Many young men and women coming of age in the early-nineteenth century began to think about possibilities beyond the farm economy. The founding of new institutions of higher education and the expansion of older ones in New England beyond the handful of colonial colleges provided opportunities to farm boys from a wider range of social backgrounds. One such man was Elias Nason, born into a large family and poor. He wrote to his parents about the prospects for his brothers and sisters in this 1835 letter, the year that he was graduated from Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. Like many, he was going to school intermittently at the same time that he was teaching school to stay afloat. Nason expressed a common prejudice of the time against work in the mills or factory labor when he warned: “Factories are talked about as schools of vice in all circles here.”
I have been for some time expecting a letter from home. I have been very anxious as you must suppose to know how you prosper and as there is now a P.O. at your elbow I see no reason why my wish should not be gratified . . . . Bliss was over here the other day from Stowe. He wants to William come to him. He says he will give him his tuition and board is but $1.50. If I can get the money to pay for his board at the first of April I think I shall send him to Stow. He is now studying Latin and making very good progress. Edward comes up to see me almost every day. He likes his place very well. He goes to meeting with me and attends the Sunday School. I have made no arrangements with Mr. Marshall the man with whom he works about his staying. He is now on trial. I think some of taking him to school with me in the spring. Edward is a good boy and a smart boy I think. He wants a black silk handkerchief. I bought him a good pair of boots in Boston for which I gave $3.50. I bought Mary a Book for which I gave the same. Mary is going to school and studying Latin etc. She is complaining that you do not write to her. I believe that the children are well satisfied with their places and that they are all doing well. I have not received an answer from Grafton yet. I wrote out nearly a fortnight ago. I feel anxious to go to Grafton and it is probable that I shall have a large school there. If I go there I shall come home at the first of April and perhaps William will come with me as his term closes then. Do you think of leaving Unionville in the spring? If you [desire] a good place, perhaps you had better go, for I don’t much like that long house exceedingly well. Perhaps Mr. A. Eames would like to accommodate you. But if I did move I would look out for a respectable and a convenient house. You said something about breaking up housekeeping. I would not do that. You have kept house so long and have considerable furniture and the children will want a house to visit you know. And there seems to be a little disgrace attached to breaking up of housekeeping as if folks were not able to keep house. I would not put any of children into the mill. Factories are talked about as schools of vice in all circles here. And it is a hard thing for small children to be confined in a tight close room all the day long. It affects their growth, makes them pale and sickly d the company with which they associate is of the lowest order. There is no establishment in the country conducted better than that at Unionville. It is a factory still and nothing has ever touched my pride so much as to have it said that my sister works in a Cotton Mill. Mary says the girls where she boards frequently speak of Factory girls as the very lowest but we know that they are not so. Some of them are as good, as intelligent, as fair as any girls in the community. And I pity from my soul the thousands in our country that are reduced to the necessity of laboring in a Factory for a livelihood. God has spread out the various professions in life before us in order that we may have a choice which we will pursue. We have a perfect right then to choose that which is most agreeable to our wishes. We may act in accordance to his will in any of them and fit our selves for his kingdom hereafter. But in as much as some of the different employments are conducive to goodness—to improvements more than others, it becomes us to choose those which are most favorable to virtue and intelligence. Now a cotton factory is the last place to which I should put children for improvement either in manners, goodness, or intelligence. I hope therefore you will put Ann out at some good place and perhaps Charles—He is old enough to earn his living on a farm—and keep Susan at home. Eliza is old enough to manage for herself. Wm. and Edward I want to educate and I think I can do it if I have my health. Susan and Father and Mother can live together in a small house or tenement—and if Father’s health is good he can support a small family without difficulty. I spoke to Mason about some money before I came. He said then he would let me have some but he has since written that he can not let me have any. You must be just as frugal as possible till I get upon my feel and then I shall work with all my might and whatever I make shall be devoted to the good of the family. I wish father could have all the money he gets for his work and let me have it to clear out from here with. Let all the debts out there go. I wish to have this affair turn out creditably. I think that I shall make $100 before next commencement and this will set me on my feet again. Perhaps you can borrow some money from some of your nearest neighbors—not telling them what it is for until next August. But I wish you to write me about every week to know how things move and what your intentions are.
Letter, March 9, 1835, Elias Nason to his Parents
Elias Nason Papers, American Antiquarian Society, Worcester, Massachusetts
Source: Reprinted, Donald Scott, America’s Families: A Documentary History (New York, Harper and Row, 1981), 216–18.