Author: Excerpted from activities by teacher Frank Kelley, Chester-Andover Elementary School
Grade level: 5 – 8
Length of Lesson: 2 – 4 periods
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Historical Context

Essential Question: What do primary documents show us about farm and factory life during the 1800s?
These activities are designed to expose the students to primary documents from the mid-1800s that will be used to compare and contrast life on the farm and in the factory during the Industrial Revolution.

The goals of the lesson are to introduce students to primary documents and to examine the Industrial Revolution from the perspective of the farm as well as the factory. The emphasis is on constructing knowledge using authentic sources to facilitate and model the work of student as historian. Students will work at three different activities over the course of the lesson.

Questions to be addressed:

  • What are primary documents and why are they important?
  • How should primary documents be used and analyzed?
  • What was life like on the farm during the 1800s?
  • What was life like in cities, factories, and mills during the 1800s?

Materials (specific lists given for each activity)

  • Transcriptions of selected entries from the diary of Erastus Williams (1833), of Porter Perrin (1874), and letters of Sally Rice (1835) and Mary Paul (1845). Note: You might prefer using diaries/letters from your area, which might be found in your local historical society.)
  • Copies of maps of Chester, Andover, and Plymouth Notch, VT from the 1869 Beers Atlas and the City of Lowell, MA 1845 (or maps from your area found in the Beers Atlas or local historical society).
  • Photographs of young people working on farms and in factories taken by Lewis Hine (early 1900s) along with copies of the Photo Analysis Worksheet
  • Activity Worksheets as noted

An historical context drawn from different sources is included in “Teacher Notes: Historical Background” below. It provides an overview of the era, and includes sources for additional reading. Some of these excerpts may be appropriate for student reading or as part of a class discussion, and can be added to reading for the activities below.

Activity Plan There are three primary resource activities. You may choose to do one or more per day; Activity #1 may take longer than one day because it involves a presentation to the class.

1. Activity #1-The 1800s Diaries and Letters


This activity uses the diaries and letters of several Vermonters during the mid 1800s. Porter Perrin records farm life as a 15 year old in 1874; Erastus Williams describes his life as a farm laborer in 1833; Sally Rice writes about why she left the family farm in 1839 and about working in a Connecticut cotton mill in 1845; and Mary Paul describes her working life at Lowell Mills in 1845 and 1846.

1. Have copies of the transcribed diaries and letters available. Let students choose among the Perrin diary, the Williams diary pages, or the letters from Sally Rice and Mary Paul.

2. Have students read the entries and complete the Diaries & Letters Worksheet (Diaries and Letters.doc) for their documents.

3. When students have completed their worksheets, group them according to which documents they read and have the groups develop a quick presentation to share their results with the class, so that everyone learns about both farm and factory settings.

4. Students worksheets can be evaluated using the rubric on the worksheet; you can also develop a rubric with students for their presentations.


Other diary entries and letters may be available from your local historical society; other letters and primary documents about Mill life are available from


Activity #2 – Comparing Maps of Andover, VT, Chester, VT and Lowell, MA


  • Beers Atlas maps of Andover, VT, Chester, VT, and Plymouth Notch, VT 1869 (jpgs provided). Each group will need a copy of each map.
  • City of Lowell Map, 1845. (from Cobblestone: The Mill Girls – From Farm to Factory.) One copy per group.
  • Activity Worksheet – One copy per group (Map Worksheet.doc)

Summary: The map activity worksheet focuses on comparing and contrasting four maps. Working in groups, students explore what the maps have in common, how they are different, and how the geography of these places affects what has happened there. For homework, they are asked to write an essay comparing/contrasting a Vermont town with Lowell.


1. Divide students into three or four groups and request that each group fill out a worksheet using their set of maps.

2. Have students complete their constructed response homework assignment, going over questions and expectations.

Activity #3 – Farm and Factory Photo Analysis



1. Give each student two copies of the Photo Analysis worksheet and one copy of the Photo worksheet.
2. Have them follow instructions on the Photo worksheet.

The different activities are assessed using the accompanying generic rubric on the bottom of each activity worksheet. The first activity involves a class presentation; the second and third activities require a writing piece; each of these can be assessed according to rubrics you develop with the students.

Social Studies/ History Grade Expectations:
Inquiry: H & SS 5-6: 2, 5, 6
History: H & SS 5-6: 9, 10

Resources and References
You may choose to substitute some comparable resources found at your local or regional historical societies.

  • Copies of maps of Chester, Andover, and Plymouth Notch, VT from the 1869 Beers Atlas and the City of Lowell, MA 1845. (From the Beers Atlas, 1869 and “The Mill Girls – From Farm to Factory.” Cobblestone. March 2001. pp. 8-9.)
  • Pictures of young people working on farms and in factories taken by Lewis Hine (early 1900s) (Freedman, Russell. Kids at Work – Lewis Hine and the Crusade Against Child Labor. New York: Clarion Books, 1994. P. 30, 34, 36, 64, 69, 87.)
  • Transcriptions of selected entries from the diaries and letters as noted.

Historical Fiction for Students:

  • Hall, Donald. Ox-Cart Man. Puffin Books, 1979.
  • McCully, Emily Arnold. The Bobbin Girl. Dial, 1996.
  • Winthrop, Elizabeth. Counting on Grace. Yearling, 2007.
  • Paterson, Katherine. Bread and Roses Too. Clarion Books, 2006.
  • Paterson, Katherine Lyddie. Puffin, 1991.

Background context selected from:

  • The Mill Girls – From Farm to Factory. Cobblestone. March 2001
  • Lowell – The Story of an Industrial City. US National Park Service Handbook, 1992
  • Curtis, Jane and Will, Frank Lieberman. Return to These Hills – The Vermont Years of Calvin Coolidge. Woodstock, VT: Curtis-Lieberman Books, 1985.
  • Excerpts from Mary Catherine Winchester’s unpublished autobiography:
  • Lynn Bonfield and Mary Morrison. Roxana’s Children – The biography of a Nineteenth-Century Vermont Family. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 1995.
  • Klyza, Christopher M. and Stephen C. Trombulak. The Story of Vermont – A Natural and Cultural History. Middlebury, VT: Middlebury College Press, 1999.

Teacher Notes: Historical Background
Farm life in New England was a challenge for most families in the 1800s. The chores, the weather, the soil, all seemed to be conspiring against the hardworking farmer and his family.

“…The frontier excitement and hope of the early years began to wane as the settlers discovered that the first wonderful yields were due to unused soils which were soon exhausted. The weather, winters lasting from late October to late April, discouraged many, especially the infamous year of 1816 when snow fell every month of the year. ‘Eighteen Sixteen and Froze to Death’, Vermonters called it.” (p. 13, Return to These Hills)

“The chief foods produced on these subsistence farms were beef, pork, and mutton; butter and cheese; bread made from Indian cornmeal and rye; fruits (especially apples for cider) and vegetables (especially beans, squash, and turnips); and maple syrup and honey. During the early years, hunting, fishing, and gathering continued to supply a significant amount of food. Farmers had to trade for the few staples they could not produce, namely, salt, tea, coffee, molasses, and rum. Most of the clothing was homespun from wool and flax produced on the farm. The buildings and furnishings were almost all made by the family from the timber cut to clear the land and later from the farm woodlot. Small amounts of hardware, glass, and utensils were purchased. Last, fuel was provided almost exclusively by firewood from the farm. The farms sold and bartered some livestock, wool, butter, and cheese to gain a small income needed for taxes and other limited purchases. During this self-sufficiency period, wealth was fairly equally distributed; since land was cheap, there was no class of wage earners. Farm labor was supplied almost exclusively by family members..” (p. 69, The Story of Vermont – Natural and Cultural History)

Everyone on the farm needed to be involved with the tasks for daily living.

“Country children learned that hard work was a part of life, the most important part it often seemed. Older children must keep an eye on the baby and four-year-old Calvin (Coolidge) was doubtless entrusted to mind little Abigail. Toys were scarce in the Notch and he must learn to share everything with his sister. At five he was too young to help very much around the house but it wasn’t too early to see that the woodbox was kept full, summer and winter. No matter how hot the day might be, the kitchen range had to be kept going in order to cook the hearty three-times-a-day meals expected by the men. It was an endless chore to see that there was plenty of kindling available to the housewife and that when she reached for a stick in the woodbox it was at hand. Keeping the box filled was a boy’s work; it was a serious breech of the family’s trust if he fell down on the job. Once young Calvin remembered in the middle of the night that he hadn’t replenished the box after supper. He quietly got dressed and crept downstairs to the woodshed. When someone asked sleepily what he was up to, “Filling the woodbox,” was the answer. No one thought it odd to do it at midnight, they knew that the box had to be full before breakfast.” (p. 35, Return to These Hills)

“As the eldest daughter in a large family [Catherine Winchester, born 1821] could not recall when she did not have home duties to perform. As early as age three she was already sewing up the sleeves of her father’s fine shirts. By the time she was eleven she had learned to spin, and described herself as her mother’s principle helper. One of Catherine’s chores as a child was to fetch water for cooking and drinking from a brook some distance from the house, carrying it home in two pails that hung from a neck yoke across her shoulders. The family washing was done in the same stream. Catherine would make a fire to heat the water, and then, standing in the sun on fine days, she washed until her arms would blister and peel. In winter one of her brothers melted snow to provide water for the laundry.” From Mary Catherine Winchester, “Recollections of a Long Life: An Autobiography,” p. 62, as described by Deborah Clifford in Vermont History Vol. 77, No. 1 (Winter/Spring 2009): 16–36.

“As a farm wife, she [Roxana] worked most days from morning to night. For cooking and baking she had a wood stove…she made butter and cheese from the ‘small dairy,’ baked bread and pies, stewed pumpkins…made sausage, dipped candles, and had ‘a regular New England house cleaning’ every spring. She spun stocking yarn; she wove ‘flannell’ and wool; she cut out shirts and trousers; she knit socks. She washed clothes ‘always on Monday.’…
“To ease her daily burdens, Roxana assigned tasks to each of her children and directed them as they did their work. Her daughters helped with the laundry and other household tasks. As she reported to her married daughter, Martha: ‘Sally has done almost all of my spinning and she has wove one web for fulld cloth and has another in the loom,’ while Clara does ‘some spinning’ and ‘takes care of Baby.’…Yet for the most part, Roxana took the daily housework of her daughters so for granted that she seldom mentioned it in her letters.” From Roxana’s Children: The Biography of a Nineteenth-Century Vermont Family (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1995, pp 11-12.)

The nature of Vermont farms changed with transportation changes. Railroads made the movement of excess farm goods much easier. At the same time, the era of the subsistence farm was coming to an end as goods also found their way to the New England markets being served by the Vermont farms.

“Economic historian Percy Bidwell summarizes (the) fundamental change for those working the land in Vermont: ‘Farming became a more speculative business, for to the already existent risks of weather conditions was added the risk of price fluctuations. Thereafter, success in getting a living no longer depended on the unremitting efforts of the farm family, aided by Providence, but to a large extent also upon the unpredictable wants and labors of millions of persons in the industrial villages, and the in newer farms to the westward.’ Furthermore, the landscape of Vermont was becoming integrated into the regional, national, and international markets. Although the fur trade had already tied the Vermont landscape to contingencies far beyond its borders, commercial agriculture was to greatly broaden the range of those contingencies and their effects on the people, plants, and wild animals of Vermont.” (p. 70, The Story of Vermont – Natural and Cultural History)

Change found its way into the small towns and villages in Vermont. Newspapers, stage coaches, and mail brought news of far away places and new goods. The mills in Lowell, MA and Manchester, NH as well as other locations were found to be attractive to young women and men who had few opportunities available on the family farm. The far west was always an attraction, maybe having family members heading to mills in New England was better than having them moving westward.

The basic process that turned the cotton into cloth is outlined below.

“The conditions operatives experienced in the red brick mills depended to some extent on their particular job and where they worked in the multistoried factories. Each stage of the production process had its own floor, with machinery powered by a waterwheel in the basement. At ground level was the carding room, where operatives (workers) worked loose cotton into roving, continuous strands that drawing frames stretched and recombined before it was wound on bobbins. Spinning frames on the next floor then twisted the coarse roving into yarn of variable thickness. Filling yarn made this way went directly to the weaving room, but workers running the warping and dressing machine above turned roving into warp yarn too. Power loom tenders on the next floor used both types of yarn to produce a finished cloth. Lastly, in the cloth room, workers “measured, folded and batched the fabric for subsequent bleaching, dying, or printing and eventual shipment to selling agencies in Boston.” Throughout the whole process, women predominated, although men held all the supervisory positions and operative jobs in the carding room. Women held the rest of the machine tending jobs, running drawing frames, double speeders, and spinning throstles – the lowest paid positions – as well as the looms, and winding, warping, and dressing machines – the more skilled and better-paid jobs.” (p. 22/23, Making a Living – Work and Environment in the United States)

The mill experience was both a blessing and a curse. Wages were earned, cash made its way back to the farm, women had opportunities they would not have had elsewhere, and independence was allowed. At the same time, the constraints of the job, the rigors of the work, and the separation from family took a toll. The individual experience varied greatly, the overall consequence of work in the mills depends on one’s perspective and offers an opportunity for discussion with students.

“The booming population of the American West and South absorbed much of [Lowell’s] textile goods, but the mills selling agents aggressively sought out new foreign markets in South America, China, India, Russia, and other parts of the world. The quality and the low price of their cloth often enabled the Lowell companies to outstrip English and other American producers in these markets.

The population of Lowell grew dramatically during the years of rapid industrial expansion – rising from about 2,500 in 1826 to 16,000 in 1836, to more than 33,000 by 1850, when Lowell was the second largest city in Massachusetts. Other New England mill towns emerged, some modeled after Lowell and established by the same group of investors who had transformed East Chelmsford. But in the early years, Lowell kept a step ahead.

The Boston Associates benefited from a good reputation in the first decades. In their public pronouncements they emphasized the good working conditions, the short term nature of employment, and the quality of their worker, arguing that Lowell’s industrial system was consistent with republican values. But their central motive was profits rather than social uplift, and the owners did their best to minimize competition among the companies they controlled. Lowell firms commonly shared officers and boards of directors. It was typical of Lowell mill agents to set wages at common levels, to share data on the costs of production, and to enforce a blacklist of dismissed workers. These interlocking controls were an essential ingredient in the Waltham-Lowell system.

What were the system’s other characteristics? Most important, it combined all steps in cloth manufacturing within one mill. Factories were no longer limited to carding and spinning or dependent on dispersed farm families for weaving yarn into cloth. Virtually all steps from opening bales of cotton to bleaching or printing the cloth were mechanized. There was also a new scale to the operations. By the mid-1830s, for instance, the Merrimack Company employed roughly a thousand workers, 20 times the number found in typical manufacturing firms elsewhere.

The Lowell mills differed from other industrial enterprises in another way. Their workers were mostly young farm women recruited from the surrounding countryside. In contrast, earlier textile mills in southern New England had employed whole families, and urban workshops generally hired skilled male artisans. To house these women the companies built scores of boardinghouses. In the mid-1830s nearly three-fourths of the female workers lived in boardinghouses, usually under the supervision of responsible older women. The rest lived at home with their parents or with other relatives in Lowell.

Yet another feature that distinguished the Lowell mills in this period was the monthly payment of cash wages. Most other employers paid workers with credit at a company store or settled wages four times a year. In Lowell during the 1830s, a women might earn $12 to $14 a month. After paying $5 monthly for room and board in a company boardinghouse, she had the rest for clothing, tickets to lectures, savings, or incidentals. She could never have earned this much money at farm work and quite likely had more ready cash than her father. It was common for young women to return home after a year in the mills with $25 to $50 in a bank account, though wages diminished later on.

Wages were not Lowell’s sole attraction for women. The city also offered social, cultural, and religious opportunities. In evenings after work, the women might attend a lecture, exhibition, or play. They could subscribe to magazines and newspapers that were probably unknown in the countryside. Some joined libraries or literary circles that offered intellectual stimulation. The city’s clothing and dry goods stores put those of their home towns to shame. A wide array of Protestant churches offered Sabbath services, Sunday schools, and various social activities. Lowell offered women workers experiences they could have never known on the farm.

Opportunities like these were dearly won. For their new found independence, the women were required to stay for at least a year. Their working conditions were hardly healthful. The need to stand all day took its toll. To maintain humidity (necessary to keep the yarn from breaking) the windows were nailed shut leaving the air filled with lint and making the work rooms hot, damp, and noisy. These conditions left the workers susceptible to lung diseases and typhus. The boardinghouses, while certainly an improvement over the living conditions of the typical English textile worker, were crowded and ill-ventilated.”

(p. 39 – 40, 50. Lowell, The Story of an Industrial City)