Hell’s Bells

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

Loud the morning bell is ringing, Up, up sleepers, haste away; Yonder sits the redbreast singing, But to list we must not stay.

Now we give a welcome greeting To these viands cooked so well; Horror! oh! not half done eating— Rattle, rattle goes the bell!

From an anonymous poem, printed in Factory Girl’s Garland, a literary magazine from Lowell, Massachusetts, in 1844

The black, cast-metal bell in the National Museum of American History’s "On Time" exhibition has lost its clapper. Still, it’s not hard to imagine its resounding ring. It wasn’t so long ago that this bell was the focus of life for the residents of North Andover, Massachusetts, where it once graced the tower of Davis and Furber, a textile machine factory that opened in the 1830s and closed, finally, in 1982.

As New England shifted from farming to industry in the 19th century, Americans’ sense of time changed radically. Before 1820, most citizens did not own clocks or even know how to tell time, and work hours were determined by the sun and the seasons. But as people by the hundreds of thousands left farms for factories, and bells divided life into segments of work and leisure, time took on new meaning.

Bells announced mealtimes and rang to start and end work shifts. Factory workers might begin their days at 4:30 A.M. with the first dawn bell, and a curfew bell would signal when workers were expected to go to bed.

"In the early 1800s, upper-class people in America made an obsessive point of scheduling," says Carlene Stephens, a curator of the "On Time" exhibition, "but the idea was completely new for common folks on the farm." Also new, she says, "was the idea of working for someone else on someone else’s schedule, for a wage."

Though Davis and Furber employed primarily men, the textile machines the factory turned out went to mills throughout New England—populated overwhelmingly by young women (average age 20 years) recruited off farms to live in boardinghouses in burgeoning towns and cities. These young women represented the first generation of an industrial working class. Considered dispensable on the farm, they went to factory towns to earn extra money for the family or, more often, to make their own way.

Factory recruiters made often unrealistic promises about the paternalism of the factory owners: boardinghouses were run only by matrons approved and hired by the company, healthy meals would be provided and all workers were required to attend church. Sensitive to criticism that their factories might have a corrupting influence on young women, owners designed their mills to look like churches—with bell towers the most conspicuous feature of the new industrial cathedrals.

In "A Second Peep at Factory Life," a story written in 1845, mill worker Josephine L. Baker leads an imaginary visitor on a tour of the factory, where "the belfry, towering far above the rest, stands out in bold relief against the rosy sky."

Baker’s story appeared in the Lowell Offering, a literary magazine published by and for "mill girls." While the journal was ultimately run by the workers themselves, and published both complaints and praise of factory life, it also served to promote, in the words of one of the town’s factory owners, Lowell’s "fund of labor, well-educated and virtuous."

To be sure, the culture created in factory towns like Lowell, the largest and most prominent textile factory city in the region, had its appeals. Mill workers were paid in cash—about $3 a week—and with it were able to take advantage of such amenities as relatively stylish store-bought clothes, evening classes in such subjects as languages, music or sciences, and "mutual self-improvement" clubs where workers who liked to write could share their latest efforts. Lowell’s Lyceum Movement, an organization that sponsored speakers, was second only to Boston’s, bringing to town such luminaries as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Horace Greeley and John Quincy Adams.

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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