Author & Illustrator: Emily Arnold McCully
Grade Level: 3 to 5
In The Bobbin Girl, Emily Arnold McCully tells of the story of life in the mills of Lowell, Massachusetts during the 1830s. Rebecca Putney is a ten-year-old bobbin girl working in the mills to earn money for her family. While working at the mills in Lowell, Massachusetts, Rebecca and her friends endure fourteen-hour days, poor factory conditions, and low wages. When information spreads that the girls’ wages will be reduced even lower, Rebecca’s friend Judith calls for the bobbin girls to rise up and take action. Judith suggests the girls go on strike until Mr. Capsaw, the factory supervisor, improves their wages and working conditions. Rebecca is faced with the decision to take part in the protest or continue to work in the mill to support her family. When empowered by her mother to do the right thing, Rebecca takes a stand with hundreds of other factory workers in the first worker’s strike in Lowell. Although management did not listen to the demands of the workers, the girls continue to work in the mills and fought for better conditions.
McCully’s main character, Rebecca Putney, is loosely based on Harriet Hanson Robinson, a mill girl who was active in abolishing slavery and worked for women’s rights. McCully’s story depicts the first strike in Lowell. Though it was unsuccessful, Robinson continued to fight for better treatment, pay, and working conditions.
Relationship to Element 4: Social Movements and Social Change
Element 4 discusses the importance of recognizing social injustices and how ordinary people have united and worked together to generate change. In The Bobbin Girl, ten-year-old Rebecca Putney bans together with other working mills girls to stand up and take action against the poor working conditions, mistreatment, and the low wages they are receiving. By continuing to ban together, the mills girls were able to create change over the course of decades. This story shows that an ordinary person, even a ten-year-old girl, can help create change. Although it can be used at any grade level, The Bobbin Girl is a good fit for grades 3 to 5 because the main character is the same age as the students in those grades. This helps make the story relatable to young children and inspire them to create change.
From reading The Bobbin Girl, I would want my students to understand what social injustices populations have faced and what they could do to overcome them. I would use this story as a read aloud. While reading the story to the class, I would create a t-chart that charts the social injustices the mill girls faced and the action they took to create change. As we read through the story, we will add more information to the chart. Once we have completed the story, the chart, and discussed the Lowell strike, I would have the children place themselves in the factory alongside Rebecca. Now that they understand the social injustices and how ordinary people can ban together, I want them to use the power of the press to create a newspaper article about the Lowell strike. During the 1840s, the mill girls contributed to a monthly periodical called The Lowell Offering. This publication included news articles, poems, and stories produced by the mill girls.
The children will create the headlining story for The Lowell Offering. To produce their newspaper article, the children will come up with a catchy heading and article that incorporates the information we recorded on our t-chart. Since most headlining newspaper articles have pictures, I would print out a variety of historical photographs of factory conditions and worker’s strikes from Lowell, Massachusetts. The children will pick a photograph, and recreate it using watercolor painting, similar to how Emily Arnold McCully illustrated The Bobbin Girl.