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Lowell System of Labor


During the early 1800s factories went up throughout New England, where rivers were used to power recently developed manufacturing machinery. One such factory was established between 1812 and 1814 in Waltham, Massachusetts. At this site, on the shores of the Charles River, industrialist Francis Cabot Lowell (17751817) built the Boston Manufacturing Company, the first complete cotton spinning and weaving mill in the United States. Here the raw cotton fibers were processed to produce cloth.

To attract the necessary work force to his plant, Lowell established an innovative labor program. He hoped his program would prove an alternative to the system of child labor that had long been in use in Britain and also prevailed in New England textile mills. Called the Lowell System, or the Waltham System, farm girls and young women who came to work at the textile factory were housed in supervised dormitories or boardinghouses and were provided with educational and cultural opportunities. Lowell believed that by providing safety in the workplace, comfortable living conditions, and a socially positive living and working environment he could ensure a steady supply of labor.

Lowell expanded his manufacturing interests, establishing larger mills on the Merrimack River in present-day Lowell, Massachusetts (a town named in his honor). But in the 1830s and 1840s the Lowell System faltered. Increased competition in the textile industry (which was the model for other industries of the day) forced factory owners to cut wages and lengthen hours to stay profitable and meet production demands. In 1834 Lowell cut his workers' wages by 25 percent; the workers responded by staging a strike and organizing the Factory Girls Association, a labor union. But the union's efforts were unsuccessful. Two years later the "Lowell girls" struck again when their housing rates were raised; again the strike failed, as workers found themselves unable to make ends meet and were back on the job within a month.

Conditions deteriorated and in 1845 Lowell workers formed the Female Labor Reform Association, which joined forces with other Massachusetts laborers to force government to legislate improved work conditions in the state. The lobby helped to pass laws that limited work hours, but textile mills continued to ignore the legislation. The arrival of the Irish in Lowell, beginning in 1846, also contributed substantially to the demise of the Lowell System of Labor. With unskilled labor available and willing to work for low wages, the system was no longer needed. By the 1850s the Lowell System was a failed experiment. New England farm girls were replaced by immigrant women who were willing to work for longer hours and lower wages.

See also: Francis Cabot Lowell, Rhode Island System of Labor, Spinning Mills, Textile Industry, Women in the Workplace

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