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An essay by John Greenleaf Whittier

The Lighting Up

Title:     The Lighting Up
Author: John Greenleaf Whittier [More Titles by Whittier]

"He spak to the spynnsters to spynnen it oute."

THIS evening, the 20th of the ninth month, is the time fixed upon for lighting the mills for night-labor; and I have just returned from witnessing for the first time the effect of the new illumination.

Passing over the bridge, nearly to the Dracut shore, I had a fine view of the long line of mills, the city beyond, and the broad sweep of the river from the falls. The light of a tranquil and gorgeous sunset was slowly fading from river and sky, and the shadows of the trees on the Dracut slopes were blending in dusky indistinctness with the great shadow of night. Suddenly gleams of light broke from the black masses of masonry on the Lowell bank, at first feeble and scattered, flitting from window to window, appearing and disappearing, like will-o'-wisps in a forest or fireflies in a summer's night. Anon tier after tier of windows became radiant, until the whole vast wall, stretching far up the river, from basement to roof, became checkered with light reflected with the starbeams from the still water beneath. With a little effort of fancy, one could readily transform the huge mills, thus illuminated, into palaces lighted up for festival occasions, and the figures of the workers, passing to and fro before the windows, into forms of beauty and fashion, moving in graceful dances.

Alas! this music of the shuttle and the daylong dance to it are not altogether of the kind which Milton speaks of when he invokes the "soft Lydian airs" of voluptuous leisure. From this time henceforward for half a weary year, from the bell-call of morning twilight to half-past seven in the evening, with brief intermissions for two hasty meals, the operatives will be confined to their tasks. The proverbial facility of the Yankees in despatching their dinners in the least possible time seems to have been taken advantage of and reduced to a system on the Lowell corporations. Strange as it may seem to the uninitiated, the working-men and women here contrive to repair to their lodgings, make the necessary preliminary ablutions, devour their beef and pudding, and hurry back to their looms and jacks in the brief space of half an hour. In this way the working-day in Lowell is eked out to an average throughout the year of twelve and a half hours. This is a serious evil, demanding the earnest consideration of the humane and philanthropic. Both classes--the employer and the employed--would in the end be greatly benefited by the general adoption of the "ten-hour system," although the one might suffer a slight diminution in daily wages and the other in yearly profits. Yet it is difficult to see how this most desirable change is to be effected. The stronger and healthier portion of the operatives might themselves object to it as strenuously as the distant stockholder who looks only to his semi-annual dividends. Health is too often a matter of secondary consideration. Gain is the great, all-absorbing object. Very few, comparatively, regard Lowell as their "continuing city." They look longingly back to green valleys of Vermont, to quiet farm-houses on the head-waters of the Connecticut and Merrimac, and to old familiar homes along the breezy seaboard of New England, whence they have been urged by the knowledge that here they can earn a larger amount of money in a given time than in any other place or employment. They come here for gain, not for pleasure; for high wages, not for the comforts that cluster about home. Here are poor widows toiling to educate their children; daughters hoarding their wages to redeem mortgaged paternal homesteads or to defray the expenses of sick and infirm parents; young betrothed girls, about to add their savings to those of their country lovers. Others there are, of maturer age, lonely and poor, impelled hither by a proud unwillingness to test to its extent the charity of friends and relatives, and a strong yearning for the "glorious privilege of being independent." All honor to them! Whatever may have closed against them the gates of matrimony, whether their own obduracy or the faithlessness or indifference of others, instead of shutting themselves up in a nunnery or taxing the good nature of their friends by perpetual demands for sympathy and support, like weak vines, putting out their feelers in every direction for something to twine upon, is it not better and wiser for them to go quietly at work, to show that woman has a self-sustaining power; that she is something in and of herself; that she, too, has a part to bear in life, and, in common with the self-elected "lords of creation," has a direct relation to absolute being? To such the factory presents the opportunity of taking the first and essential step of securing, within a reasonable space of time, a comfortable competency.

There are undoubtedly many evils connected with the working of these mills; yet they are partly compensated by the fact that here, more than in any other mechanical employment, the labor of woman is placed essentially upon an equality with that of man. Here, at least, one of the many social disabilities under which woman as a distinct individual, unconnected with the other sex, has labored in all time is removed; the work of her hands is adequately rewarded; and she goes to her daily task with the consciousness that she is not "spending her strength for naught."

'The Lowell Offering', which has been for the last four years published monthly in this city, consisting entirely of articles written by females employed in the mills, has attracted much attention and obtained a wide circulation. This may be in part owing to the novel circumstances of its publication; but it is something more and better than a mere novelty. In its volumes may be found sprightly delineations of home scenes and characters, highly wrought imaginative pieces, tales of genuine pathos and humor, and pleasing fairy stories and fables. 'The Offering' originated in a reading society of the mill girls, which, under the name of the 'Improvement Circle' was convened once in a month. At its meetings, pieces written by its members and dropped secretly into a sort of "lion's mouth," provided for the purpose of insuring the authors from detection, were read for the amusement and criticism of the company. This circle is still in existence; and I owe to my introduction to it some of the most pleasant hours I have passed in Lowell.

The manner in which the 'Offering' has been generally noticed in this country has not, to my thinking, been altogether in accordance with good taste or self-respect. It is hardly excusable for men, who, whatever may be their present position, have, in common with all of us, brothers, sisters, or other relations busy in workshop and dairy, and who have scarcely washed from their own professional hands the soil of labor, to make very marked demonstrations of astonishment at the appearance of a magazine whose papers are written by factory girls. As if the compatibility of mental cultivation with bodily labor and the equality and brotherhood of the human family were still open questions, depending for their decision very much on the production of positive proof that essays may be written and carpets woven by the same set of fingers!

The truth is, our democracy lacks calmness and solidity, the repose and self-reliance which come of long habitude and settled conviction. We have not yet learned to wear its simple truths with the graceful ease and quiet air of unsolicitous assurance with which the titled European does his social fictions. As a people, we do not feel and live out our great Declaration. We lack faith in man,--confidence in simple humanity, apart from its environments.

"The age shows, to my thinking, more infidels to Adam,
Than directly, by profession, simple infidels to God."

Elizabeth B. Browning.

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John Greenleaf Whittier's essay: Lighting Up