Portraits of Labor
Mill girls held many different kinds of jobs, from the canning room to the industrial loom. New technologies such as the Fourdrinier machine, featured here, may have made their work more productive, but did not necessarily improve conditions. The public was hungry for information on life in the mills, drawn to the image of young women working to produce the nation’s commodities. Public opinion of mill girls was not always favorable. Many publications portrayed the women as haggard, overworked creatures barely subsisting. But others painted a picture of cultured, fashionable girls who were beacons of independence. In fact, some writers praised mill girls as examples of American superiority over Europe and used their own work as evidence. As the writer of "The Condition of American Factory Girls" mused,
How would Washington and his compatriots have been delighted could they have looked forty years into the heart of the future, and seen elegant essays issuing from the cotton-mill, as an index of the progress to which they gave so glorious an impulse!
By contrast, pro-slavery writers from the South sought to use the mill girls as an example of northern hypocrisy on the issue of hard labor. The mill girls by turns reinforced and undermined these opinions by providing their own accounts of the mill routine. From within the mills and far afield, writers turned to periodicals to render the varied portraits of labor included here.