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Activity Guide:
Workers on the Line

University of Massachusetts Lowell - Graduate School of Education
Lowell National Historical Park


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Workers on the Line is an interdisciplinary program designed to help students achieve state and national standards in History/Social Science and Science and Technology. The working of standards varies from state to state, but there is substantial agreement on the knowledge and skill students should acquire. The standards listed below, taken from either the national standards or Massachusetts standards, illustrate the primary curriculum links made in

Workers on the Line.

History/Social Science

Students understand how the rise of big business, heavy industry and the labor movement transformed America. (National Standards)

Students learn about the contributions of all parts of the American population to the nation’s economic development. (Massachusetts)

Students understand supply and demand, price, labor, the costs of capital, and factors affecting production. (Massachusetts)

Science and technology

Students understand that technological changes are often accompanied by social, political and economic changes that can be beneficial or detrimental to individuals and society. (National Standards)

Students learn about using the manufacturing process. (Massachusetts)


Connections to National Standards and State Curriculum Frameworks

The Tsongas Industrial History Center is a joint educational enterprise sponsored by the University of Massachusetts Lowell and Lowell National Historical Park. Established in 1987, its goal is to encourage the teaching of industrial history in elementary and secondary schools.


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Program Description

The Workers on the Line program consists of a 90-minute interpretive tour and a 90-minute hands-on workshop. They provide students with the opportunity to explore the causes and nature of the conflict between workers and owners that grew out of the Industrial Revolution. On the tour, students discover firsthand the unique resources of Lowell National Historical Park. The hands-on workshop complements the tour by bringing the significance of historic resources to life as students work on an assembly line.

Students tour the Boott Cotton Mills Museum, where they conduct investigations of historical situations that caused workers to organize and protest. A visit to the Boott Mills weave room, with the thunderous roar of eighty-eight power looms, is a graphic example of one important worker grievance. In the workshop, students become workers on textile printing assembly lines. As they take on the role of production workers, they experience a loss of control over their lives as equipment is "speeded up." When wages are cut, they must decide whether to join a union and go on strike.


The Industrial Revolution was a defining era in American history. All that we consider "modern" was significantly shaped by this period, whether it be in technology, politics, art, culture, or the nature of work itself.

During the Industrial Revolution, control over the workplace generally shifted from workers to owners. Workers reacted in different ways; a common response was to organize into unions and fight back. This struggle took place in many different types of workplaces and, indeed, continues today.

Program Objectives

After visiting the Park and completing the activities in this guide, students will be able to:

• Discuss labor-management conflict and how it was symbolized by a change in power relationships. This will be shown as students experience a deterioration in the work experience, and a reduction in buying power.

• Discuss some aspects of the history of organized labor: why it was a logical response to factory production; when it occurred; what some results were.

• Discuss what the nature of work may be in the future.

• Describe the nature of factory production and list some different types of

factory operations.


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What is it like to work in a factory? How is work on a production line organized? Who decides the kind of conditions under which factory goods are produced? Who decides how profits are distributed? How can factory workers influence working conditions, wages, and hours of labor? These are just some of the questions which are addressed in Workers on the Line.

Before the Industrial Revolution

Before the Industrial Revolution, most Americans lived on farms or in rural villages and produced the goods that they needed for daily life. They also produced goods -- food, textiles, clothing, and shoes for local markets. Bartering was far more common than selling goods for cash. Bulk goods such as grain, tobacco, stone, and lumber were shipped to the small number of large cities for national or foreign markets.

American villages and cities increasingly contained skilled craftsmen who worked in small workshops. Most of these craftsmen had trained for years as apprentices, then as journeymen, before becoming masters as blacksmiths, tailors, printers, shipwrights, or other skilled trades. Masters often owned their tools, and controlled the pace and quality of work.

Within the textile crafts, the carding of wool or cotton and the spinning of yarn were mechanized in America beginning in the late 1700s. Yet weaving cloth continued in the rural home or remained the province of skilled urban weavers. Beginning in the 1810s

with the development of the power loom, however, textile production shifted into factories. The textile industry soon emerged as one of the key enterprises that propelled America’s Industrial Revolution.

Lowell and the Beginning of American Industry

Lowell was one of the most important industrial cities in early America. Wealthy Boston merchants financed the harnessing of waterpower from the Merrimack River and the construction of factories and machines to create the largest textile mills in the nation.

They bought cotton produced in the slave south and hired primarily young women from New England villages to manufacture large amounts of cloth. Their investment was highly profitable. Moreover, Lowell’s "mile of mills" and its tidy rows of brick boardinghouses where many of the "mill girls" lived became an international attraction.

Visitors from around the world traveled to Lowell to see its sights and write their impressions of the new industrial city.


Important innovations in the textile industry included not only factories and machines, but also the organization of the business enterprise. Investors from Boston established manufacturing corporations with capital raised through stock sales. Those who held large amounts of corporation stock elected the corporation officers and greatly


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influenced the running of the corporations. In turn the officers hired the agent who was responsible for the operation of the factory, and the hiring and firing of the workers. An overseer controlled production on the factory floor.

Early Labor Protests

It became clear to workers very early that their interests were different from those of the owners. It is significant that some of the first strikes in US history took place in Lowell in 1834 and 1836. Women led these strikes.

The strikers had three main grievances: pay cuts, speed-ups (the speed of the machine is increased), and stretch-outs (where workers are required to watch more machines). They also objected to the premium system, in which overseers received a bonus if their workers surpassed production goals and to increases in the cost of their housing and food in mill boardinghouses.

Workers and Their Organizations

Most early strikes and protests failed or achieved minor gains. Owners were very rich and powerful and could fire troublemakers. In addition there were periodic depressions in the US economy, each one lasting for several years: 1837, 1857, 1873, 1893. These depressions were caused partly by overproduction: plentiful goods led to low prices, layoffs, and factory shutdowns. Poor monetary practices, rampant speculation and bad investments, large debts, and foreign trade problems also contributed to the economic downturns. Wage earners suffered. No union could succeed when a large number of workers were willing to work for any wage.

In Lowell, as in many other industrial cities during this time, most workers were immigrants. For many, returning home was not an option. They often entered low-skilled jobs and worked for low wages.

Skilled workers organized themselves into craft unions which at first gave them more control over wages and working conditions. Owners and managers gradually "de-skilled" the work by dividing one complex job into several smaller jobs that any worker could be trained to do. Workers with little or no job security were not as likely to join unions.

Despite the challenges, workers organized themselves locally and nationally. The Knights of Labor (1869) and the American Federation of Labor (1886) were the most significant labor organizations of the nineteenth century.

Bread and Roses

The Bread and Roses strike in nearby Lawrence (1912) is perhaps the most famous labor dispute in US history. A new state law that shortened the workweek led to a wage reduction by mill owners. The International Workers of the World (IWW) sent leaders to Lawrence to provide organization.Workers conducted a lengthy strike that was marred by violence. Soldiers were summoned by mill officials, and several strikers were shot dead.

An outraged American public demanded justice for the strikers and children of Lawrence.

Hearings were held in Congress, and Lawrence children testified about the harsh


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conditions in the mills.

The strike spread to Lowell. Once again, police were brought in to intimidate strikers.

The various ethnic groups stuck together, the strikers held firm, and the Lowell workers won the same concessions that had been won in Lawrence. The Bread and Roses strike was the first major victory for textile workers in Massachusetts.

After 1912

Victory was short lived. The majority of workers in Lowell remained unorganized as the mills began to close in the 1920s. Federal laws made it much easier for workers to organize in the 1930s (see p. 15 for a description of the National Labor Relations Act) and by the late 1930s and early 1940s, the city’s textile workers established unions. By that time, most of the textile industry had already abandoned New England, moving to cheaper locations in the south, and it was too late to save thousands of manufacturing jobs in Lowell.

Work Rules

Do not leave your work station without your overseer's permission.

If you are late you will not be paid.

Workers who produce poor quality work will be discharged.

There will be no talking except what is necessary to run the assembly line.

Those who fail to obey orders will be punished.


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Pre-Visit Activities

1. Cottage Industries to Factory Production

Before the Industrial Revolution, most goods were created by hand by craftsmen classified into three categories: apprentice, journeyman, and master craftsman. A master craftsman was a person who had mastered all the techniques and skills of a given craft. After many years of practice, he was regarded as an expert who then passed along his knowledge and skills to apprentices, young boys who spent many years under his direction. A journeyman was a craftsman who had completed apprenticeship but did not yet have the experience or skill to be designated a master. A craftsman knew the whole process of creating an object; for example, each woodcrafter knew how to create a chair from start to finish.

With the advent of the Industrial Revolution, the job of creating an object became broken down into many steps, each of which was done by a different person. In the case of the wooden chair, one person might lathe the legs, another would create the seat, another would make the arms and back, and all the parts would then go to yet other people who would assemble them. The advantages were that single tasks could usually be done over and over faster than when one person did everything start to finish.

Craft Simulation Activity

Distribute the in-line skate page to every student. Explain that they are each a craftsperson who will assemble the skates start to finish. They must be cut out, blades glued on, and colored to the best of their ability. Each will be asked to track the amount of time it takes to complete the task. After everyone has completed the skates, compile and average the different times it took all the students to complete the task. This will be the "standard" time it takes to produce in-line skates by hand.

Point out the differences in "quality" among the hand-created skates. Are there some who have apparently mastered the craft of making in-line skates and some who still need some time as apprentices?

Factory Simulation Activity

Divide the class into production lines of 5-8 students each. Each of the following tasks will be assigned to a different student on the line:

1. Cut out right blade 5. Glue blade to right boot

2. Cut out left blade 6. Glue blade to left boot

3. Cut out right boot 7. Color boots

4. Cut out left boot 8. Inspect final product, put aside rejects, keep line moving


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Using the "standard" of time determined during the craft lesson, see how many skates can be created during the same amount of time. Do the same activity again and see which of the production lines can produce even more skates.

Considering Each Method

Have each student complete a questionnaire:

Reviewing the Results

• What were some of the major differences between the two methods?

• Why was the factory method so attractive from a business standpoint?

• How would consumers be affected by this new method?

• How would workers accustomed to the craft method feel about the working in a factory? Why?

• What was your role?

• Which method produced more goods?

• Which method generally producedhigher quality goods?

• Which job required more skill?

• Which method is more efficient/profitable?

Craft Factory


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2. Labor/Management Conflict

The Setting

This activity is set in the Massachusetts Chocolate Corporation with its large factory in Northeastern Massachusetts. Mr. Bernard Bigwig, Agent to the Board of Directors for the Corporation has circulated the preceding letter to the company’s overseers:

May 13, 1915

To Factory Overseers:

Profits at the Massachusetts Chocolate Corporation have been dwindling for the last few months. The Board of Directors attributes this to the high cost of labor at the factory—as you know, we are already paying both our Wrappers and Packagers 16 cents per hour for a 54 hour work week. Faced with several alternatives, the Board has chosen one which should increase profits and minimize potential conflicts with workers.

The following is the Official Improvement Plan:

1. Wrappers and Packagers will continue to receive their previous wages, but will have to adhere to new requirements in order to avoid a pay cut.

2. Wrappers will be responsible for wrapping an additional 5 chocolates per minute.

3. Packagers will have a 5 minute reduction in time for packing crates with chocolates.

4. These changes will be implemented gradually (over three weeks), so that workers can become accustomed to production changes.

5. Any workers unable or unwilling to work towards the new goals will be dismissed.

It is your responsibility, as Overseers, to see that these changes occur smoothly, with minimal worker conflict. As an added incentive for you to carefully manage the new Improvement Plan, we will initiate a premium system in which each Overseer will receive a bonus of $5.00 for each week that your workers reach our new production goals.

By increasing the number of chocolates produced and reducing costs, we are certain that the Massachusetts Chocolate Corporation will maximize profits and be able to sell to new markets that we have not been able to reach before.


Bernard Bigwig

Agent of the

Board of Directors


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Analyzing the Letter

Distribute a copy of Mr. Bigwig’s letter to each student. Ask the students to write three questions they would ask Mr. Bigwig, based on the content of the letter. After sharing some of these questions and answers, have the class as a whole discuss the letter and respond to the following:

• Why does the Board of Directors feel that the Official Improvement Plan needs to be implemented?

• Find evidence from the letter which shows that working conditions at the factory would not be considered acceptable in the U.S. today.

• From an overseer’s point of view, what parts of the plan would you like? What parts would you dislike? Why?

• How do you think the workers will react to the Improvement Plan? Why?

• To summarize, what did the Board of Directors decide would be its plan to improve the Massachusetts Chocolate Corporation’s situation?

The Next Sequence of Events

On June 13 the new procedures begin. Many workers are upset with the plan but do nothing. They are afraid of how the management might react. However, in spite of past firings of "difficult" workers, many Packagers and Wrappers begin to protest this new plan. These Wrappers and Packagers request a meeting with the managers. This unprecedented request is quickly rejected by the Board until the workers stage a one day walkout which completely halts production. At first the Board directs the Overseers to fire those workers but then reconsiders and tells the Overseers to meet with representatives of the workers at a hearing to explain why the plan is necessary. In addition, the Board permits all Packagers and Wrappers to attend the hearing hoping this move will show their "good will."

Understanding Management and Labor’s Point of View

• Divide the class into groups of four or five students each- - one group plays the Overseers. Other groups contain Wrappers and Packagers.

• Workers — list three complaints workers have with the new plan. Choose one representative from each group.

• Overseers — list at least three reasons why the plan is necessary.

• Have the class as a whole share their ideas and explore the reasons for the opposing points of view between workers and management.

Critical/Divergent Thinking

The Board of Directors of the Massachusetts Chocolate Corporation has pinpointed the reason for loss of profits at the high cost of labor. We are not told how much time the board spent studying the possible reasons for the decline of profits. Are there other reasons that might explain profit-loss? Factors to consider: the market for chocolate, origin of raw materials, technology required to produce the chocolates, advertising strategy, management procedures, failure of the management to plan for the future, etc. Have the class brainstorm all the possible reasons that the company is not producing as great a profit as it did in the past.


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3. Working Conditions and the Rise of Unions

The Conditions Which Workers Faced

Have students read these quotes on conditions of the Industrial Era:

1. Discontent with the regimentation of Lowell factory life in the Lowell Offering, 1841 (from Labor and the Rise of Industrialism in Lowell):

"I am going home where I shall not be obliged dragged about by the ringing of a bell, nor confined in a close noisy room from morning till night...We cannot have time to eat, drink, or sleep; we have only thirty of our food, and return to the noisy clatter of machinery. 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."

2. The stretch-out*, which Lowell’s female mill operatives faced, Voice of Industry, 1844 (from Managing the Mills):

"It is a subject of... general complaint among the operatives, that while they tend three or four looms, where they used to tend two, making nearly twice the number of yards of cloth, their pay is not increased to them, while the increase to owners is very great. Is this just?"

3. The premium system*, implemented in many of Lowell’s textile mills in the 1840s (from Women at Work):

"The premium system is a curse to us...I have worked under this plan, and know too well the base treatment of overseers in many instances.-Often have girls...been so afraid of the ‘Old Man’ they dare not ask to go out when sick; for they know he would have a great deal to say. ‘The work must not be stopped, and if you are not able to work you better stay out all the time.’"

4. Children as coal miners in Pennsylvania, as reported in the Labor Standard of May 17, 1879 (from The Labor Movement in the United States):

"These little fellows go to work in this cold, dreary room at seven o’clock in the morning and work till it is too dark to see any longer. For this they get one to three dollars a week. One result of their work is clean, free coal that burns away to ashes in the grate; another result I found in a little miner’s graveyard...where more than every other stone bears the name of some little fellow under fifteen years of age."

5. The privation of a Fall River, Massachusetts, family in 1883 (from Bread and Roses):

"I have a brother who has four children beside his wife and himself. All he earns is $1.50 a day. He works in the iron works at Fall River. He only works nine months out of the twelve. There is generally three months of stoppage...and his wife and family all have to be supported for a year out of his wages of nine months..."

6. The opulence which the wealthiest businessmen enjoyed in the early twentieth century (from The Labor Movement in the United States):

"...the champion of all the turn-of-the-century chateaux was George W. Vanderbilt’s ducal palace at Asheville, North Carolina...It had 40 master bedrooms, a Court of Palms,...a Banquet Hall,...a Tapestry Gallery, and a Library with 250,000 volumes. It was surrounded by an estate which covered 203 square miles."

*Stretch Out: The assignment of additional pieces of machinery to each operative

*Premium System: The payment of cash bonuses to overseers whose workers produced the most goods


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Reviewing the Quotes

• Why does the mill operative in Quote 1 feel as though workers are like "so many living machines"?

• Why does the worker in Quote 2 feel that the stretch-out is unfair?

• Who is the "Old Man" in Quote 3?

• Based on the description in Quote 5, why do you think so many children, such as the miners in Quote 4, have to work rather than attend school?

• Imagine you are one of the children mining coal in Pennsylvania. Why would George Vanderbilt’s mansion probably make you feel even worse about your situation?

Front Page News

Divide the class into groups of three news gatherers each. Have each group concentrate on one quote (from quotes 1-5) and write a front page news story based on the information in the quote. Have them include a "photo," headline, and masthead for their newspaper.

Organizing into Unions

Students in the Workers on the Line program will participate in their own union meeting and learn about the significance of union activity in Lowell since the early years of textile mills. Have the class explain why organizing into a union might be the most effective way to improve working conditions. Next, have each group from the above Front Page News activity organize a union to defend the rights of the workers they write about in their newspapers.

The following are some of things their unions will need:

1. a name,
2. a slogan,
3. a symbol,
4. a poster advertising an upcoming union meeting, and
5. a speech that will convince workers to join their union.

Exploring Labor History

Have students research important people, organizations, and events in Lowell and American Labor History. The following are some suggested topics:

• The International Workers of the World

• Sarah Bagley, Lowell Female

• The Ten Hour Movement Labor Reform Association

• Samuel Gompers, AFL-CIO

• Lowell turnouts of 1834 and

• The Lawrence Bread and Roses Strike 1836


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Post-Visit Activities

1. Expression Through Songs and Poems

Examining Popular Songs

Faced with harsh working and living conditions, factory workers and their supporters often wrote poems and songs which conveyed this plight. Similarly, many contemporary songs describe particular political or social issues. Have the class listen to tapes, radio, and compact discs at home to identify these kinds of songs. Have them list the title, artist, and message of each song. In class, have your students explain the purpose of these contemporary songs. Next, have the class examine the following song expressing workers’ desire for an eight-hour workday in 1886:

We mean to make things over

We’re tired of toil for naught

But bare enough to live on; never

An hour for thought.

We want to feel the sunshine: we

Want to smell the flowers

We’re sure that God has willed it

And we mean to have eight hours.

We’re summoning our forces from

Shipyard, shop and mill

Eight hours for work, eight hours for rest

Eight hours for what we will!

Analyzing the Lyrics

Review the meaning of this song with the class by asking these questions:

• Who are the "we" and the "forces" mentioned in the song?

• What does "toil for naught" mean?

• Why can’t the workers "feel the sunshine"?

• What does the song writer feel a fair workday would consist of?

• If you were the owner of a shipyard, shop, or mill, what would your reaction be to the sentiments of the song writer? Why?

Reflecting and Writing About Working Conditions

Next, have the students think about their own experiences as workers on the Workers on the Line assembly line. What were some of the difficulties which they endured? What improvements did they seek during the union meeting? With these things in mind have the students break into their workshop assembly line groups and compose a short poem or song, with a title, describing their experiences and aspirations as factory workers. Have the groups read (or sing!) their pieces to the rest of the class.


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2. Investigating Labor Legislation of the Twentieth Century

Designing Legislation

Based on their experiences in Workers on the Line, have the students brainstorm and design laws which they feel would help protect workers from abuse.

Landmarks in Labor Legislation

Next, have the class research some important legislation of the Twentieth Century which has protected workers. The following are some suggested topics for research:

• The Norris-LaGuardia Act, 1932 (forbade exclusion of union members from employment, limited use of injunctions in labor disputes)

• The Walsh-Healy Act, 1935 (forbade employment of boys under 16 and girls under 18 for work performed for the federal government)

• The Wagner Act, 1935 (guaranteed rights of workers to organize and bargain collectively)

• The Fair Labor Standards Act, 1938 (extended the ban on child labor to most occupations)

3. The Future of Work

The Workplace in 2050

Break the class into groups of 3-4. Have the class imagine what a workplace in the year 2050 might be like.

They can consider the following:

• What kinds of products will be in great need in the future?

• In what ways will the future workplace be different/similar from the factory in Workers on the Line?

• Will automation eliminate many jobs?

• Will many factories continue to relocate out of the U.S.?

• What additional rights will workers enjoy in the future workplace?

Plan for the future

Have students create a floor plan for their factory of the future, indicating some of the jobs and listing some of the rights workers will have. Next, have each group present their ideas to the rest of the class.

Discuss the ways a future workplace might be different and why they would or would not choose to work in a factory of the year 2050.


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AFL-CIO - the American Federation of Labor (1886) and Congress of Industrial Organizations (1935) were and continue to be the two largest groups of unions in the US. They merged in 1955.

agent - a man hired by a mill owner to manage a mill.

assembly line - production line of equipment, machinery, and workers along which successive operations are performed until the final product is complete.

brown lung - debilitating, often fatal disease caused by breathing cotton fibers in a textile mill. Also called byssinosis, it was common among mill workers.

craft union - a union where skilled workers are organized according to their craft or skill rather than the industry in which they work.

industrial union - a union where all workers, skilled and unskilled, are organized according to the industry in which they work.

Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) - the first nationwide industrial union (1905); helped lead Lowell's first successful strike in 1912.

lockout - a work stoppage caused by management's decision to "lock workers out." It is usually done when a strike is anticipated or in an attempt to break a union.

National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) - federal law which guarantees the rights of workers, including the right to organize into unions and bargain with owners; it also forbids an employer from punishing workers for union activities.

overseer - factory floor supervisor responsible for meeting production quotas.

premium system - a system where overseers receive bonuses if workers exceed production quotas.

speed-up - increase the speed of machinery in order to increase production and profit.

stretch-out - increase the number of machines assigned to each worker in order to increase production and profit.

Ten Hour Movement - a petition drive by mill

workers in the 1840s which attempted to persuade the legislature to reduce the work day from twelve to ten hours.

Union- an organization of workers that attempts to bargain with employers regarding wages and working conditions.


Bender, Thomas. Toward an Urban Vision: Ideas and Institutions in Nineteenth Century America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Blewett, Mary H. ed. Surviving Hard Times: Working People of Lowell. Lowell, MA: Museum.

Dalzell, Robert F.Jr. Enterprising Elite: The Boston Associates and the World They Made. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

Dublin, Thomas. Farm to Factory: Women’s Letters 1830-1860. New York: Columbia University.

Dublin, Thomas. Women at Work: The Transformation of Work and Community. New York: Columbia University.

Freedman, Russell. Kids at Work: Lewis Hine and the Crusade Against Child Labor. New York: Clarion Books.

Kuklin, Susan. Igbal Masih and the Crusaders Against Child Slavery. New York: Henry Holt and Company.

Labor. Cobblestone, October 1992. Peterborough, NH: Cobblestone Publishing Company.

Lord, Athena. A Spirit to Ride the Whirlwind. New York: MacMillan Publishing Company.

Meltzer, Milton. Bread and Roses: The Struggle of American Labor 1865-1915. New York: Mentor Books.

Mofford, Juliet H. ed. Child Labor in America. Carlisle, MA: Discovery Enterprises, Ltd.

Parker, David L. with Lee Engfer & Robert Conrow. Stolen Dreams: Portraits of Working Children. Minneapolis: Lerner Publications Company.

Paterson, Katherine. Lyddie. New York: Lodestar.

Robinson, Harriet Hanson. Loom and Spindle or Life Among the Early Mill Girls. Kailua, HA: Press Pacifica.


Retrieved from: on 6th June, 2006.

"The object of teaching a child is to enable him to get along without a teacher."
Elbert Hubbarb

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