Smithsonian

Bank Note, Maine

The central image on this bank note from Maine depicts workers at one of the many cotton mills in Lowell, Massachusetts. The mills recruited young women from New England farms, most between the ages of fifteen and twenty-five. Generally, these workers stayed for just a few years and then returned home to marry. The companies housed them in dormitories and closely regulated all aspects of their lives, even church attendance.

Visitors from Europe, accustomed to the kind of wretched working-class conditions found in the novels of Charles Dickens, remarked on the cleanliness and order of the living quarters, the relatively high wages, and the intelligence and good character of the “mill girls.” Dickens himself, after a brief visit to Lowell, said that the difference between American and English mills was the difference “between the Good and Evil, the living light and deepest shadow.” He was particularly impressed that the workers published their own literary magazine, The Lowell Offering.

But the work itself was arduous and repetitive, and the workdays were as long as thirteen hours. Regarding themselves as proud “daughters of freemen,” the Lowell workers went out on strike twice during the 1830s to protest wage cuts. In the 1840s, the Lowell Female Labor Reform Association campaigned for a ten-hour day. The effort failed, but the mills eventually reduced the day to eleven hours.

Credit:
National Numismatic Collection
National Museum of American History