In William Moran’s, The Belles of New England: The Women of the Textile Mills and the Families Whose Wealth They Wove, he examines the social history of the textile industry. As well, woven throughout the book is the idea of the immigrant prejudice on the United States, including women workers who first dominated the mills, until their post WWI Northern demise when integrated staff from nationalities around the world labored together.
Moran chronicles the commencement of the textile industry when mills were built by Francis Cabot Lowell and Nathan Appleton. The mills would draw women from all over the New England farms and villages who were seeking independence and freedom. Lowell and Appleton envisioned mill towns that would be everything the opposite of their England counterparts. An almost Utopian society was their vision, with a place where women would become educated working class ladies and have “a measure of social enlightenment, offering their workers…libraries, evening lectures, and music” (Kirkus Reviews, 2002, ¶1).
Following the inaugural years, the textile towns quickly crumbled as first generation textile owners departed and second generation “Lords of the Loom” realized their monetary potential. Moran depicts the immigrant lives of Irish, French-American from Quebec, and Europeans, as people who endured “difficult relations with the Yankees, isolation and discrimination, anti-Catholic violence, and monstrous health and safety conditions” (Collier, 2002, ¶1). Finally, Moran describes the fall of the Northern textile industry to the Southern states, that provided owners the “cheap labor and a union-free environment” (Kirkus, 2002, ¶1), where they could reap higher profits.
The approach of the book does not adhere itself to a definitive thesis, as it is not written by a historian, rather Moran was a retired news journalist for CBS and was inspired to write about the textile mills because every book he read about the mills “seemed to have a narrow focus” (L’Heureux, ¶ 4). As such, the book is not to inform a reader of his theory of social inequities of the textile mills, or prove a rationale of its’ social impact. Rather, the book is a light read, presumably intended for someone who might seek basic knowledge about the textile mills.
Moran’s story telling approach “leaves out the analysis a scholarly treatment would provide but offers citations and a bibliography to give it authenticity” (Collier, 2002, ¶1). According to the bibliography, Moran used at least 150 different sources. The information gathered by Moran is an impressive assortment of primary and secondary documents including books, journals, interviews, diaries, textile creeds, songs, and poetry. The use of endnotes was very clear and concise and probably a wise decision as most pages have at least 3 citations, and some reach as high as 10 on a given page. While some historians might prefer footnotes, the folksy nature that Moran’s book lends itself to, adheres more to endnotes. The endnotes are logically presented, in that they are broken down first by chapter, then by page number, and finally in chronological order in which they appeared on the page.
Moran’s book is arranged topically by presenting chapters dedicated to each group of workers in the order of their occurrence to the textile mills. The brief introductory chapter contains an historic overview of the women who would come to the textile mills throughout the years of the textile giants, and a short paragraph about the other immigrants that would follow the women into servitude. Following this chapter, Moran chronicles the times and history of each of the following groups recruited: women from New England, business leaders, entrepreneurs and revolutionizers of the textile industry, Irish laborers, French Canadians, Poles, Italians, Russians, Jews, and other immigrant workers. The last two chapters chronicle the efforts to earn women equal pay, create labor unions, abolish child labor, the Great Lawrence Strike of 1912, and the demise of the Northern textile industry to the Southern states.
Shamefully, prior to reading this book I had virtually no prior knowledge about the textile mills, where they where located, nor their historical significance. As well, I did not realize their influences on American citizens, immigrants, child labor or evolution of labor laws and working conditions. Moran’s book provided me with a greater sense of Massachusetts history, beyond the typical American Revolution events of the Boston Tea Party and Boston Massacre. I had not realized how many East Coast Colleges and Universities were built on the endowments and donations from textile owners. In present day I had thought of Boston as mostly an Ivy League town filled with academics and socialites. However, after reading the book I am more aware of the blue collar workers that still exist within the state and their dependence on the manufacturing industry. The historical information about child labor, the labor movement and the organizations of unions within the textile mills, helped create a more complete picture of the struggles of American and Immigrant workers to have decent wages and proper living provisions.
The Social Studies curriculum timeline, for seventh grade students in Champaign School District, includes United States History. Specifically, their curriculum starts with the topic of Native Americans and concludes with the Industrial Revolution. Most appropriately, information from “The Belles” could initially be brought into units about the Civil War, and the benefits the textiles mill owners gained from using cotton grown and harvested from slaves. Following the Civil War, students could make connections between Jim Crow Laws in the South, and the indebtedness to their former slave owners, to the similar labor and living conditions the immigrant textile workers were forced to endure at the hands of rich textile families. Also, the topic of fare wage for women vs. men and different races could be approached. Most challenging, students could discuss the idea of immigrant discrimination throughout the history of the United States, and how it affected people of all colors and creeds.
I would recommend this book to those who would like to learn about the textile industry and enjoy storytelling. William Moran does an exquisite job of weaving fact with story in an unassuming approach. A novice historian can feel comfortable and confident in the reliability of the facts, from this former news writer, editor and producer of CBS.
References: Collier, B. (2002, August 15). The Belles of New England (Book). Library Journal,
127 (13), 117.
L’Heureux, Juliana,http://www.mainewriter.com/articles/Belles-of-New-England-br.htm The Belles of New England (Book). (2002, July). Kirkus Reviews.