‘Mill Girls, Lowell Mass., 1830’ by Tom Sexton

Our far-flung contributor Tom Sexton is wintering  Down East, tending to his poems and books. He sent this composition about the young women workers back in the day. Tom’s latest book is “A Ladder of Cranes” (University of Alaska Press, distributed by University of Chicago Press). Congratulations to Tom, one of the hardest working poets in America. Lowell High School did a good thing when it put him in its Hall of Fame. — PM



Mill Girls, Lowell Mass., 1830


At dusk they could be seen through the tall

windows, moth-like figures moving from

loom to loom in light cast by whale-oil lamps,

or when whale oil was in short supply

by the light of oil pressed from olives,

or when they were desperate by rendered fat

so they could spin then weave the rough-

cotton cloth the owners shipped South

for plantation slaves to wear, a virtuous circle

if you held the lash or filled the ledger book.

“Three or four years, long enough for a brother

to finish college, or to add a little land to father’s

farm, or savings enough to open a small shop.

Longer and their lungs were smudged lamps

half-filled with oily cotton dust, and in their ears

the relentless pounding of the looms. Like

crickets no matter how far away we traveled.


—Tom Sexton