Charles Dickens and The First Female Telegraph Operator

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In 1846 in Massachusetts, less than two years after Samuel Morse and Alfred Vail first publicly demonstrated the telegraph, their company The Magnetic Telegraph Company made a significant appointment. They hired Sarah Bagley and in doing so made her the first female telegraph operator in the US.

In his book My Sisters Telegraphic: Women in the Telegraph Office, 1846–1950 Thomas C. Jeseph makes the point that despite the title this appointment was generally regarded as a footnote to her earlier work as women’s rights advocate and founder of the Lowell Female labor Reform Association:

To Bagley’s contemporaries, her appointment was significant more for her class origins than her gender; the Lowell reform newspaper, the Voice of Industry, commended Paul R. George, manager of the telegraph company, on his “democracy” in choosing a member of the working class for the position: “This is what we call ‘the people’s’ democracy, Miss Bagley having served ten years in the factories.”

But there’s another reason why this appointment was interesting. For Sarah there was no glory in owning the title ‘The First Female Telegraph Operator in the US’ when it comes with the appendage ‘…To be Paid Less Than Her Male Counterparts’.

In 1835, at the age of 28, Bagley moved from rural New Hampshire to Lowell, in Massachusetts, to work in one of the new industrial mills that were springing up. She loved working in a mill — but she particularly loved that the nature of her work gave her time to think about the world. By the early 1840s, her thinking was directed at inequality she and other women faced in the mills, compared to male labourers. Factory owners would fire women before they’d fire men, or they’d cut women’s wages first if costs needed to be kept down. If women protested by striking, they’d be fired.

Bagley formed one of the first women-led unions in the US, the Lowell Female Labor Reform Association, in December 1844, and it soon grew to more than 600 members. They fought many many fights, and there were many setbacks before their victories. Nevertheless their motto was a symbol of their persistence. It was simply “Try Again”.

The Lowell Offering PIBLIC DOMAIN

As a way sharing her thoughts of life in the mills of Lowell Sarah wrote stories for the Lowell Offering, a literary magazine written, edited, and published by working women. The goal of the offering was to give a better name to “factory girls” and strived to be a place where mill women could grow and cultivate their education through their own writing. The publication was a massive hit it’s growing readership were treated to essays such as “A Marvellous Incident”, which contended that seemingly supernatural events can often be explained scientifically and “The Pleasures of Science”, an essay extolling science and scientists. In the wake of labor unrest in the factories later issues included an article about the value of organising and an essay about suicide among the Lowell girls.

The women’s use of storytelling to document gender and social inequalities during this fascinating period of industrial change caught the attention of some celebrity fans such as Anthony Trollope, and George Sand. Another fan, Charles Dickens paid a visit to the Lowell in 1842 as part of his travels across the US and Lowell left a positive impression. According to Natalie McKnight, professor of English and a dean at Boston University, the stories written by the women may very well have shaped one of the greatest works of literature.

Charles Dickens PUBLIC DOMAIN

Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol a year after returning from his visit and the professor believes the influence of the stories written by the women are in plain sight on the pages of one of Dickens’ most famous works. Speaking to the Boston Globe McKnight said:

“There’s a way in which [the Lowell women] pulled together the supernatural elements, the Christmas setting, the sentiment, that theme of going back in time, and memory traveling through time — all of that’s there in The Lowell Offering. I think having all of that in one place was the catalyst for things coming together so perfectly in ‘A Christmas Carol.’”

The ghost as a tour guide appears in several pieces from The Lowell Offering and though there are other ghostly guides in literature the stories written by the Lowell Mill Girls represent the closest known precedent for the specific scenes and language in Dickens’s work. The report gives account of many similarities such as this:

In “Happiness,” published anonymously in May 1841, the narrator has a dream-vision in which she travels the world and observes that happiness only flourishes in humble places, like a small country cottage. The setup is echoed in “A Christmas Carol” when the Ghost of Christmas Present takes Scrooge to a miners’ hut, a lighthouse, and the Cratchit home, to show him that you don’t need money to have a merry Christmas.

It’s well documented that Dickens left America dismayed at his experiences of slavery, violence and extreme individualism. In A Christmas Carol he uses the story of a powerful rich man to highlight the plight of those affected by his greed and meanness. But as home to one of the first women-led unions in the US, and with Sarah Bagley leading a group of women writing about inequality and their injustices they suffered at the hands of the powerful mill owners, Lowell not only escaped Dickens’ criticism but possibly inspired a classic.

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