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Manual Labor
Pre- and Non-Industrial Labor
| Outwork
Factory Labor: Textiles | Factory Labor: Other

During the colonial era and until the first quarter of the nineteenth century, the economy of the northeastern United States was largely based upon self-sufficient family units that made or grew what they needed and sold or bartered what they could not consume. At that time, local economies supported small-scale cottage industries in which both men and women produced goods in their homes while also tending to their farms and children. Although traditional, gender-based divisions of labor dictated women's tasks, the contributions of wives and daughters were vital to the economy of pre-industrial communities. Their work was often recorded in family or shop accounts.

When the United States' agrarian-based economy evolved into an industrial and urban one in the mid-nineteenth century, the new economic structure greatly altered the way work was managed and performed. Most notably, the home ceased to be the center of production.

The transition was neither immediate nor complete. First, 'factory' owners, most notably in the shoe and textile industries, distributed materials to be processed in the home. Nineteenth-century rural women took in materials from local merchants to produce cloth, clothing, straw bonnets, and shoes for cash and for store credit. This form of industrialization came to be know as outwork. It was a common way for women to supplement the family income in the northeastern United States. After most industries moved into factories, many women continued—and continue—to process materials at home. Records of this production are often found in the account books of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century businesses and individuals.

With the advent of the Industrial Revolution, production of consumer goods was centralized into factories. There, machinery enabled minimally trained workers to produce goods more efficiently and at a lower cost than skilled laborers had previously been able to do. Women made up a large segment of the new factory labor force, especially for the textile industry. In order to work in the new industrial towns, like Lowell and Lawrence, Massachusetts, young women moved away from their hometowns to live in factory boarding houses. The salaries they received, as well as the separation from their families, offered women a new type of financial and psychological independence.

Baker Library holds a large number of factory records, which are a rich source of women's history since a significant number of the payrolls, for instance, are gender-categorized by job. Some manufacturers kept extensive records that included information on worker identity and accounts of company stores and company housing. These labor collections are often very large, some consisting of well over 1,000 volumes. They have been surveyed by sampling, guided by collection finding aids that seldom recorded any information on women's history materials. Users should be aware that it is likely that there is more information on women in these multifaceted collections than is listed here.

Pre- and Non-Industrial Labor

Account books kept during the eighteenth century record the work done by women in the home, usually in trade for goods from merchants and farmers. Women's work included domestic labor, textile production, and food production.


These collections document production by women who worked as outworkers, making shoes, hats, cloth, and clothing.

Factory Labor: Textiles

The records of the textile industry include numerous materials related to its labor force, of which women constituted a large percentage. These records contain information regarding the demographics of the workforce and working conditions of the factory, as well as information on individual workers.

Factory Labor: Other

Women also worked in non-textile industries, such as watch making, candy manufacturing, carpet weaving, and rope making. These records contain employee information, wage scales, and union activities, as well as the emergence of industrial welfare departments.

Transformations in the Textile Industry

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Detail of a vignette from an 1869 patent letter.

This engraving from an 1869 patent letter illustrates the change in production from home-based to industrial manufacture. The woman in the image stands next to a spinning wheel, while behind her looms the machinery and factory buildings that developed during the Industrial Revolution.

Boycotts of British imports during the American Revolution and the War of 1812 meant that the United States needed to find alternative sources to fill the demands for cloth and other goods. Homespun produced by women helped to fill the immediate need for textiles, but by the early nineteenth century New England merchants began to see a way to create a lucrative industry by building textile factories based on the British model of manufacture.

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Broadside, ca. 1870.

Factories and mill towns quickly began to appear throughout New England. The factories sought out young women to work as spinners, carders, and weavers. The new industrialists wanted women to constitute this new labor force because they could be paid less, but also because a workforce based on age and gender seemed to avoid the problem of creating a permanent working class. It was hoped that the young women would work for a few years in the factories and then return to their rural hometowns to marry and raise children, ensuring that the United States could industrialize while still retaining its agrarian character.

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Looping room at the Ipswich Mills, Ipswich, Massachusetts, ca. 1890.

Throughout the nineteenth century, women continued to work in the textile mills. Quickly, the women of the mill towns banded together to demand better working conditions and better pay. In 1836, female textile mill workers were the first group of American laborers to strike. As the century progressed, the mill workers' demographics changed drastically. The mills began to employ more and more immigrant women as mill towns and factories began to attract Irish, French Canadians, and central Europeans.

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