“Letters from a Mill Girl” by Julie Mofford
Historian Julie Mofford shared the following which is based on letters sent home by a Lowell mill girl from 1861 to 1865
“You work in Lowell!” exclaimed our daughter-in-law’s father, Chuck Grover. “Why, my great-grandfather had a good friend who worked in the textile mills there. I inherited a stack of letters she wrote him.”
Ellen Frost’s letters were mailed from Lowell home to Hampstead, New Hampshire. They describe daily life and working conditions during the Civil War, a time of transition from “industrial Eden,” when Yankee farm girls were recruited to comprise the work force and subsequent waves of immigrants.
The correspondents were Hampstead neighbors and Ellen was the older sister of Charles Frost who was Charles Hamilton Grover’s best friend and affectionately called ‘Friend Charley’ by Ellen. Charles H. Grover apparently considered Ellen Frost his devoted older sister since after his death in 1911, these letters saved from their youth were found in his trunk.
Ellen (nicknamed Nellie) Frost was born in Belgrade, Maine to Nathaniel and Susan Frost on March 13, 1836. The Frosts were a family of shoemakers who moved to Hampstead, New Hampshire in 1859 to establish a shoe shop. Charles Frost, born July 13, 1841 and his four older brothers were all employed in the business. Charles Hamilton Grover made shoes along with the Frost fellows.
When President Lincoln sent out the call for Union soldiers, both Charles Frost and Charley Grover enlisted, ages 18 and 19 in Company E, 11th New Hampshire Volunteer Regiment, serving together in the infantry. Charles Frost was captured but soon exchanged with a Confederate prisoner of war to fight at Vicksburg. He received a medal for gallantry and promotion to Captain and Commander.
After the war, Charles Hamilton Grover returned to Hampstead, married and raised a family. He became head of the local Chapter of the Grand Army of the Republic. Ellen’s brother, Charles headed West to San Francisco, then spent his final years in Maine.
Old letters such as these express a range of emotions rarely possible in our electronic era of e-mail, Face Book and Twitter. One wonders how future historians will piece together the past as recorded by the individuals who lived it. Letters are historical documents revealing deep personal insights that cannot be texted and tweeted. They offer us timely observations of a particular place and period. To read old letters is to understand the unique experiences of someone who was on the scene.
Although the letters of many Lowell mill girls have been preserved by descendants and published in collections, there can never be enough detailed information about nineteenth century factory workers to satisfy historical researchers and genealogists. Ellen Frost’s letters tell us of boarding house life and her feelings about factory work, as well as something of her social life in Lowell and Hampstead. She complains about health, being bored and is often homesick. She worries over the coming war, wondering how it will impact her life and that of her brothers and friends. Though she finds it difficult, she knows it is her duty to lift the spirits of the fighting men.
February 19th, 1861 – ‘Dear Friend Charley – I don’t hear any news. I have got a splendid boarding Place. I tell you I board at No. 5. I am going to board at No 4 next week. There is another Lady going to move in here and I am going there to board till she gets settled and then coming back here again. I have not had anything to eat but a biscuit for almost two days. I don’t feel as well as I use to. I have fallen away 10 lbs. I am getting quite delicate. I can’t write here. There is such jabbering. We have 4 Gentleman boarders. We have some pretty gay time I tell you…You needn’t think it strange if I pop off with a certain young Gentleman that boards here. I presume when next you see me I shall be Mrs. Miller and be on a farm up in Vermont… Friend Nell.’
The 1861 Lowell Directory lists Mrs. Sally K. Page as boarding housekeeper for the Merrimac Corporation at #1201 with 50 single persons of whom 37 were females in their teens and early ‘twenties and three foreign-born. Mary Davis operated the boarding house at #1202 for 23 females of whom two were foreign born.
Ellen graphically described dangers in the mill. On March 20, 1861, she wrote, ‘O Dear, I wish I was not a factory girl. I am so afraid of getting hurt. It was only yesterday that a girl that works two looms from me like to have got her hand taken off. She was cleaning her Loom at noon and the speed come on ten minutes before the usual time. She was cleaning around the pulley, and the speed came on drew her hand in. I had just got done cleaning mine when she screamed. Another Girl got the Belt of Call and had her arm around her waist and when she pulled her right hand out it left one of her fingers. It took the forefinger off and crushed the thumb badly. Her folks live here in the City. They got a Coach and carried her home. She has worked her last day in the Mill. The Company will probably have to pay for it. I shall never forget those screams.’ Notice of the accident Ellen refers to in her letter appeared in the Lowell Evening Advertiser, March 23, 1861.
ACCIDENT- The Citizen says a young girl named Elizabeth Lenney, employed in the weaving-room on the Lowell corporation, was badly injured since the starting up of the mills this afternoon. Her hand was caught in the gearing, and one or more fingers were taken off. She was removed to her residence on Willow Street in Belvidere.
The Lowell Directory lists Elizabeth as the daughter of Randall H. Linney at # 27 whose son, James, is employed by Hamilton Corporation.
April 14, 1861 -‘ My Friend Charley – I am very lonely this afternoon and can think of no pleasanter way of spending the remaining hours than in writing you a short Epistle…I was very sorry to hear you was sick. Hope you are better now. You said you had been suffering a severe Headache. I assure you I know how to pity you as I am a great sufferer of that disease …Look here Charley Grover when you write to me again I want you to take a Big Sheet of Paper and fill it full of nonsense if you can’t find anything else to write. O, that Song you sent me was extremely good… There is lots of Men gone from Lowell. There is great excitement here. There never was such a time known before. We expect the Mills will all stop. I should not be surprised if we get our notices tomorrow…You know in such times they make things out worse than what they really are. They say if there is not men enough volunteers to go they will draft. Is it not awful to think of war in these united states? I hope none of my Friends will be obliged to go, but it might as well be my Friends as anyone else. I don’t know but that I should be willing to have my Brothers go if I was sure they would come back safe but you can’t have your choice in such things. All the girls in the House are fretting about their Brothers …They are talking war strong here now. I hope it is not so bad but enough of war… We use to have some good times did not we? Charles if you don’t go to war come up to Lowell and come in the Mill and see my work. If the Mill don’t stop I am coming down there to stay a week and I bet I will have a good time.,, Write what you think about war there…Truly You Friend, Ellen Frost.’
April 21, 1861 – ‘…what a pretty May Flower you sent. It must be an early spring to have flowers now. The grass is just beginning to start up here in Lowell. We have had two snow squalls during the past week…I have 10 Miniatures here on the Bed for that is my Luxurious Seat but I don’t see C. H. Grovers Face among them. But I think I can see you in the old School with your arm around the Stove Funnel and Cap in your pocket. I should rather have your picture though…Was out last night, called to see a fellow from downeast name of Kimball – had a very pleasant time…’
April 24, 1861 – ‘…wrote Brother Charles but I little thought he had enlisted and was preparing for war. We got a letter from our Brother in Ashland and he too is gone. O Charley it seems hard to have them go don’t it? If they should go and be killed, I should die too. Poor brother Charles I don’t think he ought to go. I don’t think he is able. Are any others going from Hampstead? I can’t write for the tears will come…’
May 18, 1861 – ‘Friend Charley, As I feel rather lonely this eve I will improve a few leisure moments in writing the meditations of my heart upon paper and send them to you…the Girls are making such a Clatter that it scatters what few Ideas my poor Brain possessed …Bro Charles was here last week and spent the Sabbath. Left Monday morning in the first train. I shed tears at his departure. Poor Boy, I hope he will return alive and as well as when he left…Aren’t we having some beautiful evenings. I often wish I was in the lovely Village of Hampstead but as that cannot be I have to content myself by recalling pleasant hours of the past and hopeing for the future. It is dull up here, there is nothing at all for excitement. For my part I wish they would fight if they are going to. I should rather they would settle it without fighting would not you? Why what shall we do if all the Fellows are Killed… O Dear, I can’t think of any thing more to write but beg pardon for intruding upon your brain…’
June 12, 1861 – ‘I will tell you about my arrival in Lowell by train. Had to wait an hour in Lawrence and I felt rather Mad. I was exceedingly grieved. Got over to Lowell about 10 o’clock, went in the Mill and my loom was not ready nor is not yet. But I am at work as spare hand. Make the whole of 65 cts per day but I won’t grumble for if any of us makes that a great while we shall do well. I don’t have to work very hard for I can run away and they won’t know anything about it. I have been sick ever since I came back. Have not hardly been able to work. The Girls have had me sick with the Measles but I guess I have not got them…’
July 10, 1861 – ‘…I got hurt in the Mill yesterday. I got a piece taken out of one side of my thumb but I guess it will grow in again if it don’t look quite as handsome. It plagues me pretty bad. But then I work. You know I always do when I am here if I am not too far gone. I did not expect to be able to write any at all but with some pain I have wrote this…You write often. But perhaps I shan’t be able to answer you if my thumb grows worse…’
November 14, 1862 – ‘How do you Army boys get along?…I often think of two years ago this fall. How we use to all go Cheesemaking. There has been many changes since then and no one has changed more than myself …’
January 22, 1863 – ‘I don’t know anything in the shape of news. Everything jogs along after the same old fashion.’
January 8, 1864 – ‘Sunday evening and all alone and I can think of no better way of spending the time than in writing you. I should have written before but I have been very busy since I came back. I have had to work hard and have not been very well. My headaches so tonight I can hardly see the lines and you must excuse if it is ill written. I know we ought to write cheerful letters to the Soldiers but in my present state I am unable to do so. I feel more like having someone to cheer me than tying to cheer others…I use to be so wild but what I once use to enjoy gives me no pleasure now. … Be a good boy and don’t forget your old friend Nell.’
April 10, 1864 – ‘When you get home won’t we have a gay time. I’ll loaf a month and celebrate every day. Only think it is almost three years since you left me standing in the Door. I can see very plainly how you looked when you got in the Carriage and rode away. You left many sorrowful hearts behind but I am looking for the day and almost counting the hours when you will return and if you don’t come back to Hampstead and see us I will kick you. That’s so.’
Ellen Frost spent three years working looms at Lowell. She got laid off when the mill temporarily closed but soon found a new position in Mr. Chase’s Shoe Shop at Haverhill, a job she must have found comparatively easy having been born into that shoemaking family. She recorded a bout with smallpox in 1865 and several years later, left Chase’s employment to return to Belgrade, Maine and keep house for her father. She eventually married O. S. Ricker of Belgrade and died August 12, 1886, at the age of 51.
Chuck Grover spent a day with me touring the Lowell National Historical Park and enjoying the Boarding House and Boott Mill exhibits in particular. Afterwards, we met with Mark Bograd who was then Park Historian.
“Today brought Ellen Frost and nineteenth century Lowell back to life for me!’ said Chuck enthusiastically. He then donated copies of his Frost letters to LNHP and the Center for Lowell History. “My favorite mill girl’s memory will be forever honored by having her letters here.”
Submitted by Julie Mofford September 29, 2014