In 1815, most of the goods used by an American family were either made in the home or obtained from a local craftsperson. One of the first steps in the shift to the factory system was cottage labor, in which unfinished materials were distributed to workers (usually women) in their homes, to be completed and returned to the manufacturer. This method changed in the early nineteenth century, due in large part to the efforts of wealthy Boston businessman Francis Cabot Lowell (1775–1817).
In 1810, Lowell had visited England's textile mills (cloth-making factories). He was impressed with British technology, particularly an automated weaving machine called the power loom (a frame or machine used to weave thread or yarn into cloth) that was not available in the United States. Back in Massachusetts , Lowell was able to create his own version of a working power loom with the help of a highly skilled mechanic. He then began to study other processes of textile production to determine how to carry out large-scale production at low cost. Textile mechanic Samuel Slater (1768–1835) had already successfully mechanized the spinning, or yarn-making, process, and other busi-nesspeople had followed his example, creating the early factories in New England.
Knowing he would need large amounts of money to create a factory, in 1812 Lowell formed an association of wealthy investors, the Boston Associates. Two years later, the company had built the water-powered mill Lowell had envisioned. For the first time in the United States, raw bales of cotton could be transformed into bolts of cloth under one roof. The production process became known as the Waltham-Lowell system, named after the Massachusetts towns in which the four-story brick mills resided.
The Lowell Machines
The Boston Associates hired the best machinists they could find to build the advanced textile machinery that filled the company's mills. Waterwheels, wheels that rotate due to the force of moving water, powered the mills; the rotation of the wheel is then used to power a factory or machine. Belts ran up from the wheels to all floors to run the machines. Cotton, delivered to the mill in bales, traveled through the entire building, going through a different part of the manufacturing process in each room until exiting as finished cloth.
The machines in the Lowell textile mills only made one kind of cloth, and they were easy to operate without much training. The operators fed the threads into the machine and then allowed it to do the work, stopping the process only if threads broke or there was a malfunction. It was not easy to be a mill worker, though. For the total mill operation to run smoothly, all the machines had to be operating at the same time and at a steady speed. Factory work allowed for little independent action. Hours were long, and the work was repetitive.
The factory town
Lowell died in 1817, but the Boston Associates went on to build a complete factory town along the powerful Merrimack River in Massachusetts, naming it Lowell in his honor. They built more mills on the Merrimack in Lawrence, Massachusetts, and Manchester, New Hampshire . Soon the largest waterwheel in the nation was built on the Merrimack, supplying power to a dozen large factories.
The new textile industry prospered. In 1832, 88 of the 106 largest American corporations were textile firms. By 1836, the Lowell mills employed six thousand workers. By 1848, the city of Lowell had a population of about twenty thousand and was the largest industrial center in America. Its mills produced fifty thousand miles of cotton cloth each year.
The Lowell girls
Lowell had envisioned an ideal workforce for his mills—the unmarried daughters of New England farm families. In the first decades of the nineteenth century, many young women were eager to work in the mills, viewing it as a chance to be independent or to provide income for their families. The “Lowell girls,” as they were called, usually ranged in age from about sixteen to thirty. Most worked two or three years at the mill before returning home to marry and start a family. By 1831, women made up almost forty thousand of the fifty-eight thousand factory workers in the textile industry.
The women who operated the machines in the Lowell mills earned $2.40 to $3.20 a week plus room and board. The Boston Associates tried to attract the young women to work for them by providing decent work
and living conditions. They built factories that were clean and well lit. Understanding that single women living on their own feared for their safety and avoided circumstances that would stain their reputations, they established the country's first planned industrial communities, setting up rows of boardinghouses near the factories for their workers. The company paid responsible older women to run these boardinghouses and to enforce strict discipline on the residents, imposing curfews, requiring church attendance, and demanding chaperones for male visitors.
The Lowell mills demanded a twelve- to fourteen-hour workday. Factory bells announced times for leaving and entering the plant, and the employees were fined when they were late or broke other rules. The work did not demand great physical strength, but it did require constant attention.
The Lowell Offering
Many of the Lowell girls were eager to experience independence from family, and they made the most of their time away from home. It was common for young mill operators to spend their evening hours participating in reading groups, attending night school, going to lectures, or just reading on their own.
In October 1840, some of the women from the mills got together to produce and publish a sixteen-page journal called the Lowell Offering, the nation's first journal to be written solely by women. The Offering, which sold for about 6 cents a copy, published poems, articles, and stories contributed by mill women. In all, twenty-eight volumes of the journal were published, and it was hailed worldwide.
The success of the Lowell mills encouraged other industrialists. Soon many new textile mills were producing cloth, and by the late 1830s the supply of cloth on the market had become greater than the demand for it. The Boston Associates made cost reductions at the expense of the workers, who were forced to tend more looms and spindles at once and to operate them at a faster speed. In 1836, with profits down, the Lowell managers actually reduced workers’ wages and raised their boarding fees. Two thousand women walked off their jobs in protest. The company fired the leaders of the strike but called off the pay reductions.
In 1837, the workers established the Lowell Female Labor Reform Association (LFLRA) and petitioned the Massachusetts state legislature to limit the workday to ten hours. No action was taken in response to their protest, but it signaled the end of the young women's work force at the mills. The Boston Associates soon started to replace them with poor immigrants who were willing to tolerate harsher conditions and lower pay. By 1860, one-half of Lowell's mill workers were impoverished Irish immigrants. (See Irish Immigration .)