Hell's Bells- page 2 | History | Smithsonian
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Hell's Bells

The 19th-century trolley bell may have ding-ding-dinged, but the factory bell clanged the workday

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At the same time, working conditions were far from ideal. Men and women put in 12 or more hours a day, six days a week. In the mills, workers were often injured by machinery. Cotton fibers in the air—as well as the forced humidity and airtight quarters, meant to keep fragile threads from breaking—could cause serious respiratory problems.

Workers could be dismissed without recourse for a long list of infractions that included drunkenness, "hysteria," spreading rumors, stealing, profanity, impudence, "religious frenzy" and their general deportment—even on their own time. Certainly, tardiness was not tolerated. After all, throughout the day factory bells reminded workers where they should be and what they should be doing.

In the Lowell Offering story "The Spirit of Discontent," the anonymous author has one of her characters complain: "I am going home, where I shall not be obliged to rise so early in the morning, nor be dragged about by the ringing of the bell....I object to the constant hurrying of every thing. We cannot have time to eat, drink or sleep....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 that ding-dong of a bell—just as though we were so many living machines."

In the story "Factory Labor," another character is more sympathetic to management. "In all kinds of employment it is necessary to keep regular established hours," she primly notes. "Because we are reminded of those hours by the ringing of a bell, it is no argument against our employment, any more than it would be against going to church or to school."

Today, long after bell towers ceased dictating daily schedules, the bells still echo. After all, which of us, hitting the snooze button on our alarm clock, doesn’t understand the quandary of a young Lowell writer weighing the benefits of regular pay versus the long hours "and the feeling too, that comes over us...when we hear the bell calling us...the feeling that we are obliged to go"?


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