This interdisciplinary document set invites students to enter the world of Barilla Taylor, a young woman who left her home to work in Lowell's textile mills. Barilla was one of the thousands of young women who left family farms beginning in 1823 to work in the factories of Lowell, Massachusetts. She left Roxbury, Maine – the only home she had ever known – in October of 1843. She probably never returned. Barilla died in Lowell in August 1845. She was 17 years old.

Why did Barilla leave the farm, and how did her family view her move to Lowell? How did the experiences of urban life and wage earning change her world? What factors influenced her decisions? Some of these questions can be answered, while others will remain a mystery. What is certain is that the coming of industrial order had deep and lasting implications for women.

America changed rapidly during the first half of the 19th century. Dramatic advances in industry and technology, in conjunction with growing republican sentiment and Jacksonian democracy, combined to create a new view of the individual's place in society. Massive economic growth transformed the country. Production moved from household to workshop, and finally to factory. Transportation improved, markets grew, gross national income rose, and the urban population tripled. Gender roles shifted, and for the first time, opportunities for industrial employment opened to women. The implications were deep and far-reaching.

The women's experiences as urban wage earners heightened their awareness of life's possibilities, and helped move them to levels of independence never before realized. Women's shift from farm to factory challenged prescribed gender roles, had a profound impact on the role and status of women, and has enduring relevance to our lives today.

By examining documents relevant to Barilla's life, students learn about the history and significance of early industrial America, and the ways in which industrialization provided opportunities for and presented challenges to women. Documents include letters, corporation hospital records, city directory pages, photographs and lithographs, newspaper articles, and even a receipt for jewelry purchased at a downtown shop.


Students will:

  • Think critically about the transformative role industrialization played in Barilla's life, and the lives of other women.
  • Consider the degree to which individual decisions and choices are influenced by factors outside of one’s control.