“Old Mill,” Winslow Homer. Photo credit: Yale University Art Gallery

A woman in a red jacket, lunch pail in hand and eyes forward, travels to work. She ascends a ramp leading from a meadow of wildflowers, over a millpond to a small water-powered textile factory. Winslow Homer painted Old Mill in 1871, but its subject looks back fifty years to the first decade of manufacturing in New England and the first industrial workers in the United States—young women from the countryside. 

The painting also commands us to look forward. In it, Homer asks essential questions about the things we make and how we make them; about consumption, displacement, and the social cost of the factory. 

We cannot see the woman’s face as she walks toward the tolling work bell, which adds to the sense that her work is compulsory. Her anonymity also universalizes her; she is no particular worker but rather, every worker. 

Yet, we can know a few things about her. She learned the loom at her mother’s side, homespun textiles forming one of several crafts that contributed to the autonomy and stability of the agrarian household for two centuries. But the woman’s presence on that ramp, answering that bell, means that she and her family could no longer make it as farmers in an industrializing society. 

The merchant class had an answer to the problem: replacing the coin they paid for handmade woolens with a wage for manufacturing coarse cotton cloth in the mills they built following the War of 1812. The woman in red left her household to live in a dormitory and stand at a clattering machine in a brick building for sixteen hours a day, six days a week. A portion of her earnings went home to support her penniless family. 

Three other women in Old Mill form a kind of chorus. They wear homespun fabric, linking them to the fading agrarian world. One looks away from the mill. Indeed, factory operatives voiced loss and longing for what must have felt like a previous life. “I toil day after day in the noisy mill,” wrote Elizabeth Turner in 1845, “When the bell calls I must go: and must I always stay here, and spend my days within these pent-up walls, with this ceaseless din my only music? O that I were a child again, and could wander in my little flower garden . . . now cultivated by stranger’s hands.”

Old Mill is about displacement, and the ramp is its mechanism. Workers move from meadow to mill, sunrise to bell, family labor to division of labor. A dog sniffs at a tree at the top of the ramp. Like the woman, it’s suspended in an otherwise impossible location, alienated from the landscape. Homer enlists the tree as a post that supports the ramp, its base flooded by the millpond. Like the woman in red, the tree is now an instrument of the owner, a living thing with its own purpose, absorbed into the imperatives of the factory. 

A century before Homer unveiled Old Mill, Adam Smith presented the division of labor as the principle catalyst of modern times. He launched The Wealth of Nations by describing the segmented process of pin-making. “One man draws out the wire,” he wrote, “another straightens it, a third cuts it, a fourth points it, a fifth grinds it at the top for receiving the head.” When people make only part of a thing, they depend on others for everything they need. Money is a token representing their labor, which they exchange for commodities, the embodied labor of others.

Work split into separate tasks and divorced from ownership of the product alarmed Atlantic intellectuals of the next generation. “There is One Man . . . ” mourned Ralph Waldo Emerson, capable of every occupation, infinite in potential. But “. . . this fountain of power, has been so distributed to multitudes, has been so minutely subdivided and peddled out, that it is spilled into drops, and cannot be gathered.” The worker’s severed parts were brought to life and released like monsters: “a good finger, a neck, a stomach, and elbow, but never a man.” 

The effects of this partition were insidious. Emerson’s friend Orestes Brownson observed women answering the morning bell in a New England factory village. They might seem well fed and dressed, he wrote, but “the great mass wear out their health, spirits, and morals, without becoming one whit better off . . . We know no sadder sight on earth.” For those who believed they witnessed the spiritual and physical decline of workers, the commonplace celebration of industrial manufacturing as the apex of human progress was almost unbearable.

“New England Factory Life—’Bell Time,’” Harper’s Weekly (July 25, 1868) Photo Credit: Smithsonian Art Museum

Smith worried too. Hundreds of pages into The Wealth of Nations, he tallies up the factory’s costs. Division drains the very life of the laborer, Smith wrote: “He naturally . . . becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become. The torpor of his mind renders him not only incapable of relishing or bearing a part in any rational conversation, but of conceiving any generous, noble, or tender sentiment.” By 1867, Karl Marx had more to say about this in the first volume of Capital, published only four years before Homer attempted his own visual explanation of how industrial manufacturing had transformed society.

Although Homer’s Old Mill reflected aesthetically on the 1820s, it was really a comment on the great churning colossus of 1870 that was epitomized by the industrial complex situated on the Merrimack River at Lawrence, Massachusetts. We know he had Lawrence’s tens of thousands of workers in mind because he drew them for Harper’s Weekly in 1868. They were women and men, grandparents and young children, all answering the bell at the Washington Mills. 

In Massachusetts alone, the number of factories increased by 50 percent between 1850 and 1870, the number of workers by 57 percent. This army of labor operated steam and water-powered engines equal to the pull of 184,000 horses. Homer would have known that a new American labor movement had arisen, including some of the first unions to seek national membership. In 1870, the Knights of St. Crispin, an alliance of shoe workers, led a strike in Massachusetts. The astounding speed and scale of change—including the Transcontinental Railroad, war and rebellion on the Great Plains, and corporations forming around coal and oil—must have impelled Homer to trace all the turmoil to some single moment of origin.

Central to Old Mill is its eye-catching commodity. The red jacket stands out against the green of the countryside and the dowdy homespun clothing of the other three women. It appears to be a Zouave, Bolero, or Garibaldi, an open-front garment modeled on various European styles, including the ritual clothing of Spanish bullfighters and a French infantry uniform. All three were fashionable in the 1850s and 1860s. (So was her hat—a straw Pamela or bergère.) 

In other words, she is a fashionably-dressed anachronism, walking a ramp that is a bridge between past and present. Are the three women in homespun gossiping about her? Do they envy her? Surely, they’re scandalized by her outfit. Homer seems to be saying that the consumption of the 1870s violated longstanding norms of modesty and frugality and stood out in its ostentation. The woman is proud yet somehow vulnerable, a bullseye for our judgement.

“The New Bonnet,” Francis William Edmonds Photo Credit: The Met Museum

Other nineteenth-century artists also grappled with factory-driven consumerism and the changes it brought. In 1858, Francis William Edmonds painted a young woman displaying a bonnet before her anxious parents and a poor delivery girl. The pile of garden vegetables on the floor signifies their link to the countryside; perhaps they’re just a generation removed from the farm. Father is stunned by the bill. Mother whispers her disapproval. The map over the mantle situates the family within Atlantic capitalism and global trade. In the middle of the group is the delighted purchaser with the product that represents her social aspirations and her place in a new world of goods. 

But Edmonds has questions. How will the family afford it all? How will it change them?

Factory logic offers brusque answers to these questions. Why shouldn’t the woman in red flaunt her coat and hat and consume for gratification and identity? She makes nothing in its whole, no well-wrought chair or crafted shoes. She endures the tyranny of the owner, oppression of the clock, and has taken on the burden of supporting her family. All she has to show for the money that represents her divided labor is what sustains her and an occasional object of desire. The jacket might be just another endlessly replicated commodity, but it also expresses stunning new freedoms—modern individualism and the chance to become a different kind of person. 

In the end, what did that freedom really mean?

If he were alive today, Homer might paint a Bangladeshi woman who stitches sweatshirts; a Chinese woman who assembles phones; or a Mexican woman stamping out car parts in a maquiladora borderland between Texas and Coahuila. Over 70 percent of the global workforce in garment manufacturing are women who continue to migrate from depleted farmland yet they are constantly subject to the will and judgements of men, to the fathers who send them, to the families of the men they might marry, who sometimes consider factory jobs morally suspect, and to managers in the workplace itself. 

Like the women of Lawrence who feared a finger caught in the loom, these workers cope with danger. Women who complained of sagging walls and cracked floors at the Rana Plaza factory in Dhaka were ignored. On April 24, 2013, the day the building collapsed killing approximately 1,134 female workers, managers threatened to withhold a month’s pay to those who stayed away. 

Like Homer’s fictional workers, today’s factory women want skills, pathways to a career, and prospects for marriage and family that they can integrate into work that contributes to their sense of productivity and independence. They want a degree of control over the workplace, collective bargaining, and an end to sexual discrimination. They want a greater part of the wealth they create, a greater part of the world of goods, the inner workings of which they know better than anyone else, to consume as the sign and compensation for what they’ve sacrificed.  

In 1871, when Homer began the sketches that would result in Old Mill, Standard Oil was consolidating their refining capacity and cutting deals with railroads. The era of fossil capital, in the form of coal, had been underway for a century by then. But the global reproduction of the American industrial model would change the world in ways neither Winslow Homer nor J. D. Rockefeller could have imagined. The overuse of the earth, driven by consumption for its own sake, new continents of plastic in the oceans, and economic growth that has rescued billions from rural poverty at an astounding cost—all began in the same time and place Homer painted. 

It might seem that the 1820s were a long time ago; and yet two centuries in the last ten thousand years is a breathtakingly short period of time. It was just a century from 1870s New England to the spread of factories throughout East Asia and the global effects of climate change that industrialization has produced. 

Old Mill reflects anxieties about work, production, and consumption. But it doesn’t lament, and it certainly doesn’t naturalize change into inevitable stages. It forces us to look at a worker on her way to work, wearing her own labor as an emblem of consumption that would change the world. Homer was shocked by the changes he had witnessed. 

They should shock us no less.  

Steven Stoll is professor of history at Fordham University and author of Ramp Hollow: The Ordeal of Appalachia (FSG, 2017).