Lucy Larcom (1824-1893)

Lucy Larcom
Lucy Larcom
New York Public Library, 1552893

Although Lucy Larcom was a well-published poet in her lifetime, she is best known today for writing A New England Girlhood (1889).  This autobiography is a classic book about the age of industrialization and her role in it as a textile mill worker – beginning at age eleven. 

She was born on May 5, 1824, in the then-rural town of Beverly, Massachusetts, north of Boston.  Lucy’s life was greatly affected when her father, Benjamin, died when she was just eight.  From then on, the family struggled to maintain middle-class status.  Social Security, life insurance, and other mechanisms to assist such families had yet to be created, and the financial fate of widows often was hard.  Instead of taking the usual path of finding a stepfather for her eight children, Lois Larcom moved to Lowell, Massachusetts, where the older girls worked in the textile mills, while she ran a boarding house for mill workers. 

New England was transforming from an agricultural economy to an industrial one, as Americans learned from English factories how to run water-powered looms that spun and wove fabric – a task that women formerly did at home on spinning wheels and foot-peddled weaving looms.  Women understandably proved better at this factory work than men, and textile mills soon became the new nation’s biggest employer of women. Most textile workers were teenage girls, often recruited from surrounding farms where female labor was not particularly valued. 

Some companies even ran horse-drawn buses as far as Canada and brought back girls eager to earn their own living.  They lived in boarding houses such as the one run by Lois Larcom or in college-like dormitories owned by the factories.  Because the mills were run by water-power, not electricity, working days were short in winter.  When the mills darkened, many young women sought to use the time for self-improvement.  They hired professors and studied literature, music, and even botany by candlelight.  Work was the main priority, however, Lucy was not unusual when she left school to enter millwork before she was even in her teens. 

Larcom and others who wrote about mill life often said that the biggest shock was the noise.  The world was much quieter before electric motors and gas-powered cars, and many millworkers became deaf at an early age.  The machinery was dangerous, too, and more than one girl was accidentally scalped when her long hair got caught in a machine.

Child laborers usually started by sweeping up scrap cloth, broken thread, etc,, and then moved on to deliver supplies for loom operators.  In their early teens, most learned to run the spinning machines that made thread.  Weaving at power looms usually was the employment pinnacle – but Lucy was exceptional.  She started as a spinner, using the education her mother had given her, rose to become a bookkeeper.

As a distraction from the arduous labor at the mills, Larcom wrote many short stories and poems. Her first work was published in Operative Magazine, which was founded by her sisters for other machine operators.  These women were so unusual in their thirst for education that other such publications also existed; the most famous is Lowell Offering.  In 1843, Lucy Larcom’s writing caught the attention of John Greenleaf Whittier, a nationally known poet and Quaker activist against slavery, and they became long-time friends. 

After more than a decade in the mills, she took the big step of moving from New England in 1846; at 22, Lucy accompanied her sister Emeline and Emeline’s new husband to the boomtown of St. Louis.  Although she had little formal education, Lucy had learned enough from her mother and older sisters that she was hired as a teacher in nearby Illinois.  She continued to write poetry, and in 1849, was recognized with inclusion in Female Poets of America.  She managed to save enough from her teaching salary that she soon could afford to enroll at Monticello Female Seminary in Godfrey, Illinois.  She graduated in 1852, having earned the credentials to teach at similar institutions back East.

Larcom then became a teacher at Wheaton Seminary in Norton, Massachusetts, while also continuing to write.  When she won a major poetry contest in 1854, Whittier introduced her to his publishing contacts.  Soon her poetry appeared in the leading periodicals of her time, including The Atlantic Monthly, Harper's New Monthly Magazine, and The New England Magazine.  She also anonymously edited three volumes of Whittier’s work.

Like Whittier and most educated people in Massachusetts, Larcom was an abolitionist and rejoiced when Abraham Lincoln was elected president.  She became more conservative as she aged, however, and did not support Massachusetts’ Lucy Stone or other women’s rights leaders.  Her chief ambition throughout life was maintaining middle-class respectability, while also asserting women’s right to economic independence via education.  The fact that she never married shows how fragile such freedom was in her place and time:  a woman surrendered virtually all her legal rights when she signed a marriage license; even the wages of her work belonged to her husband. 

In 1889, Larcom published A New England Girlhood, which detailed her life as a Lowell mill worker. The book became her most famous work and is still in print today.  She was 65 when she wrote it, and her reminiscences understandably emphasized the positive side of life in the nation’s early textile mills.  It nonetheless has served as a valuable record of this unusual time in American history, when factories recruited teenage girls, paid them relatively well, and even provided opportunities such as Operative Magazine.

Lucy Larcom died in Boston on April 17, 1893 and was buried in her hometown of Beverly, Massachusetts.  She was less famous then than she is now, something that doubtless would please her.

Taken from Young and Brave: Girls Changing History

Works Cited:

  • Baldwin, David. “Lucy Larcom” in Notable American Women, vol 2, 368-69.
  • Kirkland, Winifred and Frances. Girls Who Made Good. Freeport, NY: books for Libraries Press, 1971.
  • Larcom, Lucy. A New England Girlhood: outlined from memory. Boston : Northeastern University Press, 1986.
  • Selden, Bernice. The Mill Girls: Lucy Larcom, Harriet Hanson Robinson, Sarah G. Bagley. New York: Atheneum, 1983.