Freedom: A History of US

Webisode 4. Segment 4
The Darker Side of Progress

Thanks to men like Eli Whitney and Sam Slater, the factory system had come to America. Bostonian Francis Cabot Lowell built textile mills that were even better than those in England. Factory goods cost much less than handmade goods. That meant ordinary people could afford things they had never been able to buy before. It made life better for most people. But not for everyone Check The Source - Harriet Robinson: On the "Lowell Mill Girls". Work in the factories was mind-dulling. Sometimes it was just awful Check The Source - Catherine Beecher: On the Conditions in the Cotton Mills. And dangerous too Check The Source - The Harbinger: "The Female Workers of Lowell". Herman Melville, who wrote a great American novel called Moby-Dick, visited a paper factory in 1855. Then he wrote about what he saw there: Hear It Now - Herman Melville "At rows of blank-looking counters sat rows of blank-looking girls, with blank, white folders in their blank hands, all blankly folding blank paper. Not a syllable was breathed. Nothing was heard but the low, steady, overruling hum of the iron animals. The human voice was banished from the spot. Machinery—that vaunted slave of humanity—here stood menially served by human beings as the slaves serve the Sultan. The girls did not so much seem accessory wheels to the general machinery as mere cogs to the wheels See It Now - Child Worker in a Factory."

Some factory owners built homes for their workers. Sometimes they built whole villages. It meant they could control their workers' lives. Whole families worked in the factories including children Check The Source - Harriet Hanson: "Mill Girl". Most worked ten or more hours a day. Factory owners could do almost anything they wanted, like cutting wages or lengthening the work day.

Factory jobs were often dangerous. If you had an accident, no one paid your medical bills. Mill workers sometimes went into the mills as children and left when they died. Conditions in mines were worse. There was no fresh air to breathe and the fumes left many miners seriously ill. Most Americans didn't know what life was like in factories and mills and mines. Then, in 1861, an article called "Life in the Iron Mills" appeared in the Atlantic Monthly, the most important magazine of the day. It was written anonymously by a shy woman named Rebecca Harding, who had grown up in a wealthy family in the bustling iron mill town of Wheeling, West Virginia. It was the commonplace folk of Wheeling whom she wrote about See It Now - Belmont Nail Works, people whose lives were so different from hers they might as well have lived in a different galaxy:

Hear It Now - Rebecca Harding"Smoke rolls sullenly in slow folds from the great chimneys of the iron foundries, and settles down in black, slimy pools on the muddy streets. Smoke on the wharves, smoke on the dingy boats, on the yellow river, clinging in a coating of greasy soot to the house-front, the two faded poplars, the faces of the passers-by. Masses of men, with dull, besotted faces bent to the ground, sharpened here and there by pain or cunning; skin and muscle and flesh begrimed with smoke and ashes; stooping all night over boiling cauldronsof metal, breathing from infancy to death an air saturated with fog and grease and soot, vileness for soul and body."

People wept when they read the story and learned—often for the first time—of the wage slaves who tended the scalding pots of liquid metal that became the iron and steel needed to build the railroads and machines the nation was demanding.

Did Rebecca Harding's story help those workers? Probably not, for no one then knew how to smelt iron, or dig minerals, or make steel without hard, life-destroying labor. Someday the problem would be solved by labor laws, and by other machines. But in the nineteenth century no one knew that. Harding's story made some people of her time aware of the horror of mill work.

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