Mill Girl, Teacher, and Poetess
Lucy Larcom was born in 1826 by the seashore in Beverly, Massachusetts, the second youngest of nine sisters. Her father, Benjamin Larcom, was a merchant and sea captain who was well known for his piety. He took great pains to teach his children from the Bible and every Sunday afternoon was spent in Bible lessons. When Lucy was only 9, her father died and left the family without adequate provision. Her mother, Lois Barrett Larcom, moved the family to the mill town of Lowell. Here Mrs. Larcom kept a boarding house for the mill girls, making it more than just a boarding house, but a home.
After moving to Lowell, Lucy’s formal schooling ceased as she joined her sisters in the mill to help with family finances. She entered one of the mills as a “doffer”. A “doffer” was one who took off empty bobbins and put on full ones. She continued working at various mill jobs for the next ten years.
Lucy loved books and literary pursuit. While living in Beverly, she had learned to love good books. She delighted in “Pilgrim’s Progress” and poured over English poetry. She was well trained in the Bible and continued religious reading throughout her life. Her love of learning led her to take advantage of every opportunity to enlarge her studies. While she worked at the mill some kind of reading and literary club was formed by the mill girls and several of them wrote papers to be read at the meetings. It was then that the poet Whittier was editing a paper in Lowell and became interested in these young women who were thirsting after knowledge. In fact, she became lifelong friends with Whittier’s sister.
When Lucy was about twenty years old she traveled to Illinois with her favorite sister, Emiline. There she taught district school in a vacated log building. She received forty dollars for three months of work, which was thought to be a good wage. She continued in that job for three years until she had a chance to further her education.
In 1849, Lucy was able to attend the Monticello Female Seminary in Godfrey, Illinois for three years. Upon finishing her education at this institution, Lucy returned to her home town of Beverly to teach. After teaching private classes for a few years, she was called to a position in Wheaton Female Seminary, where she taught for six years with much success. While in Wheaton she taught English literature and rhetoric where she made suggestions to the administration for improvement in courses and lecturing. She also taught moral philosophy, logic, history, and botany, and in addition she founded the college newspaper.
Maintaining this rigorous schedule proved too much for her and her health began to fail. She resigned from teaching and turned to literary work. She edited “Our Young Folks” a notable children’s periodical of the day published by Ticknor & Fields, who put out the Atlantic Monthly. Lucy also had work published in other leading periodicals.
Lucy was a poetess of friendship and nature. Her girlhood days at Beverly, with its seaside and beautiful scenery, largely influence the substance and style of her writing. Her work was also spiritually uplifting and full of typical nineteenth century expressions of sentiment.
Always considering her poetry an extension of her faith, her deep love for God and her Christian faith pervaded her writings. In fact, she had once claimed that she would write only hymns if the magazines would take them. In her last three years she wrote three prose works of Christian inspiration that were well received.
While her writings were quite extensive, perhaps her greatest work, for which she is chiefly remembered, was her autobiographical sketch “ A New England Girlhood”, which covered her life until 1852 and captures the classic pattern of small-town upbringing and values.
Miss Larcom died in 1893 from a heart ailment when she was sixty-seven years old. While she died in Boston, she was buried in an unmarked grave in Central Cemetery in Beverly, Mass.