A Tale of a Song: "The Lowell Factory Girl"

Black and white photo of young girl standing at loom in factory

M.B. Schnapper/Library of Congress

This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 2 No. 1, "America's Best Music and More..." Find more from that issue here.

1) When I set out for Lowell,

Some factory for to find,

I left my native country,

And all my friends behind. 






2) But now I am in Lowell,

And summon’d by the bell,

I think less of the factory

Than of my native dell.


3) The factory bell begins to ring,

And we must all obey,

And to our old employment go

Or else be turned away.


4) Come all ye weary factory girls,

I’ll have you understand,

I’m going to leave the factory

And return to my native land.


5) No more I’ll lay my bonnet on

And hasten to the mill

While all the girls are working hard,

Here I’ll be lying still.


6) No more I’ll lay my bobbins up,

No more I’ll take them down;

No more I’ll clean my dirty work,

For I’m going out of town.


7) No more I’ll take my piece of soap,

No more I’ll go to wash,

No more my overseer shall say,

‘‘Your frames are stopped to doff.”


8) Come all you little doffers

That work in the Spinning room;

Go wash your face and comb your hair,

Prepare to leave the room.


9) No more I’ll oil my picker rods,

No more I’ll brush my loom,

No more I’ll scour my dirty floor

All in the Weaving room.


10)No more I’ll draw these threads

All through the harness eye;

No more I’ll say to overseer,

Oh! dear me, I shall die.


11) No more I’ll get my overseer

To come and fix my loom,

No more I’ll say to my overseer

Can’t I stay out ’till noon?


12) Then since they’ve cut my wages down

To nine shillings per week,

If I cannot better wages make,

Some other place I’ll seek.


13) No more he’ll find me reading,

No more he’ll see me sew,

No more he’ll come to me and say

“Such works I can’t allow.”


14) I do not like my overseer,

I do not mean to stay,

I mean to hire a Depot-boy

To carry me away.


15) The Dress-room girls, they needn’t think

Because they higher go,

That they are better than the girls

That work in the rooms below.


16) The overseers they need not think,

Because they higher stand;

That they are better than the girls

That work at their command.


17) ’Tis wonder how the men

Can such machinery make,

A thousand wheels together roll

Without the least mistake.


18) Now soon you’ll see me married

To a handsome tittle man.

’Tis then I’ll say to you factory girls,

Come and see me when you can.


A broadside in the Harris collection at Brown University and probably composed in the late 1830’s or early 1840’s. See John Greenway, American Folksongs, pp.16f.


“The Lowell Factory Girl” was a broadside ballad circulated in Lowell, Massachusetts, during the early 1840’s. From this center of the New England textile industry, the song entered oral tradition, and the next known version appeared in Maine in 1875. By 1899, it was popular enough among mill workers in Darlington, South Carolina, that when eight-year-old Nancy Dixon started work as a spinner for eight cents a day in the Darlington mills, she learned the song from the older spinning girls. In 1913, folklorist John Lomax collected a version of the factory girl’s song from “a wandering singer plying her trade by the roadside in Fort Worth, during an annual meeting of the Texas Cattle Ranchers’ Association.” She had learned it some time earlier in Florida. Later, during the 1940’s, the People’s Song Library included in one of their songbooks a version said to have been collected from North Carolina. The different versions of this broadside —under the various titles of “The Factory Girl’s Come-All-Ye,” “Factory Girl,” “No More Shall I Work in the Factory,” or with no title at all—are folksongs according to the strictest definition of that term. They compose the textual family of the oldest textile folksong yet collected. It began in nineteenth century Lowell, Massachusetts, and was most recently collected in East Rockingham, North Carolina, in 1962—a song one hundred and twenty years in tradition.

The factory girl’s song has had a long life and covered a wide geographic area, like the textile industry itself, spreading first in the North and then across the South. Other than its aesthetic appeal, why this longevity and widespread popularity? What changes occurred in the song, and what do the different versions reflect about the mill workers’ attitude toward their lives in a period of rapid industrialization?

It was with the rise of the textile industry that the United States most consciously and strongly felt the impact of industrialization. The economic success of the New England mills spurred the argument between Jeffersonianism and Jacksonianism—a tension which continues to exist in the myths and literature of America. Both in the North and in the South, the strains on a culture moving from a primarily agrarian to an industrial society were great. In pre-industrial America, so much had been determined or affected by the cycles of nature: the length of the workday and pace of the work; the type of labor which needed to be done; the availability of both capital and work force; even the foods and commodities on a store’s shelves. Juxtapose this way of life with the demands of the modern factory system: the discipline and strict regulation of hours; confinement in an artificially-lighted building where the air is humid to keep strands of threads from breaking, and filled with lint from the many looms; the high noise level; the incidence of fathers, either out of work or as part-time day laborers, carrying lunch to their children in the mills.

The South has few available sources of information on the workers’ reactions to these changes. The largest body of literature is the Federal Writers Project held in the Southern Historical Collection of the University of North Carolina. These life histories were collected during the 1930’s in the form of interviews. In contrast, the songs of mill workers are testimonies free from the added influence of an interviewer’s interests, attitudes and intent. Broadsides, lyrical and humorous songs, blues, “zipper” and “agit-prop” songs,1 songs one hundred and twenty years in oral tradition and new compositions—all have come out of the mill workers’ experience.

By examining these songs, perhaps we can more clearly understand the historical milieu in which they developed and the attitudes of the singers toward the lives they were leading as workers in a factory. This essay looks at a particular family of one song, noting the changes a text undergoes through oral tradition and placing the song in its historical context. Whether this broadside ballad was sung in the new industrial community of Lowell or the paternalistic mill villages of the South, the feeling it expresses is not one of easy contentment with life as a mill worker.



Quite possibly “The Lowell Factory Girl” evolved from an earlier broadside from the British Isles. “A-Begging We Shall Go” is just one example from there where a text begins with “When I set out from/for . . . .” The lack of a tune reference, however, has made it difficult to trace back the song.2

The problem of origin is related to dating the song’s composition here in America. John Greenway suggests that:

the aged condition of the broadside, together with such internal evidence as can be detected, place its composition around the 1830’s. The ‘nine shilling’ wage of which the singer complains coincides with the average weekly earnings of $2.25 paid to New England cotton factory operatives in 1830. Furthermore, the freedom to return to the farm was not generally possible after 1840 .... [This was due to the depression of 1837] which wiped out many of the small New England farmers.  

There is a danger in relying too heavily on wages to ascertain a date for the song. Company paybooks giving actual, rather than average, wage rates are not available. Mill girls, foreign visitors and town leaders all give different estimates depending on their experience and point of view.4 Many accounts do not state whether or not the price of board is included. Moreover, earnings varied according to job, piece rate, overtime work and familiarity with machines. As a specific wage, therefore, $2.25 per week could have been earned not only in the thirties but through the mid-forties as well. In fact, Hannah Josepheson in her study of Lowell, The Golden Threads, states that “over a period of about forty years . . . the average wage never fell much below or rose much above $2 a week beyond board.”5

The reference to a wage cut in Stanza 12—Then since they’ve cut my wages down/ To nine shillings per week—is not conclusive either. When improvements were made on the machines, or whenever the machines were speeded up to increase production, wages were adjusted lower per piece to maintain relatively the same earnings.6There were also three major “turn-outs” or strikes following wage reductions during this period—1834, 1836, 1842.7 The depression, which began in 1937, and the increasing “competition of cheap agricultural products from the West” did wipe out many New England farmers.8 Indeed, we are in possession of accounts that tell of girls returning home during the late 1830’s when the mills slowed down.9 However, the evidence of the Lowell Offering10—a journal written by the mill girls which eventually became looked upon as a company mouthpiece— should be noted. Published during the early 1840’s, the writing does indicate much worker mobility.

Moreover, it is questionable whether “native country,” as Greenway suggests, can simply be interpreted as referring to an agricultural community perhaps eighty miles or so away. To begin with, the reference to wages in shilling is unusual. The dollar had been established as legal tender in 1792, and Lowell only paid its workers in American currency. The repeated use of “native”—native country, native dell, return to my native land—as well as the reference to shillings should arouse our curiosity. When combined with the realization that beginning in the 1840’s a growing immigrant work force was drawn from Canada and the British Isles, especially Ireland, an alternative explanation suggests itself: the narrator had not been in Lowell long enough to think of money in any other terms but that of her native land, yet had lived there long enough to desire escape from the mill and return to her homeland.



“The Lowell Factory Girl” shares most of the typical characteristics ascribed to American broadsides. The syntax is often awkward and stilted; the idiom is replete with sentimental cliche. As a narrative, it lacks dramatic focus on a single event and appears to lack any order. Two striking qualities of the song, however, are its subjectivity and its detailed description.

The use of the first-person narrator does not imply a particular individual, but rather a class or a group who shares a common background, situation and desire: the factory operatives11 of Lowell who made this song their own. These young girls, mostly unmarried and ranging in age from the late teens to mid-twenties, came from the rural areas of Massachusetts and the surrounding northern New England states —Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont. They were primarily of English-Scottish-Irish background, descendants of the early settlers of America. Many were daughters of farmers, teachers, small shopkeepers, and most ventured to the new industrial community lured by the promise of high wages. (The two main fields of employment for women at that time were teaching and domestic service neither of which paid very well.) A girl would work for three or four years to save money for a dowry, send a brother to college, or help pay the mortgage on a family farm, and then return home or perhaps go on to higher education herself. They were a transient work force. During the late 1830’s, recently emigrated Irish made up a small percentage of the mill workers. They too came predominantly from small farming communities and were unfamiliar with the strict discipline demanded by industrial labor. From the 1840’s on, the percentage of Irish workers increased until eventually they, with their families, composed the majority of the work force. Thus, the transient nature of the workers decreased, to be replaced by a permanent factory population during the 1850’s.

The detailed description of work and machinery in the song—a cacophony of bobbins, bells, picker rods and looms—creates a very real introduction to textile life. This persistent use of seemingly chaotic detail, however, is artfully controlled and arranged in three or four patterns which develop through the song. The most obvious is an outer structure based on a linear development of time. The first stanza recalls the past— the girl has left her native country and all her friends behind. The last stanza calls up the future, when she will be happily married to a handsome little man and no longer work in the mill. There is a second movement of time—that of the workday. The bell rings and she hastens to work. This is not completed by describing the end of the workday, but rather in choosing the framework of escape through daydreams of the future.

There is also a spatial movement through the different departments in the mill which progresses from the lower floors of the factory to the higher. Simultaneously, the orderly production of yarn into cloth is depicted. Stanza 6 starts in the spinning room with the winding of bobbins of yarn, and Stanza 8 refers to the doffers who replaced the full bobbins of yarn with empty ones. The yarn then

goes to the weaving room (Stanza 9, 10, 11 in particular) and then to the dressing room (Stanza 15) where the woven material is finished in preparation for sale. Not surprisingly, therefore, one finds that the spinning, weaving and dressing rooms occupied respectively the third, fourth and fifth floors of a typical Lowell mill.12

The last development traces the hierarchy of status among the workers: from lowly young doffers, a job often worked by children and newly arrived girls unfamiliar with power looms and machinery; through the weaver, a position traditionally respected; to the overseer, who represents management. Fittingly, the song ends with the factory girl’s ideal vision: that of being married and out of the mill altogether.

The song tells of the loss the young girl senses upon leaving her somewhat pastoral community for the factories of Lowell, a loss of independence and status. She is adamant about refusing to remain subservient to oppressive working conditions and wages. However, the only solutions she sees are escapist: to return home, find a different job, or get married. There is a suggestion of a possible concerted effort toward a walkout (Stanza 8) when she calls to the doffers to wash their faces and leave the room, but the solution most strongly emphasized is that of marriage. No exotic Gypsy Davy is going to come along for her; rather, she will hire a depot-boy to carry her away, and will settle down with a “handsome little man.”

The loss of independence and status is most strongly emphasized in the song by reference to the mill bells, the overseer and the image of the well-ordered machine.13 The factory bell was one of the strongest symbols of the company’s regulation of the girl’s lives. Their 12 1/2 hour workday14 was segmented by its ringing. At 4:30 or 5:00 A.M., depending on the season, the bell would wake them; an hour later it would signal the beginning of the workday. It would toll the girls out to breakfast and back, out and in for dinner, and twice more: to close the workday and call for curfew. As one mill girl wrote in a story:

Up before day, at the clang of the bell—and out of the mill by the clang of the bell—into the mill, and at work, in obedience to the ding-dong of a bell—just as though we were so many living machines.15

As Stanza 3 states, if they failed to leave at the first ringing, the girls were apt to be turned away. For two sets of gates were coordinated with the bells: yard gates which were kept open for only ten minutes before work began, and the mill gates which were hoisted two minutes before work was to begin.16

A number of accounts state that it was the personality of the individual overseer who could make the workday acceptable or difficult. “In the early years at the boarding-house mills, the overseers were not required to drive the operatives at their work.”17 Many of the jobs allowed the worker much slack time, and although there were rules against reading and sewing during such time, not all overseers applied them equally. Accounts tell of the young doffers who would gather in a corner on wintry afternoons and while away the time between bobbin changes singing old ballads like “Barbara Allen,’’ “Lord Lowell,’’ “Captain Kidd,” or “Hull’s Victory."18 “Outside of working hours, at church or elsewhere in the town, overseers and operatives frequently met on terms of equality.”19 One historian describes this period as 

the happy days when life was homogenous, and all were one in their loyalty to the new mill town on the Merrimack, when the Yankee girls worked leisurely thirteen hours a day in the mills and wrote poetry at night, when everybody went to Church on Sunday, and worshipped God in a common tongue.20

Gradually the speed increased and the number of machines to be tended was multiplied. It was the overseer who became responsible for the success of the speedup. Inevitably, relations worsened; the overseers became more authoritarian. The girl’s image of themselves as disciplined cogs in a machine, lacking dignity and a sense of control over their lives, grew stronger. Eventually, the paternalism of the Lowell system was viewed as a form of unacceptable despotism. The noble experiment by the Boston merchant-capitalists which had received world-wide acclaim in the early Jackson years became, in the mid-1840’s, the setting of a raising operatives’ revolt. The founders of Lowell had established a community in which workers’ lives were controlled and regulated not only during work hours but also in the little time available outside the mill.



The land selected for the mill was in the town of Chelmsford, Massachusetts, a sparsely settled region on the Merrimack River. The first company began production in 1825. The mill area was incorporated as a separate town in 1826, and named after Francis Lowell who had perfected the power loom and had been the first to establish a system whereby the conversion from cotton to cloth could be accomplished in one building.21 By 1840, there were nine textile mills in “The City of Spindles” employing 6,320 women.22

One of the founders, Nathan Appleton, reflected the concern shared by planners, for the effects that large scale cotton manufacturing would have on the character of the population:

The operatives in the manufacturing cities of Europe, were notoriously of the lowest character, for intelligence and morals. The question therefore arose, and was deeply considered, whether this degradation was the result of the peculiar occupation, or of other and distinct causes.23

Once having decided that “profitable employment” did not have “any tendency to deteriorate the character,” the founders avoided the dangers of establishing a permanent proletariat by drawing their work force from among the “well-educated and virtuous” Yankee girls eager to spend a few years at their “philanthropic manufacturing colleges.”

The companies owned the barrack-like boarding houses and required the girls to live in them as a part of their contract. Board was automatically deleted from monthly wages. The boarding-house keepers were “answerable for any improper conduct in their houses.”24 and were to report anyone guilty of such. The girls had no privacy, lived six and sometimes eight to a room with three beds, and exercised what has been described as a “moral police force” over each other, shunning anyone suspected of wrong-doing. The companies approved and advanced this attitude. The Lawrence Company stated in its contract regulations that employees: 

must on all occasions, both in their words and in their actions, show that they are penetrated by a laudable love of temperance and virtue, and animated by a sense of their moral and social obligations.25

Girls were discharged not only for “immoral conduct,” committed or not, but also for “bad language, for disrespect, for attending dancing classes, or for any cause that the agents or over  seers thought sufficient.26

Contracts also required church attendance,27 one full year’s employment before receiving an “honorable discharge,” and two weeks notice of intention to leave. “In return the company bound itself to only two conditions: to pay wages (not a specific wage) once a month, and to have the employees vaccinated against the smallpox at its own expense.”28 Eviction and the blacklist, which extended to affiliated companies as far away as Maine, were used to control any workers who became ‘unruly’ or began to ‘agitate.’

“The Lowell Factory Girl” was composed in this period before the organization of the Lowell Female Labor Reform Association in 1844. If a girl because of necessity found herself in the mill and unable to quit, then the song could at least function as wish fulfillment. If she were on strike, it would strengthen her spirit and act as a reminder to herself and to others of the injustices she suffered.



When the song entered oral tradition it lost its strong narrative structure. The changes it undergoes basically follow Tristram Coffin’s three stages of Anglo-American ballads, as developed in his study, The British Traditional Ballad in North America.29 Like many others, the song moves away from well-plotted narrative toward lyricism, yet maintains some of its occupational detail.

“The Factory Girl’s Come-All-Ye” of Maine30 is the most localized of all the versions, and the most humorous. The mill girl will return to Boston and no longer have to suffer the discomfort of half-baked beans. It maintains a brief narrative structure which encloses the No more will I list of grievances, most of which are compressed from the earlier broadside. However, additional relevant material is added to the core.


The Factory Girl’s Come-All-Ye


1) Come all ye Lewiston fac’try girls,

I want you to understand,

I’m a-going to leave this factory,

And return to my native land.



Dum de wickety,

Dum de way.


2) No more will I take my Shaker and shawl

And hurry to the mill;

No more will I work so pesky hard

To earn a dollar bill.


3) No more will I take the towel and soap

To go the sink and wash;

No more will the overseer say

“You’re making a terrible splosh!”


4) No more will I take the comb and go

To the glass to comb my hair;

No more the overseer will say

“Oh! what are you doing there?”


5) No more I’ll take my bobbins out,

No more I’ll put them in,

No more the overseer will say

“You’re weaving your cloth too thin!”


6) No more will I eat cold pudding,

No more will I eat hard bread,

No more will I eat those half-baked beans,

For I vow! They’ll killing me dead!


7) I’m going back to Boston town

And live on Tremont Street;

And I want all you fac’try girls

To come to my house and eat!


Collected in 1913 by Phillips Barry from Mrs. Mary E. Hindle of Bangor, Maine, who had learned the song in 1875 from Mrs. Sarah Green. See Barry, Bulletin, p. 12-13.


Nancy Dixon’s version takes us to South Carolina, 1899. What she could remember of “The Factory Girl” is most poetically phrased. It is closer to the two earlier versions than the two later ones in narrative elements, meter, rhyme scheme, and the use of the contracted verb form I’ll in the listings. For example, Stanza 2 contains an invitation to the factory girls to visit when she is married and no longer has to work. This occurs in Stanza 18 of “The Lowell Factory Girl” and Stanza 7 of the Maine version, although the latter does not specifically mention marriage. Both the later Florida and North Carolina versions, which are identical except for minor word changes,31 have lost this invitation but retain the emphasis on marriage.


Factory Girl


1) Yonder stands that spinnin’ room boss

He looks so fair and stout;

I hope you’ll marry a factory girl

Before this year goes out.



Pity me all day, Pity me I pray;

Pity me my darlin’, and take me far away.


2) I’ll now say to you factory girls,

Come and see me if you can;

I’m gonna quit this factory work

And marry a nice young man.


 3)Nomore I hear this roarin’

This roarin’ over my head.

When you poor girls is hard at work

And me at home in bed.


Collected in 1962 by Archie Green from Nancy Dixon in Rockingham, N.C., who had learned the song in 1899 in Darlington, S.C. See Green, Babies in the Mill. “Notes," p.7


The correlations between Nancy Dixon’s version and the earlier two and Nancy’s and the later two, suggest that hers stands midway between all four. One more example might make this clearer. Stanza 3 tells of the roaring over her head and the pleasure of remaining in bed. This is very similar to Stanza 3 of both the Florida and North Carolina versions. “The Lowell Factory Girl” has no direct reference to noise with the factory, but it does comment on the superiority of being able to stay in bed to a later hour. In addition, when Nancy’s brother, Dorsey, reworked the song and recorded it on Babies in the Mill, he added the following stanza:


No more will I hear that whistle blow

The sound of it I hate.

No more I’ll hear that bossman say

“Young girl you are too late.”32


It is unclear, according to collector Archie Green, whether Dorsey learned this stanza from his sister or composed it; however, this reference to the whistle, the factory bell of the twentieth century, is also found in the two later versions.




1) No more shall I work in the factory

To greasy up my clothes,

No more shall I work in the factory

With splinters in my toes.



It’s pity me, my darling,

It’s pity me, I say,

It’s pity me, my darling,

And carry me far away.


2) No more shall I hear the bosses say,

“Boys, you had better daulf.”

No more shall I hear the bosses say,

“Spinners, you had better clean off.”


3) No more shall I hear the drummer wheels

A-rolling over my head,

When factory girls are hard at work

I’ll be in my bed.


4) No more shall I hear the whistle blow

To call me up too soon,

No more shall I hear the whistle blow

To call me from my home.


5) No more shall I see the super come

All dressed up so fine;

For I know I’ll marry a country boy

Before the year is round.


6)No more shall I wear the old black dress

Greasy all around;

No more shall I wear the old black bonnet

With holes all in the crown.


Collected by John Lomax in 1913 from a “Wandering singer plying her trade by the roadside in Fort Worth, during an annual meeting of the Texas Cattle Ranchers' Association” who had picked it up in Florida. See Lomax, “Some Types of American Folksongs,” Journal of American Folklore, Volume XXVIII (January, 1915), p.13.


The version collected by John Lomax and “No More Shall I Work in the Factory” both contain only the listing of grievances. All stanzas begin with No more shall I and are highly repetitious. The singer remains adamant about refusing to stay at work. Loss of independence and status continues to be emphasized, in the figure of the supervisor, the blowing of the whistle, and the external appearance of clothing. The song has become more generalized in identification, yet retains its subjectivity and occupational detail.


No More Shall I Work in the Factory


1) No more shall I work in the Factory,

To greasy up my clothes;

No more shall I work in the factory

With splinters in my toes.



It’s pity me my darling,

It’s pity me I say

It’s pity me my darling,

And carry me away.


2) No more shall I hear the bosses say,

“Boys you’d better daulf.”

No more shall I hear those bosses say

“Spinners, you’d better clean off.”


3) No more shall I hear the drummer wheels

A-rolling over my hear,

When factories are hard at work,

I’ll be in my bed.


4) No more shall I hear the whistle blow

To call me so soon;

No more shall I hear the whistle blow

To call me from my home.


5) No more shall I see the super come,

All dressed up so proud;

For I know I’ll marry a country boy

Before the year is out.


6) No more shall I wear the old black dress,

Greasy all around;

No more shall I wear the old black bonnet

With holes all in the crown.


From the People's Song Library. According to John Greenway, this version was “collected more recently in North Carolina.” However, evidence suggests this version was not “collected" but rather reworked from a printed copy of the Lomax version. See Greenway, p,125f_



By the time Nancy had learned the “Factory Girl” song, the United States had gone through a civil war, and the South had experienced Reconstruction. Ante-bellum southern textile manufacturing had been primarily small-scale family efforts aimed at supplying the needs of the owners, their workers and neighbors.33 At least one attempt was made during this time to import New England factory girls. This occurred in Georgia in 1850. As Frederick Olmstead wrote in 1856, the girls were induced to come down and “work in newly-established cotton factories, by the offer of high wages, but have found their position so unpleasant—owning to the general degradation of the laboring class—as very soon to be forced to return.”34

During the 1880’s, the South underwent an “industrial awakening” and placed all its energy in a cotton mill campaign in order to restore its dignity and improve its economic state.35 In agriculture, cotton was the cash crop. By the 1890’s, however, farmers were realizing less than five cents on a bale.36 A system of crop liens and chattel mortgages developed. Many lost their farms, and whole families were employed in the mills. Tenant farmers and large numbers of poor whites, a class of unemployed that had existed prior to the Civil War, also joined the labor force. From 1900 on, a greater percentage of workers was drawn from the mountains. With regard to the black population, as Broadus Mitchell states, “The cotton factories offered a field from which Negroes were excluded.”37 In 1890, women composed 40.6% of the southern textile work force and children 23.7%.38 The ancestry of these workers was very similar to that of the early New England factory girls. And once again, historians point out, “There is no distinction in blood between employers and employees.”39 Many became part of a permanent mill force; however, they exercised great mobility in moving on a circuit from mill to mill, often in the hope of bettering their conditions. Marriage no longer served as an escape from mill work as it did before World War I; rather than tending the home while others in the family worked, the new wife remained in the mill.40

Mill villages were built where the companies owned the workers’ homes. Wages were often paid in script, redeemable only at the company store. Often the ministers, teachers, and later, the social workers, were hired and/or paid by the company, a pattern of paternalism and regulation similar in many ways to that of Lowell. Eviction and the blacklist quickly evolved as forceful corporation tools of social control. The factory girl’s song would live in the South as it had earlier in New England, not simply because there were textile mills with their weavers and doffers, but because the same threats existed for the workers—the sense of a loss of independence and dignity. 

Yet to be explained, however, is a major difference between the northern and southern versions of the song: the change in chorus which first appears in Nancy’s version and remains firmly attached in the southern family of the song, a change from Hit-re-i-re-a-re-o/Hit-re-i-re-a and Dum de wickety,/Dum de way, to

Pity me all day

Pity me I pray,

Pity me my darlin’

And take me far away.

In oral tradition, the song lost at least two nonsense refrains which have strong association with the British Isles, especially Ireland. It picked up a chorus more in keeping with the sentimentality of American broadsides. This change corresponds to a shift in the song from the lightness of nonsense to the poignancy of pity and a movement away from a strong identification with Europe: if it was difficult for the New England mill girl of mid-nineteenth century to escape from the factory and return to her native dell, it was even more despairing for her southern counterpart of the early twentieth century.



1. “Zipper songs” have been used by a number of writers to describe a traditional, repetitive stanza style which allows for great variation in the verses, returning to a constant chorus; e.g., “We Shall Not Be Moved.” John Greenway, American Folksongs of Protest (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1953), pp. 16-17. “Agit-prop” refers to songs consciously created to express a particular ideological stance. Many have been based on traditional song style. For discussion see, R. Serge Denisoff, Great Day Coming (Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 1971), p. 25.

2. The earliest music given is that collected by Phillips Barry in Maine—Phillips Barry, ed., Bulletin of the Folksong Society of the North-East, Number 2 (1931; Reprinted, Philadelphia: American Folklore Society, 1960), pp. 12-13. This tune differs from Nancy Dixon’s collected by Archie Green and transcribed by Jim Watson from Babies in the Mill, Testament T-3301, recorded August, 1961 and 1962. The People’s Song Library suggests that the song be sung to “Ten Thousand Miles”—Greenway, pp. 125-26.

3. Greenway, pp. 124-25.

4. For examples of such accounts see: Harriet Robinson, Loom and Spindle, or Life Among the Early Mill Girls (New York, 1891); Rev. William Scoresby, American Factories and their Female Operatives (London, 1845); Henry A. Miles, Lowell As It Was and As It Is, 2nd ed. (Lowell, 1846). One economist’s study is Edith Abbott’s Women in Industry (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1910), especially Chapter 12.

5. Hannah Josephson, The Golden Threads: New England’s Mill Girls and Magnates (New York: Duell, Sloan and Pearch, 1949). p. 78.

6. Josephson, p. 78.

7. George F. Kengott, The Record of a City (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1912), Chapter VI; Norman Ware, The Industrial Worker, 1840-1860 (Boston: Houghton-Mifflin Company, 1924), pp. 112-13.

8. Joseph Rayback, A History of American Labor (New York: The Free Press, 1959), p. 93.

9. Actually the Lowell mills were not much affected by the 1837 depression until the 1840’s. Josephson, pp. 207-08.

10. The Lowell Offering, the first known journal to be written exclusively by women, was published from 1840 to 1845.

11. Background on the New England factory girls can be found in the histories already mentioned; on the Irish workers and the transition from transient to permanent factory population, see: Josephson, pp. 295-97; Ware, esp. Chapter IX; Herbert Lahne, The Cotton Mill Worker (New York: Farrar and Rinehart, 1944), p. 72.

12. Josephson, p. 43.

13. Leo Marx, The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1964) includes an interesting discussion of the reaction against industrialism in American culture during the 1840’s.

14. This is based on a time-table for the ringing of bells at the Lowell Mills given in Kengott, p. 23, with additional information from Abbott, pp. 126-28.

15. Josephson, p. 75.

16. Based on a Lowell Mills schedule given in Kengott, p. 24.

17. Josephson, p. 80.

18. Ibid.

19. Ibid.

20. Kengott, p. 225.

21. Francis Lowell also divsed the “Waltham system” of manufacture which included hiring young, unmarried New England girls as workers and housing them in company boarding-houses.

22. Abbott, p. 103.

23. Nathan Appleton, Introduction of the Power Loom, and Origin of Lowell (Lowell, Mass.: B.H. Penhallow, 1858), p. 15.

24. From the regulations of the Lowell Manufacturing Company given in Josephson, p. 71.

25. Josephson, p. 72.

26. Ware, p. 107.

27. Initially, the operatives were required to pay pew rent and attend the Episcopal church regardless of their own religious persuasion. It was the church of one of the owners and Kirk Bott, the company agent. Josephson, p. 46.

28. Josephson, p. 72.

29. Tristam P. Coffin, The British Traditional Ballad in North America, rev. ed. (Philadelphia: American Folklore Society, 1963).

30. Phillips Barry, who collected this version, also makes note of another printed in the Boston Globe around 1861. Barry, p. 13.

31. The changes between these two versions are basically contractions and losses found in the second. The People’s Song Library version improves upon a rhyme in Stanza 5. This is probably a reworking of the song from printed text.

32. Babies in the Mill.

33. Broadus Mitchell, The Rise of Cotton Mills in the South (New York: De Capo Press, 1921), Chapter I.

34. Frederick Law Olmstead, A Journey in the Seaboard Slave States (New York: Dix and Edwards, 1856), p. 543.

35. Two studies on the Southern “industrial awakening,” the background of workers, and the development of mill villages are those of Broadus Mitchell (see footnote 33) and Holland Thompson, From the Cotton Field to the Cotton Mills (New York: Macmillan Company, 1906).

36. Thompson, p. 69.

37. Mitchell, footnote p. 180.

38. Mitchell, p. 180.

39. Mitchell, p. 161.

40. This change is indicated by evidence found by Dr. Tom Terrill of University of South Carolina from his research of North Carolina manuscript census (1840- 1880), payroll ledgers (1890-1915), and federal labor statistics.

41. Greenway, pp. 122-24.

42. Barry, pp. 12-13.

43. Green, Babies in the Mill, “Notes,” p. 7.

44. John A. Lomax, “Some Types of American Folk  songs,” Journal of American Folklore, XXVIII (January, 1915), p. 13.

45. Greenway, pp. 125-26.