Here in the NMSC archeology lab, we are currently processing an archeological collection from the Boott Mills Boarding House site at Lowell National Historical Park (LOWE). The first large-scale factory town in the U.S., Lowell is credited with starting the American Industrial Revolution by the 1830s. Young women came from rural New England to Lowell to work in the factories and earn an independent living. Despite this new taste of autonomy for many young women, hours were long, wages were low, and working conditions were dangerous. And so began the plight of the New England mill worker.
The unskilled workers and immigrants who worked in New England’s 19th-century mills and factories are often treated collectively by history. What was their background? What conditions did they endure? What was their involvement in labor protest movements? The personal lives of these workers are largely invisible in the historical record.
Archeology is valued for its potential to reveal aspects of daily life that are missing from historical documents. Archeological artifacts can tell us about what everyday people ate for dinner, what they wore, and what they did for fun. As Valentine’s Day approaches, we wonder: what can archeology tell us about…love?
Sometimes, an artifact can hint at matters of the heart, like laughter, love, or loss. The archeology collection from the Boott Mills contains four personal items that we found particularly touching: a celluloid, pin-back button reading “Kiss Me —, I’m Sterilized,” a plain, gold wedding band, and a pair of mourning brooches. As much as we appreciate the ceramics we catalog in the lab for what they can tell us about foodways and trade patterns, artifacts like these from Lowell can provide a rare glimpse at that very human quality, emotion.
A pin-back button is characterized by a button-shaped metal disk that is fastened to clothing using a pin, clutch, or similar mechanism. What remains of the pin-back button from LOWE is celluloid film with a drawing imprinted on the back and some traces of metal indicating a surrounding metal ring. The paper or fabric on which the image was originally imprinted is gone. By examining an image of an intact identical button, we can see what it would have looked like when in use. (We love the period fashion, and is that a syringe stuck in the woman’s arm?!)
The first design for a pin-back button in the U.S. was patented in 1896 (wikipedia). Newspapers from Australia and New Zealand devoted articles to the “new fashion” of wearing buttons in March of 1913. According to these reports, “the most popular of the new style buttons reads: ‘Kiss me, I’m sterilised.’” These articles offer an amusing take on early 20th-century Americans’ lack of propriety, explaining that “The American does not wear a high hat and a frock coat…Nor does he even wear a jacket and a high hat…Therefore, he has no hesitancy in displaying the buttons,” which “doubtless…will not make headway in England.” (See Poverty Bay Herald, Volume XXXX, Issue 12996, 1 March 1913 (Gisborne, New Zealand) and Townsville Daily Bulletin, Queensland, Australia, 3 March 1913).
Despite this depiction of uncouth, button-wearing Americans as audacious and carefree, the “Kiss Me, I’m Sterilized” button from Lowell may actually tell a serious story. Boston was struck with an outbreak of Spanish influenza in the summer of 1918. 141 people died of the flu in one week that October. Tufts Medical Center in Medford began offering vaccinations soon after the outbreak occurred (Beaudry and Mrozowski 1989). It is likely that the pin was worn by a recently vaccinated young man or woman (probably a woman, given the history of the boarding house) who was pursuing lightheartedness – and a date! – during what must have been a very scary time.
The wedding band from the Boott Mills is a plain gold band measuring about half a centimeter thick. The traditional wedding vows outlined in the Book of Common Prayer, which dates to 1549, include mention of a wedding ring: “With this Ring I thee wed…” Wedding rings were not standard for men or women in 17th– and 18th-century America, but became common by the end of the 18th century. At this time, wedding rings were often simple bands, the design symbolizing an unbreakable contract. They were worn on the fourth finger of the hand because people believed there to be a vein near that finger that flowed straight to the heart(White 2005). By the late 19th century, customers could order gold rings from the Sears and Roebuck catalog.
Of course, the wedding band from the LOWE collection does not necessarily mean wedded bliss for a past resident of the Boott Mills. We do not know the details of the relationship symbolized by this ring. What this artifact does indicate, however, is a vow that was made, and a partnership that was created, between two people.
Before the 19th century, mourning dress was a luxury confined to the upper classes. Around the middle of the 19th century, clothes and jewelry began to be mass produced and more people could afford to purchase clothing and accessories specifically designed for mourning. Mourning etiquette reached new heights during the Victorian era. The early period of mourning required all black clothing and accessories; later, women could wear mauve or lilac, which were considered appropriate “half mourning” colors.
The most common form of mourning jewelry was the ring, which was often designed to contain a small lock of the deceased’s hair. Mourning watches, pendants, lockets, and brooches were also popular. Brooches became particularly popular in the late 19th century.
The two mourning brooches from the Boott Mill site have copper alloy frames and remnants of pin clasps. One has a simple braided frame while the other’s frame is slightly more elaborate. Both pins show evidence of photographic paper and emulsion.
The development of photography in the 1840s led to mourning pieces featuring not only locks of hair, but also photographs of a deceased loved one. In the 1860s, “swivel brooches,” which showcase hair on one side and a photograph on the other – became the height of mourning fashion. By the 20th century, mourning etiquette was starting to relax, but people continued to wear mourning pins much like these from the Boott Mills well into the 1900s. Although residue is visible on both of the pins from LOWE that indicates the presence of photographs at one time, not a trace of an image can be discerned on either piece. We do not know who wore these pins, or whose faces were captured in the photographs. Even so, these artifacts suggest quite poignantly a sense of grief and loss for someone who lived at the boarding house.
These four artifacts cannot tell us any specific details about the lives of the individuals who once owned them. We do not know who donned the “Kiss Me” pin. The wedding band is not engraved with a name or a date. The photographs that were once worn inside of the brooches are long gone. What these artifacts can offer us, however, is a glimpse into some very intimate moments in the past. These artifacts speak of laughter as an anecdote for fear and uncertainty, love and commitment, and grief and sadness. They also speak of young women who were more than members of the “Lowell Mill Girls,” as they are commonly called. Lastly, these personal items drive home the fact that despite how much some things have changed since the early days of American industry, some things – like matters of the heart – have not changed much at all.
Beaudry, Mary C. and Stephen A. Mrozowski, editors. Interdisciplinary Investigations of the Boott Mills, Lowell, Massachusetts. North Atlantic Regional Office, National Park Service, 1989.
Fales, Martha Gandy. Jewelry in America 1600-1900. Woodbridge, Suffolk: Antique Collectors’ Club, 1995.
Mrozowski, Stephen A., Grace H. Ziesing, and Mary C. Beaudry. Living on the Boott: Historical Archaeology at the Boott Mills Boardinghouses, Lowell, Massachusetts. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1996.
Ridgley, Heidi. “An Indusrial Revolution.” In National Parks, Spring 2009.
Sears Roebuck & Co. Catalogue, 1897.
White, Carolyn L. American Artifacts of Personal Adornment 1680-1820. Lanham: AltaMira Press, 2005.