June 03, 2015
UNE History Professor Elizabeth De Wolfe, Ph.D., recently appeared on WCSH-6's news magazine program "207" and within the pages of Down East Magazine.
De Wolfe's article “50 Shades of Chambray” appears in the June 2015 issue of Down East. In it, De Wolfe transports readers to the colorful shores of the Saco River circa 1850, where Saco and Biddeford’s booming textile mills are attracting young women from the countryside seeking employment as “factory girls” and with it the promise of a path to the middle class. The factory girls or “textile operatives,” De Wolfe explains, spawned a sub-genre of pulp fiction concerning their exploits.
De Wolfe begins the article by retelling the scintillating story of 13-year-old Caroline, who disregards her mother’s advice and enters into a secret engagement with a suitor named Henry. After Caroline is deflowered on the night before her marriage, she wakes the next morning to discover that her money, jewelry and even her clothes have been pilfered in the night. And Henry is nowhere to be found! A ruined Caroline is left to descend into a life of prostitution and disease.
The story was originally published as a novella titled The Saco Factory Girl in 1852 by an author known only as Fitzallen.
Explains De Wolfe: “The tales gave eager 19th century readers a peek into a forbidden world of sex, sadism, and sin -- but, ahem, only to warn against such behavior, of course. And though they’re all but forgotten today, the stories exposed a discomfort with women in the workforce that we have yet to fully shake.”
De Wolfe explains that by 1850, girls between “childhood and marriage” made up “80% of the Saco-Biddeford factory workforce.” They worked 12-hour days, paid room and board to sleep in company-owned boarding houses, and did the lion’s share of work associated with the production of the more than 25 million yards of fabric produced by Saco and Biddeford each year.
The infiltration of women into the manufacturing workforce was not universally welcomed by the public. De Wolfe notes that the factory girls often faced the disapproval of ministers, newspaper editors and others in the conservative middle class to whom “the notion of women delaying or even foregoing marriage for work or higher education, represented a threat to society’s very stability.”
The article continues to detail some of the other notable works of fiction concerning the factory girls, including Mary Bean: The Factory Girl, penned by an author known only as Miss JAB of Manchester. The story was based loosely on the life and death of a factory girl from New Hampshire who died of the complications following an abortion.
De Wolfe’s 2007 book The Murder of Mary Bean and Other Stories received book awards from the New England Historical Association, the Northeast Popular Culture Association, Independent Publisher, and ForeWord Magazine.