January 04, 2013

Historical Document: Fredrika Bremer on Industrial Work and Slavery in 1851

After the American Century

New England Mill, c. 1850

Historical Document

The Swedish novelist and champion of women’s rights Fredrika Bremer visited the United States in the middle of the nineteenth century, a decade before the Civil War. She traveled widely and made many interesting observations of the places and people she saw. In this connection, she is known for the book she published on these travels, under the title Hemmen i den nya världen,  Stockholm, 1853, and immediately translated into English as The Homes of the New World: Impressions of America, vol. I-III. London, 1853.  

The selections below concern the industrial mills in Lowell, Massachusetts and the institution of slavery. They come from her letters, which were only published in 1924 under the title America of the fifties: letters of Fredrika Bremer, edited by Adolph B. Benson. New York, The American-Scandinavian foundation, 1924.   

On the Mills at Lowell

I visited the celebrated manufactories of Lowell. I would willingly have declined the journey, because it was so cold, but they had invited strangers to meet me, got up an entertainment, and therefore I was obliged to go. And I did not regret it. I had a glorious view from the top of Dewcroft Hill, in that cold, starlight winter evening, of the manufactories of Lowell, lying below in a half-circle, glittering with a thousand lights like a magic castle on the snow-covered ground. And then to think and to know that these lights were not ignes fatui, not merely pomp and show, but that they were actually symbols of a healthful and hopeful life in the persons whose labor they lighted; to know that within every heart in this palace of labor burned a bright little light, illumining a future of comfort and prosperity which every day and every turn of the wheel only brought the nearer. In truth there was a deep purpose in these brilliant lights, and I beheld this illumination with a joy that made the winter's night feel warm to me.

The following morning I visited the manufactories and saw the young ladies at their work and at dinner; saw their boarding-houses, sleeping-rooms, etc. All was nice and comfortable, as we had heard it described. Only I noticed that some of the "young ladies" were about fifty, and some of them not so very well clad, while others again were too fine. I was struck by the relationship between the human being and the machinery. Thus, for example, I saw the girls standing, each one between four busily-working spinning-jennies: they walked among them, looked at them, watched over and guarded them much as a mother would watch over and tend her children. Machines are becoming more and more obedient under the maternal eye of intelligence. The procession of the operatives, two and two, in shawls, bonnets, and green veils, as they went to their dinner, produced a respectable, imposing effect. And the dinners which I saw at a couple of tables (they take their meals at small tables, five or six together) appeared to be good and bountiful also. I observed that, besides meat and potatoes, there were fruit tarts.

The industrious and skillful can earn from six to eight dollars per week, never less than three, and so much is requisite for their board each week, as I was told. The greater number lay by money and in a few years are able to leave the manufactory and undertake less laborious work.

On slavery

You may believe that there are many discussions here about slavery. I do not originate them, but when they come, which they frequently do, I express my sentiments candidly, though as inoffensively as possible. One thing, however, which astonishes and annoys me here, and which I did not expect to find, is that I hardly ever meet a man, or woman either, who can openly and honestly look the thing in the face. They wind and turn about in all sorts of ways, making use of every argument, sometimes the most contradictory, to convince me that the slaves are the happiest people in the world and do not wish to have their condition altered or to be placed in any other relationship to their masters than the present one. In many cases and under certain circumstances this is true; and it occurs more frequently than the Northerners believe. But there is such an abundance of unfortunate examples, and always must be in this system, that the idea is detestable.

In general the house slaves here seem to be well treated; and I have been in houses where their rooms and furnishings (for every servant, male or female, has his own pleasant room) are much better than those provided for the free servants of our country. The relationship between the servant and the employer seems also, for the most part, to be good and genuine; the older servants especially seem to stand in that affectionate relationship to the family which characterizes a patriarchal condition, and which it is so beautiful to witness in our good families between servant and employer; but with this important difference, that with us the relationship is the free-will attachment of one rational being to another. Here, also, may often occur this free-will attachment, but it is then a conquest over slavery and that slavish relationship, and I fancy that here nobody knows exactly what it is. In the meantime, it is true that the negro race has a strong instinct of devotion and veneration, and this may be seen in the people's eyes; they have a peculiar, kind, faithful, and affectionate expression which I like, and which reminds me of the expression in the eye of a dog. Also, they have a natural tendency to subordination to the white race and to obey the higher intelligence; and white mothers and black nurses prove continually the exclusive love of the latter for the child of the white. No better foster-mother, no better nurse, can any one have for her children than a black woman; and in general no better sick nurses than the blacks, either male or female. They are naturally good-tempered and devoted; and if the white "Massa" and "Missis," as the negroes call their owners, are kind on their part, the relationship between them and "Daddy" and "Mammy," as the black servants are called, especially if they are well on in years, is actually good and tender. 

But neither are circumstances of quite the opposite wanting. The tribunals of Carolina and its better class communities have yet fresh in their memories deeds of cruelty done to house-slaves which rival the worst abominations of heathen times. Some of the very blackest of these deeds have been perpetrated by women; by women in the higher class of Charleston society! Only lately a rich planter has been condemned to two years' imprisonment in the House of Correction for barbarous treatment of a slave. And then it must be borne in mind that the public tribunal does not take cognizance of any cruelties except those that are too horrible to be passed over. When I bring forward these universally known circumstances in my arguments with the patrons and patronesses of slavery, they reply, "Even in your country, and in all countries, there are masters and mistresses who are sometimes severe to their servants." To which I reply, "But then they can leave them!" To this they have nothing to say, and look displeased.

Ah! the curse of slavery, as the common phrase goes, has fallen not merely on the black, but perhaps at this moment still more upon the white, because it has warped his sense of truth and has degraded his moral nature. The position and the treatment of the blacks, however, really improve from year to year; while the whites do not seem to advance in enlightenment. Yet I must see and hear more before I condemn them. 

From  America of the fifties: letters of Fredrika Bremer, edited by Adolph B. Benson. New York, The American-Scandinavian foundation, 1924, 79-81, 99-103.