Extremely rare 1834 broadside by striking female mill workers in Lowell, Massachusetts

‘Union is Power.’ Our present object is to have union and exertion, and we remain in possession of our unquestionable rights. [Probably Lowell, February 1834.]
Letterpress broadside, printed area 13”h x 9”w on a 15 3/8”h x 10 ½”w sheet of wove paper. 1 line of headline type surmounting a cut of an eagle followed by one column of text and 8 lines of verse. Minor foxing, staining and offset, a hint of wear at fold intersections, and margins unevenly trimmed. Still, better than very good.

A powerful broadside printing of this 1834 petition issued by striking women textile mill workers in Lowell, Massachusetts. Only the second example located.

The Waltham-Lowell System
It all began with a colossal piece of industrial espionage. While sojourning with his family in Europe, Boston merchant Francis Cabot Lowell (1775-1817) made a study of the textile mills of England and Scotland, committing the design of British power looms to memory. On returning to America he organized the so-called Boston Associates, a group of investors who founded the Boston Manufacturing Company along the Charles River in Waltham. There they pioneered what came to be known was the “Waltham-Lowell System”. This was both a system of production, involving the then-revolutionary vertical integration of spinning, weaving, dying and cutting cloth under one roof; and of labor, with the work being performed largely by young women recruited from New England’s farms, subjected to strict supervision in factory-owned boarding houses, and paid significantly less than men. Then in 1822 the Associates replicated the System on a larger scale, founding the Merrimack Manufacturing Company on the Merrimack River in Lowell.

The System was much admired, partly for its productivity and profitability, but also for its reformist instincts: Lowell designed it with an eye toward avoiding the creation of the permanent urban underclass found in England, and intended that the “mill girls” would receive education and socialization, and work for only a few years before leaving to start a family or perhaps enter the teaching profession. But the reality on the ground was far different: The mill girls worked 13-hour days, 6 days a week in deafening and unhealthy conditions, and lived crowed, heavily-regimented lives adjacent boarding houses.

Thus, when, in the face of an economic downturn and downward price pressure caused by overproduction, the Lowell owners announced a 15-percent wage reduction, hundreds of the textile workers organized a “turn out”, or strike. They also withdrew their savings from two local banks, causing a temporary run. Though work stoppages by labor were not unknown in the United States, this was the first such large-scale action by American women.

‘Union is Power’
The strikers produced a powerful petition, offered here in an extremely rare broadside printing, handsomely laid out with large headline type, adorned by a patriotic cut of an American eagle, and rendered in a handsome, legible typeface.

The petition draws explicitly on the legacy, language and logic of the American Revolution. Right off, the petitioners state their goal of “remain[ing] in possession of our own unquestionable rights”; attack “the oppressive hand of avarice [which] would enslave us”; and invoke “the spirit of our Patriotic Ancestors ; who preferred privation to bondage, and parted with all that renders life desirable, and even life itself, to procure independence for their children”. Just as American Whigs transformed an economic issue—taxation—into a political one—the rights of the Colonies—so do these petitioners transform Lowell mill owners’ wish to reduce wages into a matter of human rights.

Signers or the petition resolve that they will not return to work until the wage cut is rescinded, and then only if all strikers are allowed to return to work, and they further resolve to help “supply” any strikers in need of funds to return to their homes. These three tactics—the strike, collective bargaining, and financial support for strikers—remain of course central tactics employed by organized labor to this day.

The petition concludes with a piece of verse (sadly, unsigned) that returns to the themes and language of Revolution:

“Let oppression shrug her shoulders

And a haughty tyrant frown,

And little upstart Ignorance

In mockery look down—

Yet I value not the feeble threats

Of tories in disguise,

While the flag of Independence
O’er our noble nation flies.”

The broadside is undated, the broadside very much has the look and feel of having been produced “in the moment” during the weeklong strike, for posting in boarding houses (surreptitiously, to avoid the wrath of the landladies) and distribution among the mill workers. It also bears no imprint, likely reflecting the printers’ desire to avoid the wrath of the mill owners on whom their business surely depended.

The 1834 strike failed within days, the strikers all either leaving town or returning to work at reduced wages. But its legacy was powerful: Another “turn-out” in 1836, this time in response to an increase in boarding-house rent, also failed, but participation was far broader (perhaps 1500 strikers) and for a time made a real dent in production. And in 1845 a group of mill workers formed the Lowell Female Labor Reform Association, the first attempt of American working women to unionize. The Association’s central demand was a 10-hour workday, and indeed they gained repeated hearings in the Massachusetts state legislature, though no legislative action. In 1847 New Hampshire became the first state to pass a law reducing the work day to 10 hours (though the legislation was toothless), and in 1853 the Lowell mills reduced it to 11 hours.

One can argue about the efficacy of these early industrial actions by women, but they presaged the engagement of millions of American women in the coming decades. Further, they surely helped to inspire the engagement of women in the political system as advocates for temperance, abolition, women’s suffrage and other causes.

An extremely rare and vivid artifact from the early days of women’s involvement in the labor movement.

OCOC 233648726 (AAS only).