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  • Mj Pettengill

THE POOR: LENDING THEIR SECRETS PART 4


Vintage Letters, CCO

I continue to say that the most essential sources for my research are primary. I am referring to journals, letters, diaries, and other firsthand accounts of life in previous times.


Extraordinary narratives are the ones penned by the ordinary person. Many have concluded that the majority of history books are typically written by wealthy corporate personnel, politicians, and others who wish to go down in history favorably, the winners. 

Trust your intuition and reach beyond those fluffy, edited versions carefully crafted by the influential white patriarchs. Reach beyond, to the ordinary citizen, where the truth waits patiently. This is in plain sight or, in some cases, intentionally hidden and cleverly edited. We see this ad nauseam and endlessly in the media—another topic for another day.

Oh yes, here I am, dragging out my soapbox and shouting about seeking the truth, and shining a light in those dark places. Like it or not, they are our places, the stories of our people, and the pathway to acknowledgment, meaning healing, re-membering, and restoring.

Reminder: we do not judge, for we were not present. As beings, we do the best with what we have to work with. It is impossible to honestly know the many-faceted events that came before us, leading us to the sum of who we are.

However, it is not only possible but highly recommended to shift from the habit of conveniently looking away to bracing for full disclosure. How can we fix what is broken and unrecognizable if we have no idea about the origins of events leading up to and perpetuating our brokenness? How can you heal wounds that constantly bleed and are ignored? They will not go away—infections and shattering lead to certain death. 

An example of my early work with primary sources relating to Etched in Granite, when it was in its infancy, is via correspondence. Before realizing that Sarah heading to Fall River—the second-largest mill town in the world at the time—was another branch in revealing our shared past, I was moved by many of the letters written by women of the mills. 

One particular letter written by a girl, Sarah, expressed the frustration of paying pew rent. Yes, pew rent! This was a customary practice. Attending church was one of the rules of the millworkers. Many girls struggled with this issue because it was a financial hardship. I find that being strapped for cash because of the requirement to pay pew rent is conflicting at best.

In this letter, there seemed to be a solution—well, sort of. Herein lies the dilemma. She mentioned a church that did not charge pew rent. Of course, for economic reasons, she wanted to join. Unfortunately, her options were tricky to navigate. Attending a new church presented a problem because she would have to leave her circle of hometown women/friends who belonged to her roots church. She was afraid of becoming an outcast, losing friends, and although not there walking in her shoes, those at home would judge her. She wrote several letters asking for advice. In a separate letter, her best friend expressed concern for Sarah’s predicament and torment, as indicated in her correspondence.

Clearly, the collection of letters are a vital resource for comprehending the female mill workers’ culture firsthand. For example, we would not fully understand life in the mills if we were to read accounts penned by the wealthy factory owners or politicians. These letters provide a balanced sense of the overall experience from the women’s perspectives. These narratives differ significantly from those who have much to lose should the truth be known. 

What is so incredible about these letters is that the women who penned them were not looking for fame or recognition. In droves, they set out for industrial cities, for their independence. Yet, they were faithfully connected to home, to their roots. Letters provided a safe place to vent, externalize their woes, or soothe their loved ones’ concerns by doing their bit to stay connected. Some preferred to illustrate that life was grand as they went on to emphasize their freedom and independence. Sadly, instead of being married to their farm chores, they were bound to the loom. In most cases, after setting off on their journey, they were trapped.

Letters and journals provide a glimpse of life from the viewpoint of the women in the mills. I found compassion for their role in society and relate it to women of today.

The migration from the farms to the factories greatly impacted the farms and those left behind. Because of this new trend in women working outside of the home, marriage and child-rearing took place later in life. Women were easing away from having their first child in their teens. This trend continues to evolve today as the average age of marriage and starting a family rises. This is evident because women were making and continue today to make a place for themselves in society. Also, motherhood, in the way of staying home, has been long-denigrated. Again, this is another topic for another day.

During the various stages of the industrial revolution, it was the first time women acquired and managed their own assets separate from a parent or husband. At much cost, this was considered progress.


Although, in some ways that were not always accurately depicted, it was an exciting time for women. It was not an easy transition. With this new-found freedom came the challenges of women working for pennies a day while boosting a handful of already influential families into America’s aristocracy. These families were the mill owners. 

Conceptually, with a few exceptions, nothing has changed. Unions are in place to protect workers’ rights, and women can advance in some cases. The struggle is still in play. Socially, politically, and economically, powerful corporate giants remain in the driver’s seat. Large, wealthy corporations employ millions of workers for minimum wage or slightly higher, leaving them in poverty while the rich get richer. 

As I continue to unearth our collective stories, I am in awe of the parallels between then and now. Compared to the nineteenth-century, the similarities of how our current society takes or does not take care of the poor, elderly, disabled, etc. are astounding. The question remains, how do we resolve our shared dilemma surrounding poverty? Do we throw pennies at them and hope that they go away? We know that it does not work. 

While some are grieving for a world that appears to be slipping away, I see opportunities to correct and heal. Once again, it is not the actual event that matters as much as finding the lessons wrapped within. Without fear, go there.

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