Primary Source Rubric can be used for either of the first two worksheets.

The Dialogue Activity Rubric can be used as a self-assessment of the dialogue activity or as a basis on which to grade the entire lesson.

Materials and Resources
http://www.wwnorton.com/college/history/inventing/content/ch12/a_second_peep_at.htm

Online source for many primary documents related to the Mills and Factory Life:http://www.wwnorton.com/college/history/inventing/interface/ch12/ch12_documents.htm

The World of Wooden Bobbins
, Edited by Graham Fellowes. Somerdale, NJ: The Discovery Collection, 1995.

Catherine Lavender, Liberty Rhetoric and Nineteenth Century American Women. July 28, 2009, http://www.library.csi.cuny.edu/dept/americanstudies/lavender/queslowe.html

Becker, Susan D. and William Bruce Wheeler, Discovering the American Past, 3rd ed, Volume1: to 1877, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1984.

Lowell: The Story of an Industrial City, National Park Service, (Washington D.C, 2009).
Textile Manufacturing, pp. 28-29

The Lowell Offering, June, 1845, reproduction. (Nova Anglia Press, Hinesville, GA).
Front Cover of Lowell Offering, June 1845

Dublin, Thomas, Farm to Factory: Women’s Letters, 1830-1860, 2nd ed. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993)

Keith and Rusty McNeil. Working & Union Songs. WEM Records compact disc, 1-878360-14-0.

Hannah Bundy Letters:
American Textile History Museum, Lowell Massachusetts, Osborne Library http://library.uml.edu/clh/All/ano4.htm

Mary Paul Letters:
Vermont Historical Society Archives, Barre, VT.
http://www.vermonthistory.org/documents/transcriptions/paulletters.pdf

Rebecca Ford and Priscilla Howe Letters:
Courtesy of He/nry Sheldon Museum of Vermont History Research Center
http://www.flowofhistory.org/ir_toolkit/zips/ford_howe_letters.zip