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Eli Terry (1772–1852) pioneered the mass production of wooden-geared clocks in the late eighteenth century, making accurate timekeeping accessible to working- and middle-class Americans for the first time. Initially regarded as a great boon, the replacement of customary time-marking practices with clock-time also had a pernicious element: in the nation’s factories, a day’s work was ruthlessly measured and often averaged twelve hours in duration. Not only that, workers’ days were scheduled in minute detail, leaving little time for the women to pursue any sort of personal improvement. At Lowell, the Female Labor Reform Association (an outgrowth of the earlier Factory Girls Association [Constitution]), led by Sarah Bagley (1806–1889), united the factory workers in several New England towns to advocate for improvements in working conditions.
The Association purchased a press and began publishing the Voice of Industry to educate their members and the public about the need for reform. In her editorials, Bagley used very pointed language to highlight the ways in which the current factory schedule prevented working women from realizing both Christian and American principles, and to argue that there were cultural costs to such deprivations. Eventually, Bagley and her compatriots were able to garner more than ten thousand signatures on a petition urging the Massachusetts legislature to enact protective legislation restricting the length of the workday to ten hours. The legislature declined to interfere in the relationship between labor and capital, however, and it was not until 1874 that similar legislation was passed in the state.
Source: The Voice of Industry, 1845.
There is no subject that agitates and interests us as a people more than the subject of a reduction of the hours of labor. All who oppose it, agree in saying it is just and right. But instead of removing obstacles, they are raising up more barriers, and creating insurmountable difficulties. We will not charge these professed friends with dishonesty, nor insist that they do not believe all they say—but we are quite certain they have taken a one-sided view of the subject and need only to see it in all its bearings, to become its advocate. We would not venture an opinion that those who oppose the labor reform movement are less humane than others; but we insist that those who oppose it on account of dollars and cents have low and sordid views of human existence, or they do not represent themselves truly. . . .
. . . One of the strongest reasons urged by those who oppose it is that the time allowed to the operatives would be spent in vicious indulgence and annoying the peaceable citizens of our city. Now to me, it seems somewhat contradictory to hear those who contend long and loud that we have a “moral police” so vigilant that it is hardly possible for an operative to be vicious (if she is kept upon the corporation day and night) talk about the “virtuous and puritanical daughters of the New England farmers” being kept within the walls of a cotton mill longer than is consistent with their physical or intellectual condition to keep them virtuous. Think you the benevolence of the “powers that be” ordained the “all day system” of labor? Was it not rather their avarice? Ye sticklers for decency and propriety—why do not they give the operatives a few minutes more for their meals; they would not stay from the corporation, and this would be doing something to improve their condition. How miserable such evasions of the real system of labor looks to one who has examined its relative claims to the morality of the masses.
At one time, they tell us that our “free institutions” are based upon the virtue and intelligence of the American people, and the influence of the mother, form and mold the man—and the next breath, that the way to make the mothers of the next generations virtuous is to enclose them within the brick walls of a cotton mill from twelve and a half to thirteen and a half hours per day. How is it about the intelligence? Do not overlook that part in the premises, lest you come to wrong conclusions. There cannot be found an individual who claims for himself common observation, who will admit that the operatives of our country have a suitable portion of time for improvement. No man will allow his own children the education of a machine tender and expect her to read French or Latin, or be skillful in mathematics. He takes the child from the mill, and sends her to school, if he wishes her to be educated. The reader is ready to enquire how the operatives spend their “leisure hours”? We will take it for granted that the enquirer is a lady.
Let me remind you (for you know) of the duty the young woman owes to herself in the way of personal appearance. The factory girl has to wash and iron every article of clothing used by her, except her mill dress. Her pocket handkerchief, collars, hose, etc., are to be washed nearly every week, if she attends church and an evening lecture, and no one would suppose for a moment, that one short evening in the week would be sufficient time to consume in that department of taking care of oneself. But let us enquire how much time the operative has to look after herself. She has no time in the morning, for she is called from the table to the mill. She has no time at noon—thirty minutes only are allowed her to go to her meals, eat, and return to her work. How is it at night? The lamps that have been burning from 30 to 50 minutes in the morning to assist the weary operative to labor before the morning light are again relighted, and she must toil on until seven and a half, or according to Boston time, within ten minutes of eight o’clock. You would not expect her to go to her boardinghouse and take her evening meal in less than thirty minutes and according to Lowell time, it would be eight o’clock and still later by the Boston time.
Now taking into the account, the duties the operatives owe to themselves in taking care of their clothes, doing their own sewing, knitting, and repairing, where do you find their “leisure hours”? . . .
. . . How many operatives stay away from church, on account of want of time, to keep their clothes in suitable order to appear at church. Then add to this, the number who stay away on account of fatigue, and then add to these, those who stay away to perform some little job of sewing that they have not found time to do, during the week, and the number would not be small. Now if attending church is necessary for the spiritual growth and perfection of the operative—we put the question whether the clergy of our city are doing all their duty by removing all obstacles in the way of spiritual improvement and perfection.
We do not appear as an apologizer for a neglect of attending church, and yet we doubt whether those who would condemn them would give any better examples, if they were in like circumstances; especially if we take into the account the constant violation of the Sabbath, by the corporations for whom they work.
We regret such a state of things, and it is for this reason we have laid some of the reasons, which induce us to labor for a reduction of the hours of labor, believing that many of the evils would find a remedy in such an event. . . .
The “Ten Hour System” recommends itself to every patriot, and lover of his country, as a means of security against a monarchial form of government being introduced into the boasted land of the free. It is admitted by all that the intelligence of our country have made our political institutions what they are. Take from the masses, the opportunity of cultivation, and if causes produce their own effects, what will be the results? Our young men will go to the workshop, at sixteen or eighteen years of age, with a good common school education, perhaps—but, is he educated in the political history of our and other countries. He has had but little access to libraries, and needs much time, for general reading, and information, and where will he find that time under the present long hour system? He must remain in the condition in which he commences his apprenticeship.
We have heard many young men give as an excuse for not buying a share in the library, that they have no time to read—they drop to sleep with the book in their hand. This is a lamentable state of things, but it is what everyone knows to be true, who has worked under the present regulation of time.
Fathers of our own happy, free New England! Do you sanction this long hour system? Are you willing that your sons, aye, and your daughters, too, shall thus go out into the world? Are you the sons of those who fought so nobly the battles of freedom? Are you the sons of the fathers of ’76? If so, let your voices be heard in thundertones, and your hands be stretched forth to save us from the same evils that threatened us when they declared themselves free from a foreign power. . . .
- 1. Although affordable clocks were beginning to standardize Americans’ notions of timekeeping, each city and its surrounds still set their own local time. Lowell and Boston are only about thirty miles apart, but their local times differed by approximately twenty minutes. This is significant when one considers that the factory girls came from all over the Boston area and might well have wanted to attend church or social events in other localities with different local times.