Houghton Mifflin Social Studies
America Will Be

Understanding Primary Sources:
The Mill Girls of New England

Objective: Students study the letters of mill girls working in Lowell, Massachusetts, to learn how the mill girls saw their experiences. Students then write an essay describing a mill girl's life.

What You Need:

Suggested Time:
2-3 hours over 2-3 days

Building Background:
Review with students the development of mills in New England and the use of farm girls as a work force in growing industrial cities. Point out that farms girls who left home to work in a mill city, such as Lowell, Massachusetts, moved into a very different world. This world is reflected in the letters they wrote to family members. Tell students they will read some of these letters and write an essay about the life and work of mill girls in industrial cities during the mid- to late-nineteenth century.

What To Do:

1. Distribute copies of the Living and Working in a Mill Town worksheet to each student. Tell students to complete one worksheet for each letter they read. These worksheets can then be used to help them write their essays.

2. Send students to the library to find letters written by mill girls in New England. One good source is Farm to Factory, Women's Letters, 1830 - 1860 edited by Thomas Dublin. Check out the Unit 6 Bibliography for books, videos, and software students can use for information. If you have Internet access, students can explore these sites:

Lowell National Historical Park

This National Park Service site has descriptions and photographs of the Lowell textile mills as well as information on mill girls, boarding houses, products, and daily life in the factories.

Modern History Sourcebook: Harriet Robinson: Lowell Mill Girls

Harriet Robinson recalls her life as a factory worker in the textile mills of Lowell, Massachusetts.

3. Have students read through the letters and choose two to four to examine more closely. As they reread the letters they selected, remind them to answer the worksheet questions.

4. When students have completed their research, have each student write an essay about the daily lives of the mill girls in industrial cities. Remind them to be accurate in their writings to the time period, and to incorporate the real-life details and events they discovered in the letters.

5. Ask volunteers to share their essays with the class. You may also wish to compile all of the essays into a book to be copied and distributed to the class.

Have the students share details they learned from the letters that tell about working in a mill or living in a mill town. Remind them that some of these girls were their own age. Discuss what the lives of these young girls was like compared to the students' own lives today.


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