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To Strike or Not to Strike in 1830s Lowell: A Role Play

In this activity students perform a role play of a talk show between Lowell workers and factory owners. To research their characters, students analyze primary sources. This activity is used to teach with the film Daughters of Free Men, but can be completed without the film.

Objectives

  • Students will analyze how changing working conditions and decreasing pay led to strikes in the 1830s.

  • Students will dramatize the conflict between factory owners and factory workers over changing working conditions and pay. 

Instructions

Step 1: Divide the group into four equal groups: one group to play the factory owner, one group to play a girl who wants to go on strike, one group to play a girl who does not want to go on strike, and one group to play the talk show host. Pass out copies of the To Strike or Not to Strike worksheet describing the situation and go over the parts of the role play carefully.

Step 2: Pass out copies of the character planning worksheets to every student, as well as the primary and secondary documents. In their character groups, students review the readings and select evidence and information they wish to include in the talk show role play. Students should consider the arguments and evidence the character would use, and how he/she would counter the arguments of the other characters. The talk show host groups should also plan for what kinds of questions they will ask the other characters. 

Step 3: Each group should choose one member to perform the role play for the class. Pass out copies of the Scene Assessment Rubric to the non-performing members of the class and go over directions for completing it as they actively listen to the role play; as students watch the talk show, they should take notes about the main points of each character and the sources the actors used to create their dialogue. 

The designated characters present the role play to the class. 

Step 4: After concluding the role play, lead discussion of following points:

  • How did factory work benefit the girls? (got them off the farm, gave them autonomy, positive supervision of boardinghouses, own wages, education, cultural opportunities with other workers)

  • In what ways was factory work not a benefit to the girls? (wage cuts, boardinghouse rent raises, strict schedule and rules, loss of independence--being "a slave", danger/discomfort of factory work)

Historical Context

A group of Boston capitalists built a major textile manufacturing center in Lowell, Massachusetts beginning in the 1820s. The first factories recruited women from rural New England as their labor force. These young women, far from home, lived in rows of boardinghouses adjacent to the growing number of mills. The industrial production of textiles was highly profitable, and the number of factories in Lowell and other mill towns increased. More mils, however, led to overproduction, which led to a drop in prices and profits. Mill owners reduced wages and speeded up the pace of work. They also raised the rent for their boardinghouses. The young female operates organized to protest these wage cuts in 1834 and 1836.

Source | American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning, 2011.
Creator | American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning
Rights | Copyright American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
Item Type | Teaching Activity
Cite This document | American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning, “To Strike or Not to Strike in 1830s Lowell: A Role Play,” HERB: Resources for Teachers, accessed November 19, 2017, https://herb.ashp.cuny.edu/items/show/1808.

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