Laurel's Mill Girls
It’s Women’s’ History Month, and this might be a good time to look back at an often overlooked part of Laurel’s early workforce. In 1845, when the Laurel Cotton Mill was in full operation, the majority of its workers, were in fact women. According to “The Laurel Factory” an article in the August 1845 American Farmer. ...”[At] Col. Capron’s factory, where from 700 to 800 find constant and lucrative employment, a large portion of whom are female…” According to the article, only about 150 of the employees were men, who earned about $1.25per day, which would come to about $30/month for a 6 day workweek. Women, as they have on many other occasions, earned far less. Between $12 to $20/month. Or, between $.50-$.83/day. This was commensurate with the amount Mill girls were earning further North, in the industrial town of Lowell, Massachusetts.
 Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lowell_mill_girls accessed 3.7.22
Who were these women? Some came from nearby farms, crossing over to the factory from across what was then Anne Arundel, Howard District, but which in 1851 was renamed Howard County. Others likely came from nearby Prince George’s Farms. Some evidently boarded nearby, including in one of the stone homes on Main Street. The same American Farmer article notes that “The board of the men is $10 per month; that of the females, from $5 to $6. “ None of these women, or men, as far as can be ascertained, were people of color, which suggests that mill employment may have been closed off to Laurel’s African American community.
We know that both men and women in a family often worked in the mill. Tracking the number of women workers from the early years is difficult. The 1840 census doesn’t list occupations, and in 1850 it was only interested in the occupations of male persons (not female) over age 16. The 1860 census, which shows occupations for all in the household lists very few mill workers at all, and only eight women, which begs the question of whether the mill was in operation when the census was taken. The 1870 census, which lists all occupations, gives us a slightly clearer picture of these working women when the mill was in full operation. In Laurel Factory (which didn’t include nearby communities or Howard County), the census lists at least 158 women as working at the cotton mill. Some, like the Waterman family profiled in the Laurel Museum’s 2012 exhibit “True Life: I‘m a Laurel Mill Worker”, had a daughter as young as six and other girls ranging from 12 to 17 working in the cotton mill. (All the household’s sons, aged 9, 17 also worked there) Several families in the 1870 census list women with different last names than the head of household. Were these boarders or relations? It’s difficult to know.
Although young children would also work, they also may have had the opportunity to go to school. Horace Capron had provided for some education, as noted in American Farmer. “Col. Capron has erected a school-house…with a competent teacher – here the children receive their education gratuitously...” We don’t know how many of these children actually attend school or to what grade? A school building is noted in the 1861 map of Laurel. We don’t know, though by the 1870s Laurel did have a public school. In 1878 Mill Superintendent George Nye noted the opening of the public school with 130 students.
There is much we don’t know about the life of Laurel’s female mill workers. The life of early cotton mill girls has been well documented at the Lowell Massachusetts cotton mill site https://www.nps.gov/lowe/learn/historyculture/the-mill-girls-of-lowell.htm. How much of their experience translates to that of Laurel women is unknown. Hopefully future research will uncover more of their story.
For additional resources on mill girls visit: http://resourcesforhistoryteachers.pbworks.com/w/page/125185421/Lowell%20Mill%20Girls
by: Karen Lubieniecki
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