The Lowell System

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The Lowell System


Manchester Model. Francis Cabot Lowell returned from a trip to England in 1812 determined to establish a British-style textile factory in the United States. While in Manchester, Lowell had used his position as a prominent Boston import-export merchant to gain access to the worlds largest textile mills, which were normally closed to Americans out of a well-founded fear of industrial espionage. Lowell was impressed by what he saw and came away convinced that American entrepreneurs could create a profitable textile industry of their own. Within two years of his return Lowell had incorporated his Boston Manufacturing Company, raised over half a million dollars, and stared construction of his first cotton mills on the Charles River in Waltham, Massachusetts. Lowells mills did not represent the first American experiment in the factory production of cotton textiles (Lowells own uncle owned a textile mill), but Lowell expected to reduce costs enough to compete with British imports through the innovation of mechanizing and concentrating all the processes of textile production. His mills were Americas first factories to transform cotton from raw bales to bolts of cloth ready to make into pants, shirts, sheets, and towels, all under one roof.

Success. Over their first seven years of operation Lowells mills reduced the cost of cotton textile production enough to grab a large share of the market, while returning annual dividends of 19 percent to the initial investors. Lowell died an untimely death in 1817, but by 1836 his Boston Manufacturing Company (also called the Boston Associates) employed six thousand workers at the Lowell Mills, valued at over $6 million. Lowells success (and tariff protection from Congress) prompted dozens of imitators. A national survey of manufacturing in 1832 revealed that 88 of the 106 largest American corporations were textile firms. Many of those companies set up their operations alongside the Lowell Mills on the powerful Merrimack River, to which the Lowell Mills had moved in order to take advantage of the stronger current. On the Merrimack the largest waterwheel in the country supplied power for a dozen multistory factories, and by 1840 the town of Lowell had become a major manufacturing center with a population of twenty thousand.

Popular Destination. Nothing like the mill city at Lowell had ever existed in America. On the surface the notion of a large British-style factory town with its dependent laboring population seemed antithetical to the Jeffersonian vision of America as an agrarian republic of independent farmers. Nonetheless, as Americas first true industrial center, Lowell quickly became a mecca for

travelers and a symbol to Europeans and Americans alike of the nations entrepreneurial spirit and mechanical ingenuity. European visitors made it a common stop, and one went so far as to write that Niagara and Lowell are the two objects I will longest remember in my American journey. Lowell also succeeded in the popular American imagination, attracting favorable notice even from committed Jeffersonians like Andrew Jackson because it symbolized Americas potential independence from European imports and from the ills of European industrialism.

Rural Factories. This was not an accidental outcome as Francis Lowell himself had designed his mill city to avoid the distress and poverty He was seen in the manufacturing towns of Britain. He was aided by necessity since the lack of adequate steam engines and mechanics forced him to locate his mills alongside a large, swift-moving stream, preferably near a waterfall, where water power could drive the machinery. The need to locate early factories in the countryside led many Americans too assume that the nation would have none of the great manufacturing cities that blighted Europe. Instead, American factories would rise up on chosen sites, by the falls of waters and the running streams, the seats of health and cheerfulness, where good instruction will secure the morals of the young.

The Lowell Girls. Lowell not only chose a bucolic site for his mills but also selected what he thought was the ideal workforce for a rural factory in the yeoman republic, the unmarried daughters of New England farm families. Since rural household manufacturing was being rendered obsolete by machine-made goods, one of Lowells business partners noted, these young women could supply a fund of labor, well-educated and virtuous, for work in the mills. A further benefit to the mill owners was that these young women (aged sixteen to thirty) were willing to work for two or three years at one-half to one-third the wages paid to men for similar work before returning home to marry and start a family. At $2.40 to $3.20 a week, the pay was still more that double that of domestic servants and seamstresses, the two most common occupations for workingwomen until the teaching profession opened up with the rise of compulsory education in the 1850s. Moreover, the work was not much more difficult that farm labor or home spinning, and most of the workers enjoyed having more financial and personal independence that they had ever experienced in their paternalistic, male-centered farm households or in the claustrophobic confines of rural villages. The keepers of the Lowell boardinghouses where the women lived did impose strict discipline, with curfews, mandatory church attendance or Sunday self-improvement, and chaperones for male visitors, but the women were more that willing to trade these limits on their freedom for the money in their pockets and the camaraderie of their fellow workers, at least for a few years. As one wrote home, I have but one life to live and I want to enjoy myself as well as I can.$rdquo; Work at Lowell became so popular that factory managers were $ldquo;more puzzled to get rid of hands than to employ them.

A Days Labor. Work routines were strict at Lowell, with a twelve-hour day starting at seven in the morning, and only a half-hour lunch break at midday. Factory bells announced times for leaving and entering the plant, and the employees were fined for lateness as well as other breaches of the rules (as defined by the male overseer), including insubordination, profanity, or improper conduct. The work did not demand great physical strength, but it did require constant attention as the women generally tended carding, spinning, and weaving machines, checking for and then correcting broken threads and patters. In winter work began before sunup and lasted into the darkness, when smoky whale-oil lamps illuminated the interior of the factories. Because cotton thread breaks more readily in dry air, overseers sealed window shut and sprayed water in the air to keep the humidity high in the six-story factories. As a result, not only where light and ventilation blocked, but the buzzing and hissing and whizzing of pulleys and rollers and spindles and flyers became an unnerving cacophony in the enclosed machinery rooms.

Reorganization and Resistance. Lowell success encouraged many imitators, and by the mid 1830s the textile market was saturated. Profits declined for the Boston Associates, who responded by adding twelve thousand spindles to the Lowell Mills original six thousand between 1836 and 1847 to achieve new economies of scale. At the same time managers made the mill women tend more looms and spindles operating at a faster speed. To reduce expensive turnover caused by the new workload, workers were required to sign yearlong labor contracts. These changes increased productivity dramatically, but wages did not keep pace. When Lowell managers actually reduced wages and increased productivity dramatically, but wages die not keep pace. When Lowell managers actually reduced wages and increased boarding fees in 1836, two thousand women walked off their jobs in protest. The company fired strike leaders but rescinded the pay reductions. The depression of 1837 brought more unwelcome workplace changes, including longer hours. In response workers formed the Lowell Female Labor Reform Association (LFLRA) and petitioned the Massachusetts state legislature to limit the workday to ten hours. led by Sarah Begley, the LFLRA accused the mill owners of betraying the original promise to guard the morals of young female employees and to treat them with the respect due them in a republican society. The workers were determined to show these drivelling cotton lords, this mushroom aristocracy of New England, who so arrogantly aspire to lord it over Gods heritage, that we will no longer submit to that arbitrary power which has for the last ten years been so abundantly over.

Industrial City. To break cohesion of the Lowell workers the Boston Associates began to hire poor immigrants who were willing to tolerate harsher conditions and lower pay than the New England farm women who formed the original workforce. By 1860, one-half of Lowells mill workers were impoverished Irish immigrants. In the end Lowell became what the Jeffersonians most feared, a city of factories manned by a permanent, largely poor, and often oppressed industrial working class. Lowell was no Manchester, but by 1857, with its mills employing fourteen thousand textile operatives, it had indeed become the mechanized heart of an industrialized and urbanized state. In his 1854 book Walden, Henry David Thoreau of Massachusetts said of Lowell, I cannot believe that our factory system is the best mode by which man can get clothing. The condition of the operatives is becoming every day more like that of the English; and it cannot be wondered at, since, as far as I have heard or observed, the principal object is not that mankind may be well and honestly clad, but unquestionably that the corporations be enriched.


Thomas Bender, Toward an Urban Vision: Ideas and Institutions in Nineteenth-Century America (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1975);

Alfred D. Chandler Jr., The Visible Hand: The Managerial Revolution in American Business (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1977);

Thomas Dublin, Women at Work: The Transformation of Work and community in Lowell, Massachusetts, 18261860 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1979).