Letters to Cousin Sabrina about Women's Work 1839-1840


Background Notes

In the early nineteenth century, the United States was developing a widespread and efficient postal system. Many New Englanders used the mails to keep in touch with distant friends and family members. In these letters addressed to Sabrina Bennett in Haverhill, Massachusetts, two family members were writing her to share news of their work and family.

The letters tell us that many young women did not have the comparative the freedom that Mary Livermore had, who was able to wait while her parents made up their mind about further education. Coming from poorer families, Sabrina’s relatives and other women like them had to work to support themselves. They moved between mill work and other kinds of work open to women at the time. These young women were considering dressmaking, millinery (women’s bonnet−making) and school−teaching along with factory labor; there were also the other options of domestic service and doing straw braid or shoe outwork at home. Each of these choices had its advocates and detractors, but factory work was the most controversial, even as it attracted a growing number of young women.

Transcription of Primary Source

Malenda M. Edwards to Sabrina Bennett

Nashua April 4 1839


…You have been informed I suppose that I am a factory girl and that I am at Nashua and I have wished you were here too but I suppose your mother would think if far beneith [beneath] your dignity to be a factory girl. Their are many young Ladies at work in the factories that have given up milinary d[r]essmaking and s[c]hool keeping for to work in the mill. But I would not advise anyone to do it for I was so sick of it at first I wished a factory had never been thought of. But the longer I stay the better I like [it] and I think if nothing unforesene calls me away I shall stay here till fall…Write soon and write me all the news you can think. I want to hear from Haverhill. Write too where you are and what you are doing and what you intend to do this summer. My health is very poor indeed but it is better than it was when I left home. If you should have any idea of working in the factory I will do the best I can to get you a place with us. We have an excelent boarding place. We board* with a family with whome I was acquainted with when I lived at Haverhill. Pleas to write us soon and believe your affectionate Aunt

M[alenda] M. Edwards

Persis L. Edwards to Sabrina Bennett

Barnet [Vermont] April the 18 1840 MY VERY DEAR COUSIN

…we have had one trouble after another ever since I came home till this Spring. We are all now enjoying good health, which above every thing else we should be thankful for…I do not know what my employment will be this summer. Mother is not willing I should go to the Factory. I thought some of learning the Milleners & Dressmakers trade but have failed in the attempt. I wrote to Uncle Bryants folks to know if I could get in there to Haverhill…They thought it would be rather inconvenient for them to board me…you may well know the reason I am not popular. Cousin Ann [Blake] is the top of Haverhill Corner. She had a Broadcloth cloak last Winter, cost over 30 dollars.

If I could learn the trade there is a very pleasant village in this town which would be a good place to work. There is no one in the place that keeps shop. Hope you will try to visit us this Summer. Come & spend a long time with us. Write to me as soon as you get this tell me of your Prosperity & how you are employed. Dont delay. If you work at your trade I should be glad to work with you. I wish you were here in a shop. Could you come we should enjoy all the pleasure imaginable…Your very affectionate Cousin Persis L. Edwards.


  • board − meals and a place to sleep. It was usual in the early 19th century to provide “board” for schoolteachers, apprentices and other workers.

Curator Notes

Exact Title: 
Bennett Family Letters
Probable Date: 
1839 to 1846
Courtesy of the Trustees of the Haverhill Public Library, Special Collections Department; Edited by Old Sturbridge Village
Bennett Family