The unique story of Emeline Larcom also emerges from the letters. Emeline’s background could not have been more different from Delia’s. Her father died at sea, and her mother, widowed with twelve children, struggled to support the family. Emeline and three of her sisters found gainful employment at a factory and sent money home to support their mother and other siblings. Emeline, the oldest of the four Larcom factory girls, essentially raised the other three. One of them, Lucy, went on to become a noted poet, professor, and an abolitionist against slavery. Her own memoirs cast mill work in a positive light.
Of the diverse personalities captured in the letters, only one openly despises her work in the mill. Mary Paul was a restless spirit. She moved from town to town, sometimes working in factories, sometimes trying her hand at other forms of employment such as tailoring, but never staying anywhere for long. She loathed factory work, but it enabled her to save up enough money to pursue her dream: buying entry into a Utopian agricultural community that operated on proto‐socialist principles.
She enjoyed living at the “North American Phalanx” and working only three hours a day—while it lasted. But as with all such communities, it ran into money problems, exacerbated by a barn fire, and she had to leave. She eventually settled down, married a shopkeeper, and—her letters seem to hint—became involved in the early “temperance” movement to ban alcohol (another ultimately ill‐fated venture).
Factory Work Is a First Step Towards a Better Future
Delia, Emeline, and Mary provide a glimpse of the different ways that factory work affected women during the Industrial Revolution. Wealthy Delia gained the social independence she sought and Emeline was able to support her family. Even Mary, who detested factories, was ultimately only able to chase her (ill‐advised) dream through factory work.
Although the Industrial Revolution is commonly vilified, it was an important first step toward increasing women’s socioeconomic mobility and ultimately brought about prosperity unimaginable in the pre‐industrial world. The pace of industrial economic development may even be speeding up. In South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore, the process of moving from sweatshops to First World living standards took less than two generations as opposed to a century in the United States.
Today, across the developing world, factory work continues to serve as a path out of poverty and an escape from agricultural drudgery, with particular benefits for women seeking economic independence. In China, many women move on from factories to white‐collar careers or start their own small businesses. Very few choose to return to subsistence farming.
In poorer Bangladesh, factory work has increased women’s educational attainment while lowering rates of child marriage. The country’s garment industry has also softened the norm of purdah or seclusion that traditionally prevented women from working or even walking outside unaccompanied by a male guardian.
Women factory workers are often thought of as “undifferentiated, homogenous, faceless and voiceless” passive victims, but even a cursory examination of their words and lives reveals unique individuals with agency. Today, just as in the nineteenth century, industrialization not only spurs economic development and reduces poverty, but also expands women’s options.