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  • James Wheeling

Another Visit : Lowell Mills

One benefit about having our children go to college out-of-state was the opportunity to visit them when they had a break and didn’t want to come home. Our youngest daughter chose Babson College for her secondary education, a top-notch business school in Wellesley, MA.

We were able to visit her once a year during her four-year stay and, as it happens, I set the beginning of my story in the Boston area. As a western mountain girl, my education about American history east of the Rocky Mountains could have been summarized by only major events. But when I had the opportunity to dig into all that was going on in the Boston area, the lid on my educational box flew open.

On one trip we visited Lowell, MA, specifically the Lowell Mills National Park. It was important to visit there in order to ask questions of one of the archivists about what types of cloth the mills were producing in 1849. But, what an amazing chapter in our country’s history! I had no real grip on the social and economic impact of this one place and its influence on the industry had our country. A few key points…

Francis Cabot Lowell was a successful American textile merchant who, after visiting Britain’s textile mills in 1813, was forced to memorize the design of the power looms, disguising himself as a country farmer in order to thwart the British laws against copying their designs. He returned to Waltham, MA and created the first integrated spinning and weaving factory in the world using water power. Recognizing its financial potential, he organized several wealthy investors into a partnership called the Boston Associates.

By 1820 the Boston Associates had had phenomenal success and were ready to expand. They had improved the technology but there was still the need for human hands to guide and maintain the looms. In an intentional effort to not repeat the inhuman reputation of mill communities in Great Britain, they set to creating one of America’s first planned community designs and called it the “Lowell Experiment.” They developed the area known today as Lowell, MA (named after Francis Lowell who had died in 1817) in a place called Chelmsford near the Pawtucket Falls. It was the third city chartered in Massachusetts after Boston and Salem.

The huge, integrated, weaving factories required many hands and the easiest (and cheapest) hands to recruit were those of country and immigrant women. The mills advertised for young Yankee girls from the surrounding counties and Canada long before the rush of Irish and German immigrants. The girls (and their families) were promised clean living quarters, nourishing food and chaperoning by matrons when not working. In return for all of this, they would be paid enough to send money back to the farm and exposed to opportunities for education. Known as the “Waltham System,” the workers would wake to a 4:40 am bell, be at work by 5:00am with a half-hour break at 7:00am. Back to work until noon with a thirty-to-forty-five-minute break before returning to work until 7:00pm. They would follow this schedule six days a week. If you are interest in more details of their life, I found this source very interesting, Factory Rules from the Handbook to Lowell, 1848

These women, averaging between 15 and 35 years old, were paid only half of what men were paid but attained economic independence for the first time in their lives, free from controlling fathers and husbands. They earned three to five dollars a week. Boarding costs ranged between seventy-five cents to $1.25 a week, the difference being the girls’ to use as they wished. The mill owners offered education to the women as part of their experiment including a library, reading rooms, and access to evening lectures (25 lectures for $.25) in the Lyceum, a theatre built by the company. But, after working 12-14-hour days in monotonous labor, many began to view the company’s promise of additional education as a false benefit when they couldn’t stay awake to enjoy the lecture.

The resulting social shift was immense. They began to challenge gender stereotypes. They joined the American Labor movement and protested against factory conditions by “turning out,” or striking, in 1834 and 1836. When the mill owners hiked their rent in 1836, it was seen as a violation of the written contract between the girls and the owners and the strike began. Lasting weeks, the owners finally caved in and rescinded the hike only to have the Panic of 1837 (see my blog post by that name) further expose the system’s weakness.

I found a couple of poems quoted from “Liberty Rhetoric and Nineteenth-Century American Women” that expressed their sentiments:

During the 1834 “turn-out” it was written:

Let oppression shrug her shoulders,

And a haughty tyrant frown,

And little upstart Ignorance,

In mockery look down.

Yet I value not the feeble threats

Of Tories in disguise,

While the flag of Independence

O’er our noble nation flies.

And in 1836:

Oh! Isn’t it a pity, such a pretty girl as I

Should be sent to the factory to pine away and die?

Oh! I cannot be a slave, I will not be a slave,

For I’m so fond of liberty,

That I cannot be a slave.

By the 1840’s the women were striking on a regular rate and still losing to the owners. When the immigrant women from Ireland began arriving, the owners used the immigrants against the Americans. In 1845, the mill workers formed the first union of working women in the United States called the Lowell Female Labor Reform Association.

When I consider today’s conversations about why there are not more women CEOs, and the gender pay gap in 2020, reading where working women started at Lowell Mills is a very interesting start to the movement. Modern women have to be grateful to our fore-mothers for laying the foundation to our benefit.


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