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Work, Lyddie! Work!

Student Directions:


Are you thinking that school is boring and that it would be more fun to be out working? This is a chance for you to find out what it was like to have to work instead of having the chance to go to school. Analyze primary source documents about early factory labor (mill workers during 1840-1860) showing their hours of labor, ages of laborers, reasons for working, and working conditions. Then read a historical novel about the time Lyddie by Katherine Paterson and research modern day youth labor issues to see if the things faced by Lyddie are really so different today in places where young people do not have the opportunity to go to school. To share what you learned with others, you will write a poem or labor song.

Teacher notes

The Task:

rightYou may research links concerning early factory labor (mill workers during 1840-1860), child labor in today's world, and diseases of young laborers. Volunteers will imitate working on a loom. You will analyze a mill bell schedule, read a mill girl's writings, write and present a poem or song exhibiting empathy for child laborers.



The Process:

1. Analyze the mill bell schedule. Point out the hour girls (operatives) were to begin work, followed by the breakfast break, the lunch break, and the quitting time. Remember the operatives had to walk to and from their boardinghouse during these breaks.

Baker Library

2. Read aloud the page of primary sources. Imagine the atmosphere within the mill factory. Note the darkness (small dusty windows) in the factory. Note the lint in the air from the clothing that is being processed. Note the humidity level that is purposely created by buckets of water in the factory, so the threads won't break. Note the fact that the long hours, little food, lack of rest, lack of sunshine and fresh air lends itself to contracting Tuberculosis. (Tuberculosis - American Lung Association: Mill girls are especially susceptible to contracting tuberculosis, due to the lint, humidity, and lack of proper ventilation. The girls are working, breathing and living in these conditions.

3. Examine the mill worker sketch. You may want to volunteer to stand in position of either the overseer or a mill girl in the sketch. Perhaps this sketch can be projected onto a screen by an overhead transparency. Act out the job of this person. Think and feel as a worker or overseer would feel. Often the girls would attach a page out of a book, so that they could read or learn to read while working the loom. New England Mill Girls:

Remember you are trying to keep up with the overseer's demands while you are trying to read and work the loom. While the class makes loud machinery noises, such as klackety, klackety, klackety, and knock, knock, knock, and pachinga, pachinga pachinga, continue to act out your role. As the class continues the loud noises, the overseer shouts instructions to the operatives in a loud and demanding voice, "You need to control two looms now. Control all three now. Now you must keep up with four for the same wages as before!" The operatives act out the overseers demands. If possible continue this skit for five to ten minutes.


"Power Loom Weaving", from George White's Memoir of Samuel Slater, 1836. Merrimack Valley Textile Museum.

4. Debrief. Volunteer operatives explain how he or she felt while the class listens. Questions the operatives might explain: "How were you feeling? What did your feet and arms feel like? Did you enjoy your work? What did you think about as you worked?" Volunteer overseer explains how he or she felt while the class listens. Questions the overseer might explain: "How were you feeling? What did you feel like? Did you enjoy your work? What did you think about as you demanded the mill girls to work harder?"

5. Review your previous knowledge of farm life. Create a Venn diagram contrasting a young girl's life and job on the farm with a young girl's life and job in the mill.

6. Listen to mill songs.

7. Debrief. Discuss with a partner the working conditions that led to lyrics of the songs.

8. While mill music plays, read the primary sources. By yourself quietly create a brainstorm, or concept map using sensory feelings and words concerning mill life and work. You may use quotes from passages in the primary sources.

Mill Girl Life

Primary Source Documents

I could not endure such a constant clatter of machinery, that I could neither speak to be heard, nor think to be understood, even by myself. And then you have so little leisure--I could not bear such a life of fatigue. Call it by any other name rather than pleasure. S.G.B. (Sarah G. Bagley, Series I, 1840 pp. 25-26) from Lowell Offering (Jordon, Swift and Wiley, 1845) S.G.B. (Sarah G. Bagley, Series I, 1840 pp. 25-26)

She felt afraid to touch the loom and she was almost sure she could never learn to weave; the harness puzzled and the reed perplexed her; the shuttle flew out and made a new bump on her head; and the first time she tried to spring the sathe she broke out a quarter of the threads. It seemed as if the girls all stared at her, and the overseers watched every motion, and the day appeared as long as a month had at home. . . At last it was night. . . There was a dull pain in her head and a sharp pain in her ankles; every bone was aching, and there was in her ears a strange noise, as of crickets, frogs, and jewharps, all mingling together. from Mind Among the Spindles, a miscellany selected from the Lowell Offering (Jordon, Swift and Wiley, 1845), p.89.

I want to be at home--to go down to the brook over which the wild grapes have made a natural arbor, and to sit by the cool spring around which the fresh soft grapes cluster so lovingly. I think of the time when, with my little bare feet, I used to follow in Aunt Nabby's footsteps through the fields of corn--stepping high and long till we came to the bleaching ground; and I remember--but I must stop, for I know you wish me to write of what I am now doing, as you already know of what I have done.

Well; I go to work every day--not earlier than I should at home, nor do I work later, but I mind the confinement more than I should in a more unpleasant season of the year. I have extra work now--I take care of three looms; and when I wrote you before I could not well take care of two. But help is very scarce now, and they let us do as much work as we please; and I am highly complimented upon my "powers of execution." from Lowell Offering (Jordon, Swift and Wiley, 1845).

9. Write a poem of mill life and work. You may use your Venn diagram, brainstorm, concept map, and primary sources. Remember to reflect on farm life within your song or poem.



You may do an online search on the following to gain information of the life of a mill girl:

The Life of a Mill Girl

Poem or Song 

Directions: You as a writer take on the point of view of a young child in the mill. Be sure to read the directions for each stanza closely. Each stanza is four lines. The lines do not have to rhyme. Create a title for your poem or song.


The Life of a Mill Girl

I often think...

Within this first stanza write about the early days on the farm. You are remembering those carefree days of early childhood.

Do you still...

Within this second stanza have your young girl ask a question to her friend that still lives back on the neighboring farm. Relate how it is different here in the mill. Express how you feel about this. 

I hurry to the boardinghouse...

Within this third stanza describe what you do when you return home during your short lunch break. Describe what it is like when you return home after a long day's work.

I work...

Within this fourth stanza describe what your workday is like. Be sure to describe the environment: air you breath, looms you tend, windows and light, plants, pails of water. 

I wonder about...

Within this fifth stanza describe what you dream about. You have endless hours to think as you work the looms in the mill. What do you desire and long for?








Learning Advice:

Be sure to check out the resource links on the Internet as these will help you understand the life of a young laborers during the 1840-1860's in the United States. Note the link to child labor in England. Many believed the Lowell Mills far superior to England's mills. What do you think?

Note the extension activity has links to child labor in the world today. Be sure to research what is happening in your world. What clothing or shoes do you purchase that were produced in a country that practices child labor? What can you do as a consumer to help deter these countries from employing child laborers? What can the United States do to encourage better working conditions for children?


You may choose to volunteer to read aloud your poem or sing your lyrics while being videotaped. Use the rubric to evaluate your song or poem lyrics.


Debrief: You may discuss what you have written with a partner. Compare jobs today which have poor working conditions. Discuss factory labor today in the United States, as well as the world.

You have been asked to write a poem or song exhibiting empathy for mill workers. Through this study you will walk away with empathy and feelings for other people in a different time period. You are being asked to relate these mill girls or child laborers' experiences with your own life. You may relate the experiences of mill girls and your life with young laborers today working in our global society.


















Work, Lyddie! Work!

Reflection Sheet

  1. Explain your poem or song; be sure to describe what it means.
  2. Explain how you are similar to mill workers from the 1840-1860's:
  3. Explain how you are different compared to mill workers from the 1840-1860's:
  4. When reading the mill worker's primary sources and during the class discussion of the Mill Bell Schedule, what do you feel strongly about, so much that you would change it?!
  5. What people today are similar to the mill workers and have comparable working conditions?
  6. What countries today have children working? How is their life comparable to mill girls? How is their life different from mill girls?
  7. What can you do today to make a difference concerning child labor?
  8. What did you enjoy about this lesson?
  9. What did you not enjoy about this lesson?
  10. Which resource did you find most useful?
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Optional extension or homework:

Darla J. Moore
Mentor Teacher
Cucamonga Middle School
Central School District
Darla J.  

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Last Revised: 03/28/06