Lowell Industrial Experiment

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Lowell Industrial Experiment

United States 1823-1836


After 1823 a factory town grew up along the banks of the Merrimack River at Pawtucket Falls in Chelmsford, Massachusetts, which by 1836 had become the mill town of Lowell. The first planned industrial city in the nation, Lowell at this date had a population of 16,000 and employed more than 6,000 operatives in eight brick mills. A series of innovations in industrial organization and operation distinguished Lowell from earlier textile undertakings and made the town the center of the industrial revolution in the United States before the Civil War. The Lowell experiment also brought young, single, rural women into industrial employment in large numbers for the first time in American history and saw some of the nation's earliest labor protests among working women. The Lowell experiment prospered and set an example that was widely followed at first. With the entry into the market of large numbers of Irish immigrants after 1845, however, a new model of industrial employment emerged in Lowell, and textile manufacturing shed the unique aspects of the early decades. After the Civil War an immigrant-based labor force replaced the Lowell system and marked the end of this early experiment in industrial organization.


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  • 1803: English chemist and physicist John Dalton develops the first modern form of atomic theory.
  • 1808: First performances of Beethoven's Fifth and Sixth symphonies take place.
  • 1812: Napoleon invades Russia in June, but by October, his army, cold and hungry, is in retreat.
  • 1818: Donkin, Hall & Gamble "Preservatory" in London produces the first canned foods.
  • 1825: British Parliament enacts a law permitting workers to join together in order to secure regulation of wages and hours; however, other provisions in the law effectively deny the right to strike.
  • 1826: French inventor Joseph-Nicéphore Niepce makes the first photographic image in history.
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  • 1829: The last of the "penal laws" imposed by the English against the Catholics of Ireland since 1695 are over-turned.
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  • 1831: Young British naturalist Charles Darwin sets sail from England aboard the H.M.S. Beagle bound for South America, where he will make discoveries leading to theformation of his theory of evolution by means of natural selection.

Event and Its Context

The train of events that led to the emergence of a new system of industrial organization in Lowell began three decades earlier in the rise of the first successful cotton textile spinning factory in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, in December 1790. There the English immigrant Samuel Slater reconstructed the Arkwright water-powered spinning frame and established the first permanent spinning mill in the United States. The early work-force in the factory along the Blackstone River consisted of seven boys and two girls between the ages of seven and twelve. The operation combined carding and spinning operations, and the resulting cotton yarn was given out to women in neighboring families to be woven into cloth.

The Pawtucket firm of Almy, Brown, and Slater enjoyed considerable success in the 1790s, and over the next two decades the "Rhode Island model," as it came to be known, became a widespread feature of the landscape of southern New England. Small water-powered factories dotted the flowing streams of southern Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and eastern Connecticut. They employed whole families to produce yarn and put out the yarn to be woven by women in farming families in the surrounding countryside. Technological and organizational changes were limited, however, and few of the Rhode Island mills adopted power looms. Industrial production remained a subordinate element in what remained an overwhelmingly agricultural economy.

The early spinning mills of southern New England expanded rapidly in the years before 1815, sheltered in part by the cessation of English imports that came with the Embargo and Non-Intercourse Acts and the subsequent outbreak of the War of 1812. During the wartime boom, events in northern New England pointed toward more dramatic changes in the future. Just as Slater had earlier reconstructed the Arkwright spinning frame, in 1813 a Boston merchant, Francis Cabot Lowell, and a mechanic, Paul Moody, succeeded in building a power loom patterned after English models. Lowell then joined with others to obtain a charter from the state legislature to establish a cotton manufactory in Waltham, Massachusetts, that would combine spinning and weaving within a single factory. The Boston Manufacturing Company began operations in Waltham in 1814 and proved remarkably successful. It represented a radical departure from prevailing practice in textile mills of southern New England. Capitalized at $400,000, it was fully 10 times larger than the typical Rhode Island mill. Moreover, it integrated all the steps in the manufacturing process at a single location, eliminating the loss of time, labor, and materials associated with the putting out of yarn into rural homes. Commanding the American market in cheap coarse woven cloth, the company prospered and expanded its operations. Within a few years the firm was occupying all available waterpower space at its Charles River location.

In the fall of 1821 the owners of the Boston Manufacturing Company began a search for a larger waterpower site to permit expansion of their operations. They soon learned of an underutilized transportation canal, the Pawtucket Canal, which skirted the falls of the Merrimack River in East Chelmsford, some 27 miles north of Boston. The canal had been built in the 1790s but had fallen rapidly into disuse after 1804 with the completion of Middlesex Canal just a few miles upstream. The Middlesex Canal tapped the northern New England countryside, connecting Massachusetts and New Hampshire farmers to the growing Boston market, and would also permit easy transportation of bales of raw cotton and bolts of finished cloth between a rural factory and broader urban markets. The Boston Associates, as this group of merchant industrialists came to be called, quietly purchased a majority of the shares in the canal and most of the land between the canal and the Merrimack River. One of the Associates speculated at the time that they might "live to see the place contain twenty thousand inhabitants."

The group petitioned the legislature for a corporate charter, began work enlarging the Pawtucket Canal, and by the fall of 1823 the Merrimack Manufacturing Company was up and running in East Chelmsford, producing printed cotton cloth. Capitalized initially at $600,000, the new company was destined to dwarf its Waltham predecessor. The Associates soon moved the Waltham machine shop up to the new site and incorporated the Proprietors of Locks and Canals on the Merrimack River to develop and oversee the waterpower operations and to build and equip the new textile factories and expanding power canals that came to line the river.

The immediate success of the Merrimack Company and the expansionist vision of the Boston Associates led to the founding of new firms in rapid succession. The Hamilton Corporation (1825), the Appleton and Lowell corporations (1828), and Suffolk, Tremont, and Lawrence corporations (1831) followed one right after the other. By 1836 investment totaled more than $6.2 million in eight major firms that employed more than 6,000 workers. Industrial growth, in turn, led to urban growth. In 1820 the population of East Chelmsford had been about 200, but by 1826, when the community was incorporated as the town of Lowell, the population had reached 2,000. In 1836 Lowell became an incorporated city; its population of 16,000 made it the second largest city in Massachusetts.

As the mills grew apace in early Lowell, a new system of industrial organization took shape. Historians have subsequently called it the Waltham-Lowell system. A variety of characteristics distinguished this system and influenced the nation's economic development in the years before the Civil War. The Waltham-Lowell firms were all owned by a slowly expanding circle of Boston capitalists who shared officers, set common wages, shared data on production costs, and enforced common regulations on their workers. They were also fully integrated industrial enterprises that took raw cotton as input and produced bolts of finished cloth for sale on wholesale markets. They took full advantage of economies of scale, with a typical Lowell firm in the mid-1830s employing 1,000 workers, 20 times the number found in typical manufacturing firms in this period.

The recruitment, housing, and treatment of workers also distinguished Lowell from its southern New England competitors. Fully 85 percent of workers in the early years were young, single women recruited from the countryside surrounding Lowell. To house these women, Lowell companies built scores of boardinghouses. Furthermore, the companies paid these women monthly cash wages. Most other employers paid their workers with credit at a company store or settled wages perhaps four times a year. Finally, the mills established a set of common regulations that required that the women observe an evening curfew and regularly attend a house of worship. Workers who bridled at Lowell's paternalistic regime were often dismissed, and an intercompany blacklist (though only sporadically enforced) could make it difficult for a dismissed employee to find work elsewhere in Lowell.

Still, monthly cash wages that averaged $12 to $14 a month in the 1830s proved attractive to farmers' daughters with few other opportunities for self-support. The women were willing to relocate temporarily in Lowell, reside with their fellow operatives in company boardinghouses, and work six days a week, 12 hours a day, the standard work week for paid employment in the period. In addition, the social, cultural, and religious opportunities in Lowell proved attractive. Tens of thousands of young women came to Lowell for brief stints in the mills that rarely extended for more than three to five years. They could earn money, build up savings accounts, and either contribute to their families back home or bring some resources into their marriages. Their earnings from mill employment gave them a degree of economic and social independence that set them apart from New England women of earlier generations.

Though mill women preferred wages earned within the strictly regulated confines of New England factories over a less-driven dependence on their families back on hill-country farms, they did not accept uncritically all that went on in the mills. Periodically, in fact, Yankee women organized strikes in response to wage cuts or other management moves that they found contrary to their interests. The largest of these actions came in Lowell in February 1834 and October 1836, and an appreciation of these protests is crucial to an understanding of the system of industrial organization that emerged in early Lowell.

More than 800 women mill workers in Lowell "turned out"—went on strike—in February 1834 to protest a proposed wage reduction. Two weeks earlier, mill agents had posted identical broadsides in the mills notifying workers of the impending cuts. The broadsides stirred up "a good deal of excitement" among women operatives, and in mid-February women at one mill held a meeting during the noon hour and excluded a male watchman from their proceedings. The mill agent entered the room and attempted to dissuade the women from their course of action. Not succeeding in convincing the women to return to work, the agent dismissed the woman who seemed to be the ringleader, and a general "turn-out" ensued. The women marched from mill to mill securing additional participants. Their number reached 800—about a sixth of the female work-force in Lowell at this date—and, following a procession, the group rallied on the town common. According to a contemporary newspaper account, one of the leaders made a "flaming" Mary Wollstonecraft speech on the "rights of women and the iniquities of the 'monied aristocracy.'"

Viewing themselves as independent "daughters of freemen," the assembled women workers endorsed a set of demands. They would only return to work with their wages restored; they insisted that no strikers be singled out for punishment; they offered to provide monetary support to those strikers who lacked resources to return to their rural homes.

Millowners, however, were prepared for the turn-out. With the posting of the original announcements of the wage cut, agents lined up additional recruits to replace striking workers. Moreover, they demonstrated no inclination to accommodate the striking women. One agent probably reflected the general sentiment when he referred to the turn-out as an "amizonian [sic] display." Women turned out on a Saturday, were paid off on Monday, and by the end of the week, the mills were operating normally.

Although unsuccessful, this first strike in Lowell expressed the strong sense of independence among mill operatives in the 1830s. Women linked their actions expressly to the revolutionary republican tradition of their "Patriotic Ancestors." They viewed the millowners and agents as "Tories in disguise." They saw themselves as daughters of freehold farmers who were not dependent on their mill earnings for subsistence. If the mills would not hold up their end of the agreement that had drawn women into the mills, they would leave Lowell and return to their rural homes. This economic base permitted Yankee women workers a measure of independence not shared by immigrant operatives who succeeded them after 1845.

In October 1836 Yankee women turned out again. On this occasion an increase in the cost of room and board in company boardinghouses prompted the protest. The second turn-out was larger than the first, engaging 1,500 to 2,000 workers, fully a fourth of the female workforce in Lowell. The women formed a Factory Girls' Association, with "committees from the several corporations to make provisions for those who have not the means to pay their board." The association may also have provided stage fare for women who preferred to return to their rural homes to wait out the strike. A contemporary in Lowell, the Methodist minister Orange Scott, estimated that 2,000 women left the city during the strike, an effective strategy to cripple production in the mills.

The strike was considerably more successful than its predecessor, and production in the mills was affected for several months. One agent complained in correspondence to his company's treasurer back in Boston that the decline in production was "no doubt the result of calculation and contrivance" on the part of the striking workers. Although perhaps a third of the women workers supported the strike, by drawing out all the operatives in a crucial step of the production process, the leaders of the strike were able to shut down production almost completely. As one local storekeeper commented at the time: "[It] was remarkable, that a few, probably less than half a dozen young women, should manage this whole affair with so much dexterity and correct judgement, that no power, or skill, could be successfully employed against them." The strike resulted in a compromise settlement as several firms rescinded the increases in the cost of room and board, and others did so for operatives paid on a daily basis.

The strikes of 1834 and 1836 were very much products of the new industrial organization that was adopted in Lowell. The early mills produced millions of yards of cotton cloth, but they also contributed to a new consciousness among Yankee working women. Bringing women together on the factory floor and in company boardinghouses, the Lowell system helped create a group consciousness that became evident in the two strikes. Women socialized one another at work and in their boardinghouses and responded with an unexpected sense of shared grievances when mill managers adopted policies that violated the women's expectations and sense of themselves.

A major depression hit the United States beginning in 1837, and the expansion of textile production across New England led to increasing competition for the mills in Lowell. Declining wages, deteriorating working conditions, and the refusal of the state to set limits on the hours of labor led Yankee women to leave mill employment in increasing numbers after 1845. Steadily, the influx of Irish immigrants changed the composition of the mill workforce in Lowell and across New England. By 1860 a majority of mill workers in Lowell were foreign born. Increasingly, immigrant newcomers resided in private homes and not "on the corporation." More children and more older women came to work in the mills. A family labor system evolved in Lowell and other mill towns of the Waltham-Lowell type so that by 1860 the differences that had once distinguished southern and northern New England mills became muted. The Lowell experiment quietly came to an end, and an industrial order came into existence that relied increasingly on an immigrant labor force.

Key Players

Bagley, Sarah G. (1820-1848): Bagley was a New Hampshire-born textile operative in Lowell who began working in Lowell in 1837 and became the leader of the Lowell Female Labor Reform Association that championed the 10-hour day for women mill workers between 1844 and 1847. Bagley organized petition campaigns, spoke at local labor rallies, edited a labor newspaper for a brief period, and testified before a state legislative committee. After her years in Lowell, Bagley married, lived in Albany and Brooklyn, and became a physician with an interest in women's and children's health.

Boott, Kirk (1790-1837): Former officer in the British army who served as the first agent of the Merrimack Manufacturing Company and then of the Proprietors of Locks and Canals, Boott was responsible for the physical development of the mills and the city in their early years and for the paternalist system of labor control that characterized the Lowell system that he dominated until his death in 1837.

Lowell, Francis Cabot (1775-1817): A Boston merchant who observed British textile mills and helped to reconstruct the first working power loom in the United States and one of the founders of the Boston Manufacturing Company in Waltham, Lowell died in 1817, and in 1826 his fellow Boston Associates named their infant mill town on the Merrimack after their visionary collaborator.

See also: Factory Girls' Association.



Dalzell, Robert F., Jr. Enterprising Elite: The Boston Associates and the World They Made. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1987.

Dublin, Thomas. "Beginnings of Industrial America." In Thomas Dublin, Lowell: The Story of an Industrial City, a Guide to Lowell National Historical Park and Lowell Heritage State Park, Lowell, Massachusetts. Washington, DC: Produced by the Division of Publications, National Park Service. U.S. Dept. of the Interior, 1992.

——. Farm to Factory: Women's Letters, 1830-1860, 2nd. ed. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.

——. Women at Work: The Transformation of Work and Community in Lowell, Massachusetts, 1826-1860, 2nd ed. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994.


Lavender, Catherine. "Uses of Liberty Rhetoric among Lowell Mill Women." Liberty Rhetoric and Nineteenth Century American Women. College of Staten Island, CUNY. 1998, updated 19 April 1999 [cited 13 August 2002]. <http://www.library.csi.cuny.edu/dept/americanstudies/lavender/start.html>.

—Thomas Dublin

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