Sunday, 19 January 2014

Factory-girl writers and employee voice

An important chapter in the history of internal communication was marked by the Lowell Offering. This is the first recorded company magazine written by female workers between 1840 and 1849 at the New England Lowell Cotton Mills. For the readers of Marginalia on Engagement I wanted to further explore its story, and this is what I found out: despite a large amount of historical coverage there are still a lot of ambiguous areas to understand.

Author Harriet H. Robinson (1825 -1911) described the life cycle of the publication in The Lowell Offering.

“At the time the Lowell water-power was utilized, the era of mechanical invention had not begun. The industrial life of New England was yet in its infancy, and almost every article in daily use that is now made with the help of machinery was then “done by hand”.

“There was neither railroad, steamboat, telegraph, nor telephone; and direct communication was kept up by the lumbering stage-coach or the slow-toiling canal which tracked its sinuous way from town to city and from state to state. The daily paper was almost unknown, and the “news of the day” was usually a week or so behind the times.”

At that time people lived in pastoral simplicity with retail business being done by barter. “But into this life there came an element that was to create a new era in the activity of the country.” Robinson refered to the mechanical industry which would build the cotton-factory and “call together an army of useful people, open wider fields of industry for men and, what was quite as important at the time, for women too.

“We can today hardly realize what a change the cotton-factory made in the status of the working-woman. Hitherto woman had always been a money-saving rather than a money-earning member of the community; and now for the first time the labor woman, as a class, had a money value.

“Some of these women, both young and old, had some objects in working in the factory besides using the money they would earn. There were not a few who came to Lowell on account of the circulating libraries that were soon opened, the lyceum lectures, and the social advantages to be found in the companion-ship of those of similar tastes with themselves. They discussed the books they read, debated social questions, compared their thoughts and experiences, and advised and helped one another. And so their mental growth went on and they soon became educated far beyond what their mothers and grandmothers could have been.” 

These women kept studying and advance their education while working at mill. What happened next?


The Lowell Mill Girls

According to Robinson, “their work was monotonous and was done almost mechanically, but their thoughts were free and they had ample time to digest what they learned or to think over what they had read. Their mind were not crammed, and an idea had a chance to “turn round” before another came to crowd it out or take its place.”

Some women decided to form a “little society for “mutual improvement,” where they could meet together at intervals, submit to each other what they had written, or talk over the books they had read.”

Soon, a selection of the articles that were read and shared during those meetings was published “in pamphlet form, under the joint editorship of Mr. Thomas and Mr. Thayer.” The Lowell Offering was born.

The first number was realised in October 1840, while the last one was issued in December 1849. Seven volumes were published in total. The publication was small, thin, with one column to the page and a plain title. In 1845, the magazine had on its cover vignette.

“Of the merits of the Lowell Offering, as a literary production, I will only observe – putting out of sight the fact of the articles having been written by these girls after the arduous hours of the day, - that it will compare advantageously with a great many English annuals.

“The Lowell Offering did a good work not only among the operatives themselves, but among the rural population from which they had been drawn. It was almost the only magazine that reached their secluded homes, read and re-read, and thus set the women to thinking, and added its little leaven of progressive thought to the times in which it lived.

“These authors represent what may be called the poetic element of factory life. They were the idea mill-girls, full of hopes, desires, aspirations, - poets of the loom, spinners of verse, artists of factory life.”

The author concluded by writing that: “these factory-girl writers did not confine their talents within the pages of their own publication. Many of them wrote for the literary newspapers, and they also became authors of books. Some become artists, some teachers and “some of them are and have been well known as doing good and successful work outside the domestic sphere.
The cotton-factory was to them a means of education, their alma mater, or preparatory school, in which they learned the alphabet of their life work.”








Employee Voice

The Lowell Offering is and will remain an important stage in the historical development of internal communications. 

However, despite the appearance of its independence, the representation of a true employee voice is put in doubt by different studies. For example, Kevin Ruck and Heather Yaxley point out that the Lowell Offering was in fact very much controlled by the corporation. “Industrial editing was overwhelming involved selling the company policy to employees.” Their research also suggests that “the importance of the employee voice was not recognised until mid-1990s, with emergence of social media and a return to valuing personal communication.”

What we are seeing today is that social media inside the large enterprise is creating new opportunities for transparent dialogue. The "factory-girl (and -boy) writers of the 21st century" seem to have a new kind of genuine voice. If listened to, it could dramatically help to shape the future of organisations. 

Do you have any thoughts on this or experiences to share? I would love to know your view.

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If you were interested in exploring further the topic, Kevin Ruck will join SMiLE London - the conference on Social Media in the Large Enterprise by simply-communicate - on 17th March. He will be moderating an interactive table on the link between employee voice and social media.