Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Identifying with the Mill Girls

I live just outside of the largest city in New Hampshire. Manchester was part of the New England mill movement that is best known for the production of textiles and the buildings from the city's manufacturing history remain today. My interest in the mills of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries started when I read Dickens in high school and were kicked into high gear when I was introduced to the "mill girls" in Lucy Larcom's A New England Girlhood, outlined from memory. The awareness of the hard life of these laborers made a strong impression on me that includes pride, a little bit of romanticism, and a much stronger awareness that my life is much easier than the lives of my ancestors. My interest in mill life grew when I worked as the archivist at the Waltham Public Library in Waltham, Massachusetts -- the birthplace of the American Industrial revolution. The mills in my area remind me of putting myself into the shoes of Lucy Larcom and the Waltham workers. Re-purposed mill buildings are an opportunity for cultural heritage professionals to make history more relevant to folks today by reminding them of this heritage and how such times allowed us to move forward to achieve a more comfortable way of life.

Recently, I took my daughter to a new dance studio, located in the Amoskeag Mill building known as Langer Place on South Commercial Street. We admired the wooden stairs going up and were greeted at our destination by the machinery to the left. (Bonus!) I tend to arrive to my destinations early (when I'm not late) because I have no sense of direction, so I try to give myself enough time to get lost and then find my way. Luckily, there were few necessary U-turns on our car trip over so we had time to explore. I asked my daughter what she thought this machine does. I had no clue and when she showed a little bit of interest I enthusiastically said, "Let's explore!"
Down the hall, we came upon a second machine. This one looks like it was manned by three people. My daughter noted that it has three "steering wheels" and was much bigger than the other. There was no label of any kind on the machinery. It stood like an old ghost watching over a historical landmark; its former life forgotten and ignored by current building occupants.
I turned away from the machinery and I was breathless. I've seen buildings like this before, but each time I enter one I feel transported back to the nineteenth century with Lucy Larcom. The wide empty hallway must have once been filled with this machinery. I told my daughter to picture these machines up and down the hall and to picture the mill girls working them. (Thanks to "American Girl" and the story of Samantha, my eight-year-old is familiar with mill girls and child labor.) The quiet we experienced was in direct contrast to the imaginary scene in my head, punctuated by the thought of loud machinery at work.
I was so pleased that the mill retained some of its artifacts to remind us of its history, but I think few people would notice. A few minutes into our explorations, another mom and her daughter came up a back stairwell into the large hall, looking for the dance studio. I told her that it was just down the hall and my daughter and I were headed there too. We were just exploring. "Oh," the woman said, turning and heading to our final destination. I wanted to jump up and down and shout, "Wait! You have some time! Check this out!" 

What I want to know...am I really just a history geek or can we do a better job of getting people to stop and consider their history? What secret, fascinating stories can our historic buildings share with non-professionals? How can we better appreciate the Amoskeag Mill building's movement from housing mill girls to harboring tiny ballroom dancers?

For information about the Amoskeag Mills, see the Amoskeag Manufacturing Company Collection located at Harvard Business School.


  1. This was shared with me by a colleague in India via Twitter. It is interesting to read about similar issues around the world. http://www.financialexpress.com/news/mills-that-made-up-the-mumbai-fabric/58795/0 .
    Some of the issues raised in this article are issues we've faced in the U.S. While many mills have been re-purposed, we have also lost many. The Center for Lowell at Umass Lowell provides some examples. This link shows photos of the Merrimack Manufacturing Company that was dmeolished in 1960, before there really was a movement to save these historic buildings. http://library.uml.edu/clh/Lophoto/Mill/mmd.htm

  2. I love the old mills that have been converted into apartments, and it one of my goals in life to live in one someday. That, and to be able to walk to work.

    Manchester in CT is also a hotbed of converted mills. I guess the immigrants from Manchester UK felt right at home in the Manchesters.

  3. I lived in a converted mill in Quincy, Massachusetts when I was in grad school. It was the best apartment I ever had. The floor to ceiling windows were lovely. It was in walking distance to the train. The building had one of its old machines at the entrance. As I remember, it the machine did have a label and it told us that the building was used to make the little metal pieces you find on jeans.