After the Evening Bell: Working Women and Leisure Time in Lowell, Massachusetts, 1830-1860
In the fall of 1836, Harriot Curtis opened a letter to her friend and suitor, Hezikiah Wead, with a statement about the boundless sense of independence she cherished. “Alone, I am fancy free,” she declared, “… with the sun, moon, stars, sky, the fleecy clouds of sunshine, the dark messengers of storm, the thunder’s peal, and the bright brilliant lightning, I can never be alone.”1 Curtis had recently moved to Lowell, Massachusetts, from Kelleyvale, Vermont, swapping life on her family’s farm for the factory’s bells that marked the beginning, middle, and end of the workday. After the evening bell, she was free to choose how she spent her time. Like other working women, she shopped in local stores, attended lectures at the Lowell Lyceum, enjoyed the theatre, spent Sundays at church, and wrote about her experiences—in private letters and in the Lowell Offering. Writing held a particular significance for Curtis, who later ventured a new career, as a writer. This project examines the history of working women’s leisure time during the early years of industrialization in Lowell, Massachusetts. Diaries, letters and published writings by Curtis and other women open a window onto working women’s lives outside the factory gate. Alongside these written sources, watches, textiles, medicine bottles, and other material artifacts held in museums and archives can help us imagine what it was like for such women to move through the world of Lowell on their own time and in their own way. To explore this dimension of history, this thesis will draw on the public history component of my project, the exhibition After the Evening Bell: Working Women and Leisure Time, 1830-1860, on display in the Williston Library atrium from March 14th through April 11th. Based on insights gained from these writings and objects, I argue that despite the shortness of their leisure hours, working women gained a new awareness of themselves through their leisure-time activities. Working women like Harriot Curtis gained a greater sense of their independence, not only by working and earning a wage, but also through the choices they made about how to spend their time and money, and how to represent themselves after the evening bell.