Sarah Bagley

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Sarah George Bagley
Born April 19, 1806
Candia, Rockingham County, New Hampshire, U.S.
Died Circa 1888
Brooklyn, New York, U.S.
Occupation Labor organizer
Known for Working in textile mills
Spouse(s) James Durno (m. 1850-1871; his death)

Sarah George Bagley (April 19, 1806[1] – c. 1888) was an advocate for women's rights and one of the most important labor leaders in New England during the 1840s. An advocate of shorter workdays for factory operatives and mechanics, she campaigned to make ten hours of labor per day the maximum in Massachusetts.

Her activities in support of the mill workers in Lowell, Massachusetts, put her in contact with a broader network of reformers in areas of women’s rights, communitarianism, abolition, peace, prison reform, and health reform. Sarah Bagley and her coworkers became familiar with middle-class reform activities, demonstrating the ways in which working people embraced this reform impulse as they transformed and critiqued some of its key elements. Her activities within the labor movement reveal many of the tensions that underlay relations between male and female working people as well as the constraints of gender that female activists had to overcome.[2]

Family history[edit]

Sarah George Bagley was born in 1806 in Candia, New Hampshire to Rhoda (née Witham) and Nathan Bagley, both members of large New England families. Nathan and Rhoda farmed, sold land, and even owned a small mill trying to make money to support their family. She had two brothers, Thomas and Henry, and one sister, Mrs. Mary Osgood.[3]

Textile worker[edit]

Main article: Lowell Mill Girls

In 1835, Bagley first appeared in Lowell, Massachusetts, working at the Hamilton Mills. She published one of her first stories “Pleasures of Factory Life” in an 1840 issue of the Lowell Offering, a literary magazine written, edited, and published by working women, some of them very young.[4]

In late November 1842, 70 weavers at the Middlesex Mills walked off their jobs, protesting the requirement to tend two looms instead of one. Shortly after this “turn-out” or strike, Bagley left the Hamilton Mills and went to work for the Middlesex Mills as a weaver, possibly taking the place of striking workers. Between 1842 and 1844, over 1,000 textile workers left Lowell as a result of an economic depression, which caused wage cuts and stretch-outs. In March 1844, under improved economic conditions the textile corporations raised the wages of male textile workers but not female workers to the 1842 levels.[2]

Labor activist[edit]

In December 1844, Bagley along with five other women met in "Anti-Slavery Hall", in the Spalding Block on Central Street in downtown Lowell. They formed the Lowell Female Labor Reform Association, to improve health conditions and lobby for a ten-hour day. At that time, women worked from 12 to 14 hours a day in the Lowell textile mills. As president, Bagley saw the LFLRA grow to nearly six hundred members. They published their own labor newspaper The Voice of Industry for which Bagley frequently contributed articles and edited a woman’s column.[5]

In 1845, Bagley and her friends gathered names of other textile workers on petitions sent to the Massachusetts Legislature, demanding a ten-hour workday. As a result of dozens of petitions, for the first time in the United States history, a state legislature held hearings to investigate the conditions of labor in the manufacturing corporations. Bagley and others testified to the long hours and unhealthy working conditions in the mills. The committee, led by Representative William Schouler (1814-1873), reported that the legislature did not have the power to determine “hours of work” and that the ten-hour day must be decided between the corporations and the textile workers. The workers were furious and campaigned to defeat Representative Schouler in the next election.[6]

Bagley and her friends continued sending petitions to the state legislature for a ten-hour day; they gathered over 10,000 names from throughout Massachusetts, and more than 2,000 signatures were from working women and men of Lowell. Again hearings were held to investigate working conditions, and again the Massachusetts Legislature refused to take action. However, labor and political pressure on the Lowell textile corporations was so great that in 1847 the mills shortened the workday by 30 minutes. As the labor reform movement persisted the corporations again reduced the hours of labor to eleven in 1853.[2]

Involvement with the telegraph[edit]

In June 1846, John Allen became the new editor of The Voice of Industry and immediately fired Bagley. She wrote that Allen “does not want a female department. It would conflict with the opinions of the mushroom aristocracy that he seeks to favorite, and beside it would not be dignified.”[citation needed]

Discouraged and angry, Bagley looked for another job. In February 1846, only two years after Samuel Morse's first successful demonstration of the electric telegraph, the New York and Boston Magnetic Telegraph Company opened an office in Lowell, and Bagley was hired as probably the first female telegrapher in the United States. Not only did she tap out messages, but she helped people write their messages and letters. Early in 1847, Bagley was contracted to run the magnetic telegraph office in Springfield, Massachusetts.[citation needed]

In Springfield, she was unhappy to discover she earned only three-quarters as much as the man she replaced. She wrote to a friend of her growing commitment to human equality and the rights of women.[7][8][9][10]

Return to Lowell[edit]

A year later, Bagley returned to Lowell, working for the Hamilton Mills and living with her brother, Henry Bagley, to save money. While in Lowell, she traveled throughout New England, writing about health care, working conditions, prison reform, and women’s rights.[11] In 1849, she moved to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania where she worked with the Quakers as the executive secretary of the Rosine Home, providing a safe place for prostitutes and disadvantaged young women. While in Philadelphia, Bagley met James Durno (1795-1871), a native of Aberdeen, Scotland; they married on November 13, 1850.[12]

Homeopathic physician[edit]

In 1851, Sarah and James Durno moved to Albany, New York and began their practice as homeopathic physicians.[13] At that time, homeopathic health care was a new field of medicine, which used herbs and medicines rather than the traditional procedures performed by doctors at the time – bleeding patients, or “purging” the body through vomiting. Their practice specialized in providing medical care for women and children. The price of their services was “to the rich, one dollar - to the poor gratis [free]”. The Durnos began manufacturing herbal medicines and Durno Catarrh Snuff. By 1867, the couple had moved their manufacturing company to New York and lived in a large brick house in Brooklyn Heights. On June 22, 1871, James Durno died in Brooklyn, Kings County (not yet part of New York City), aged 76,[14] and was buried in Green-Wood Cemetery. Sarah Bagley is believed to have died in 1888. The couple had no children.


  1. ^ "Alexander Street Press Authorization". Retrieved 2016-12-04. 
  2. ^ a b c Dublin, Thomas. "Women at Work: The Transformation of Work and Community in Lowell, Massachusetts, 1826-1860. New York: Columbia University Press, 1979.
  3. ^ Wright, Helena. "Sarah G. Bagley: A Biographical Note," Labor History. Vol 20, No. 3, 1979, p. 401.
  4. ^ Wright, Helena "Sarah G. Bagley: A Biographical Note", Labor History. Vol 20, No. 3, 1979, p. 404.
  5. ^ Wright, Helena. "Sarah G. Bagley: A Biographical Note," Labor History. Vol 20, No. 3, 1979, p. 408.
  6. ^ Wright, Helena. "Sarah G. Bagley: A Biographical Note," Labor History. Vol 20, No. 3, 1979, p. 409.
  7. ^ "Industrial Revolution". Voice of Industry. Retrieved 2016-12-04. 
  8. ^ Pohl, Janet. "Bagley, Sarah 1846 01 01". Retrieved 2016-12-04. 
  9. ^ Pohl, Janet. "Bagley, Sarah 1846 03 13". Retrieved 2016-12-04. 
  10. ^ Pohl, Janet. "Bagley, Sarah 1847 01 13". Retrieved 2016-12-04. 
  11. ^ Wright, Helena. "Sarah G. Bagley: A Biographical Note," Labor History. Vol 20, No. 3, 1979, 411.
  12. ^ Murphy, Teresa. Sarah George Bagley, American National Biography.
  13. ^ Pohl, Janet. "Sarah George Bagley profile". Retrieved 2016-12-04. 
  14. ^ [1][dead link]

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