Department of History
The call for participants for this term’s Just Teach One text came at a fortuitous moment for me, just as I was struggling to put the finishing touches on a syllabus for an undergraduate History lecture course entitled “Building a New Nation, 1800-1850.” I had resolved to assign a reading load almost exclusively of easily accessible primary sources. But in scanning several piles of primary document readers, textbooks, and colleagues’ syllabi, I noticed a curious feature of what might be called the early American history canon: it seems to include far fewer sources from the years 1800 to 1820 than it does for previous and following decades. Though this feature appears as a thin spot in the fabric of a course covering colonial North America to the Civil War, or even the Revolution to Reconstruction, it became a series of holes when I stretched the material from 1800 and 1850 to fill an entire semester. The Factory Girl (1814), as prepared by Duncan and Ed, seemed to offer a patch for my syllabus that made the mended piece far more interesting than the original.
The 22 students in my course, who ranged from undeclared freshmen to senior History majors to engineers taking the course as an elective, read The Factory Girl during Week 5 of our course. They had considered the development of New England industry by reading politicians’ views of U.S. political economy during the War of 1812 (Week 3) and had learned about changing views of evangelical Christianity and the individual self from firsthand accounts of conversions and camp meetings (Week 4). Savage’s novel gave them the chance to consider one person’s views of the relationship – both actual and ideal – between these changes in political economy and religious thought as they played out in New England society. More importantly, it extended this synthesis of recently discussed topics to a new conversation about the relationship of women and work – not just in the mill but in the classroom and the household. This conversation was perhaps the biggest change that The Factory Girl introduced in my course, as my students began to consider how early industry changed (and didn’t change) family structure, mainstream gender roles, and women’s potential as wage earners a full thirty years before the Lowell mill strikes. When we discussed the Lowell workers later in the semester, my students saw these labor disputes and the articulation of the cult of domesticity not as sudden onsets in the 1830s and 1840s but as incremental developments with roots in earlier changes.
In fact, I asked students to revisit Savage’s novel a second time during the semester. In addition to the fact that the first edition of The Factory Girl fell into a chronological lacuna of accessible sources, I was drawn to teach the novella because it was republished several times during the scope of our course. This offered the opportunity to get students to consider the life of Savage’s narrative and vision of American society in the hands of antebellum readers changing historical contexts by having them put her book in the hands of later generations. During Week 12, I asked students to put The Factory Girl in the hands of antebellum Americans who had observed and debated the coupled rise of American industry and slavery and the social changes they had engendered. I handed them the following prompt as a second take-home midterm:
Sarah Savage’s The Factory Girl was reprinted several times after its initial publication in 1814. Imagine that Catherine Beecher, Sarah Bagley, “Susan” from the Lowell mills, T. R. Sullivan, Thomas Skidmore, William Jay, and Alonzo Potter are discussing one of these new editions in a parlor meeting in 1848. What topics of conversation would they discuss, and how would these individuals weigh in?
Students submitted dialogues that resembled book club conversations, in which they imagined how the historical figures in this fantasy meeting would have responded to particular passages and themes in Savage’s novel. In so doing, they composed some of the most entertaining student writing I’ve ever read to demonstrate how changing historical contexts of gender, labor, and Christian morality would have prompted readers of 1848 to respond to Savage’s novella in ways different from readers in 1814.
Overall, I would encourage other historians to take a look at that 1800-1820 block on their syllabi and consider adding The Factory Girl to their course reading lists. It ended up being a valuable document in my course not simply because it helped to even the chronological balance but also because it spurred students to think as much about historical method as historical subject matter. In both Week 5 and Week 12, I found myself continually reminding students that they had to think about the form of The Factory Girl as much as its content. In other words, they could not think about it as a historical document until they thought about it as a novel. (In the future, I would prepare students with a more structured review of the elements of literature from the very beginning.) Why did Savage express her vision of American society in this genre? How did she use epigraphs to situate her novella with other texts? Why did publishers reprint it in later decades? How would readers of later editions have seen continuity and change in issues of education, family, industry, morality, and religion in American society? Where would they have disagreed with Savage’s views or debated the merits of her vision with each other? When students began to answer these questions in regards to Savage’s novella, they began to ask the same questions of other assigned readings. In so doing, they came to see how historians must analyze media forms, as well as their content, in their immediate historical contexts to realize their full potential as historical documents.
I, and my students, thank Duncan and Ed for making The Factory Girl accessible and encouraging me to put Savage alongside Jefferson, Madison, and Beecher.