This is an excerpt from Harbinger, published in 1846 on the working conditions of mills in Lowell, MA and Manchester, NH:

The atmosphere of such a room cannot of course be pure; on the contrary it is charged with cotton filaments and dust, which, we were told, are very injurious to the lungs. On entering the room, although the day was warm, we remarked that the windows were down. We asked the reason, and a young woman answered very naively, and without seeming to be in the least aware that this privation of fresh air was anything else than perfectly natural, that "when the wind blew, the threads did not work well." After we had been in the room for fifteen or twenty minutes, we found ourselves, as did the persons who accompanied us, in quite a perspiration, produced by a certain moisture which we observed in the air, as well as by the heat. . . .

The author implies that the young woman's answer is wrong and naive, and it does seem unlikely that the wind would disrupt the operation of heavy machinery. So why did mill owners keep their windows closed when doing so hurt workers' health? My guess would be that the owners did this to avoid inspections.

  • 2
    Well, according to your quote, because "when the wind blew, the threads did not work well." Are you saying you think this is incorrect?
    – Semaphore
    Nov 16, 2014 at 5:44
  • 2
    Just because windows were "down", it doesn't mean they were covered over. In fact, usually they'd have to be clear, to let light through. It's possible that the windows were on top of the building (or at least high on the walls), which would make peering through for inspections difficult. Was there even a worker-protection agency at the time? It might help to know what kind of mill this was, as well as what they were working on... Nov 16, 2014 at 5:48
  • 1
    @Semaphore - Which is my point - there likely wouldn't be "inspections" in the first place. Most of the people with the power to make the laws would be more lamenting the loss of resources due to training replacements, etc, than the human cost. Nov 16, 2014 at 6:00
  • Semaphore, it is indicated in the quote that there has to be another reason
    – user11355
    Nov 16, 2014 at 17:52
  • Edited to make OP's dissatisfaction with the explanation in the quote clearer. I assume the question was closed because OP's quote seems to contain the answer to OP's question (but I don't think this is the case).
    – two sheds
    Nov 25, 2014 at 19:58

1 Answer 1


The young woman quoted likely misunderstood the real reason the windows were kept shut: to keep the mills humid. This was explained to me on a recent visit to Lowell, but I found a few published sources that match what the tour guides told me. Here's one:

Work conditions in the mills were poor. To provide the humidity necessary to keep the threads from snapping, overseers nailed factory windows shut and sprayed the air with water.

And another:

Steam was constantly hissing into the room, providing the humidity essential to maintain the correct environment for the spinning and weaving of cotton. Windows were sealed shut to prevent the humidity from escaping, and temperatures would hover between 90 and 115 degrees.

One snapped thread could jam a spinning machine. If you take a look at how big these machines could be, you see why owners were afraid of snapped threads. Temporarily shutting down one of these machines could result in a significant loss of productivity:

enter image description here

Like the comments above indicate, inspection wasn't a concern -- there weren't any worker protection laws for the mill owners to break.

  • Then why no one working in the factory protest against his/her poorly ventilated working environment?
    – user11355
    Nov 16, 2014 at 17:51
  • 3
    @user11355: That's a complex question. I'm sure some people did complain. But at the time, most employees were young women who were not expecting to spend their lives there. Because they were transient, they were less well organized than management. Because other young women wanted the jobs, they had little power. That's why you need the emergence of a permanent class of workers dependent on wage labor before you see progress made for workers' rights.
    – two sheds
    Nov 16, 2014 at 18:07
  • But...this book is written eighty years after factory system was founded
    – user11355
    Nov 16, 2014 at 18:17
  • 1
    Yes, but the factory system expanded very gradually. During the Lowell Mills' early years, wage labor was still not a powerful political force. The American "working class" at the beginning of the 19th century was more associated with artisans than factory workers.
    – two sheds
    Nov 16, 2014 at 18:22
  • Letters from the time period indicate that the workers were happy to get off the farm and get an "easier" factory job. If you protest, you might lose your job and be sent back to the farm.
    – MCW
    Jan 14, 2019 at 18:17

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge that you have read and understand our privacy policy and code of conduct.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.