The City of Spindles

From the 1840s on, emigration from Ireland caused by the Great Famine, meant that the newly industrialized cotton mills in America had a fresh supply of single women (many widows), skilled in textile arts, who needed work. The mills were clustered in New England, and in New York, Massachusetts, and Connecticut. One mill in particular, Lowell Mill in Massachusetts, employed a workforce that was mostly women, and by the 1870s, 57.7% of these women had been born in Ireland. This was because the Panic of 1837 had caused a drop in wages for the American women working in the mills; when they were unhappy with these new conditions, they were replaced by cheaper labour, by Irish women they called ‘Biddies’ or ‘Bridgets’. Lowell was known as the ‘City of Spindles’, and for most of the nineteenth century, these spindles were being turned by young Irish women.

I like this story as a reminder that history is never national, that though we can choose a topic and give it geographical, thematic, or chronological boundaries, we can’t ignore the tentacles that sprawl out beyond them. I’m sure there’s a weaving metaphor in here somewhere, and possibly a spiderweb one too! So are these first-generation Biddies worth examining within the topic of Irish textile history? I think so.

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