Artist Interviews, History

Poet & abolitionist Lucy Larcom

“I defied the machinery to make me its slave. Its incessant discords could not drown the music of my thoughts if I would let them fly high enough.” – Lucy Larcom, poet, abolitionist, former child mill worker.

Today I’m editing an interview that I did with Diane Bush, a Las Vegas photo journalist and artist who is bringing textiles into her art practice in remarkable ways.

As we chatted, Diane cited one of her early photography influences as Lewis W. Hine, who helped to bring awareness of child factory work at the beginning of the last century. His photographs are chilling, and not a far off reminder of today’s news reports of the horrific working conditions and deathly outcomes that overseas workers are experiencing as a result of the North American ‘fast fashion‘ syndrome.

Cotton mill, early 1900's. Photograph taken by Lewis L. Hine.

Cotton mill, early 1900’s. Photograph taken by Lewis W. Hine.

While Hine’s photographs were an important tool for social reform, few details were recorded about the young children who looked into his camera – often they provided their ages, how long they had worked in the factory, and that they worked at night but little is known of their individual histories.

Lucy Larcom reading

Poet Lucy Larcom

One survivor of the textile mills was poet Lucy Larcom (1824-1893) who worked in the Lowell textile mills with her sisters from age 11. During this time, she became a published poet and in her twenties she went onto a successful writing career, well published in her lifetime. At the end of her years, she wrote her biography A New England Girlhood, Outlined from Memory (1889) which detailed her accounts of gender and labour in turn of the century New England.

“I weave, and weave, the livelong day:

The woof is strong, the warp is good:

I weave, to be my mother’s stay;

I weave, to win my daily food:

But ever as I weave,” saith she,

“The world of women haunteth me.

–excerpt from Weaving, a poem by Lucy Larcom

The legacy of Lewis W. Hine’s body of work inspired laws against child labour in the United States, and this practice has been adopted in most Western Country with child labor laws, though we should still question where the cloth we purchase comes from and what conditions it is created under. Both labour and environmental waste are two large areas of concern and study in contemporary mills.

A body of Lewis W. Hine’s work can be seen at George Eastman House in Rochester, New York. Lucy Larcom’s work can be read at The Poetry Foundation website.

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