Lowell, Francis Cabot

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Francis Cabot Lowell

Born April 7, 1775 (Newburyport, Massachusetts)

Died August 10, 1817 (Boston, Massachusetts)


Francis Cabot Lowell played a key role in bringing the Industrial Revolution to the United States in the early nineteenth century. He introduced highly advanced technology to New England's growing textile industry and devised new methods of managing workers and the production process. Lowell's textile factories produced on a much larger scale than anything the United States had seen prior to that period. Lowell also established one of the earliest forms of the modern-day corporation, which prospered long after his death and was a model for all American business.

"To obtain … funds, Lowell devised a plan that would allow him to sell shares in the mill to others and organize his business in a joint-stock arrangement…. This flexible plan … is the foundation upon which present-day corporations are based."

Albert Barnor and Lynn Elaine Brown.

Early work in the shipping industry

Lowell was a member of a large aristocratic New England family. He grew up in Newburyport, Massachusetts, and was the son of prominent judge John Lowell (1743–1802) and Susanna Cabot (1754–1777), the daughter of an immensely wealthy shipping family. Francis enrolled at Harvard University in 1789, where he excelled in mathematics. When he graduated in 1793, he began working in a Cabot family trading firm as a partner. He was a successful businessman well on his way to becoming wealthy when he married Hannah Jackson in 1798. His wife's family provided Lowell with more connections to the shipping business. By 1810 he was a major merchant in his own right, and he traded with companies in Europe, Canada, India, and China.

Lowell got into the shipping business at a very dangerous, though profitable, time, when major conflicts were occurring in Europe, mainly between England and France. The English were trying to stop foreign trade with France, while the French were denying the English access to other European ports. As the tensions grew worse, England announced its intention to seize goods carried in neutral ships that were intended for French ports—a not-very-subtle threat to American merchants. In 1807 an English warship seized an American ship and removed four sailors from it who they claimed had deserted from the English navy. Americans were outraged. That same year Congress passed an embargo, an act forbidding almost all foreign trade. The embargo was so damaging to the U.S. economy it was lifted in 1809, but trade with England and France was still forbidden. For New England traders like Lowell there were great profits to be made since the price of English textiles rose as the supply steadily decreased. On the other hand, the risks of the business were extreme, and many ships and their cargos were lost in the conflict. Lowell's business thrived, but the stress damaged his health. When his doctor recommended he take a trip overseas to regain his strength in 1810, he and his wife set out for England.

Studying textile technology in England

Lowell had thought of building a textile mill before making the trip to England, believing that New England could prosper if it replaced part of its cloth trade with its own manufacturing facilities. While visiting the industrial city of Manchester, England, Lowell used his position as a prominent Boston import-export merchant to gain access to the world's largest textile mills, which were normally closed to Americans out of a well-founded fear of industrial espionage (spying). Lowell was impressed by the technology he saw, particularly by an automated weaving machine called a power loom (a frame or machine used to weave thread or yarns into cloth). American technology could not even begin to compete with what he was seeing in the Manchester mills. However, it was illegal to bring the English looms, or even the plans for them, to the United States, as the English wanted no competition in their production of the finished cloth.

Lowell was determined to bring the power loom to the United States. While he was in Manchester he studied the looms in the mills, making sketches and drawings when he could and memorizing mechanical details. He returned to New England in 1812 with his sketches and a mission. He hired Paul Moody (1779–1831), a mechanic considered to be a genius by many of his peers. Lowell described what he had seen to Moody, giving him the sketches and explaining the mechanics he had observed. Under Lowell's direction Moody proceeded to build a power loom that was not only equal, but in many ways superior, to the English power loom. Using this machine it would be possible for the first time in the United States to carry out the full cotton manufacturing process in one building. Factory workers, called operators, could run machines to clean the raw cotton fibers, spin the fibers into threads, and then weave the threads into cloth. Other U.S. mills were already producing cotton textiles, but with his new technology Lowell expected to reduce costs enough to compete with English imports. To set up the factory he envisioned, though, would require a great deal of money, and even though he was wealthy, Lowell did not have the funds to accomplish such a large project.

An early corporation

Most English and American companies in the beginning of the nineteenth century were sole proprietorships or partnerships. A sole proprietorship was a company owned by an individual who had the authority to manage the company and was directly responsible for its debts and entitled to its profits. A partnership was a business created by a contract between two or more persons who managed the company jointly and shared its debts and profits. Although Lowell did not have the money to create his textile mill venture as a sole proprietorship, there were several problems with the idea of forming a partnership as well. To raise capital (accumulated wealth or goods devoted to the production of other goods) beyond the initial investment, all the participants had to agree to contribute or else new partners would have to be found, which could cause major holdups in the company's expansion. Another possible difficulty was that one partner could suddenly find himself responsible for the full debts of the company, rather than just his own share. Also, partnerships were not usually able to stay in business after the death of one of the partners. Lowell realized he needed a better plan and decided to organize his business as a joint-stock company. A joint-stock company is a group of people that organize a business and then sell shares of it as stock to investors. Those who purchase stock shares are entitled to part of the profits as well as part of the losses.

Moses Brown

Francis Cabot Lowell was not alone in his attempt to create humane working conditions in the new U.S. textile factories. Moses Brown (1738–1838), often considered the first textile manufacturer in the country, was equally concerned with the conditions of life the new industry would provide for its workers. Brown was an unusual mix of industrialist and reformer with sharp insight into the problems facing industrial America.

Brown was born into a family of merchants in Providence, Rhode Island. His father died while he was very young, and he was raised and trained in business by his uncle, Obadiah Brown. The elder Brown's interests included not only the West Indies trade but also insurance, moneylending, and candle manufacturing. When Obadiah died in 1762, Moses and his three older brothers took over and greatly expanded their uncle's business. By the 1770s the Browns were one of the great mercantile families of New England.

In 1773 Moses Brown's first wife died. In his grief Brown withdrew from business for several years. He became a Quaker (a member of the Religious Society of Friends, a Christian group noted for its opposition to war, oath taking, and rituals) and began to take an active part in the antislavery movement in Rhode Island. He freed his own slaves, helped others to escape, and gave aid to freedmen of African descent. Brown's brothers were pro-slavery and they did not understand his new religion. It caused conflict in his family, but Brown was an independent thinker and stuck with his beliefs.

After the American Revolution (1775–83; the American colonists' fight for independence from England), Brown was convinced that the United States should become more economically independent from England. The early signs of American industry drew Brown back to the commercial world. He was particularly interested in the prospect of textile manufacturing in the United States. In 1789 he formed a company with his son-in-law, William Almy, to spin and weave cloth in Providence. After two years in business, they had been unable to obtain effective machinery. Brown investigated methods to spin thread and noted that English inventor Richard Arkwright (1732–1792) had developed a method using water power to run spinning frames and carding machines (machines that cleaned, untangled, and collected fibers). Around that time Samuel Slater (1768–1835), a mill overseer at the famed Arkwright Mills in England, arrived in the United States. Brown immediately invited him to his mill and asked him to re-create the Arkwright machinery. From memory, Slater built copies of the machinery he had known and used in England, producing the first water-powered cotton mill in the United States. Slater joined the company and soon Brown withdrew from the business world again. Although Slater is often credited with creating the first water-powered textile mills in the country, Brown's lesser-known part in the process was significant.

Brown's withdrawals from business were attempts to apply himself more fully to his religion. Eventually he seemed to successfully combine his instinct for business with his religious impulses. In 1770 he helped move Rhode Island College from Warren to Providence. It became Brown University, named to honor the great contributions of his family. Although to some degree he shared the Quaker suspicion that higher education weakened devotion to religion, he worked for decades to found a Friends' school. In 1819 the New England Yearly Meeting Boarding School became a reality, and in 1904 it was renamed the Moses Brown School.

Brown never lost interest in the Industrial Revolution, which was in its early stages in New England. He was highly curious about technology and often wondered how industry would treat its workers in the years to come. He knew that workers in England's textile industry suffered under miserable conditions, and he hoped that the U.S. textile industry might handle its workforce differently. In an impassioned report to Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton (1757–1804), he urged strong measures to protect the incomes and safety of laborers and to monitor child labor. He was, in a sense, asking for reforms to some conditions that had not yet occurred in the United States.

Lowell needed about $400,000 to build his mill and set it in operation. He organized a business, the Boston Manufacturing Company (also called the Boston Associates), and began to sell shares of it. He sold one hundred shares of the company stock at $1,000 per share, raising enough money to build the first textile factory. Then, with the power loom ready and the business company established, Lowell applied for a patent (a legal document issued by a government granting exclusive authority to an inventor to make, use, or sell an invention for a certain number of years) for his power loom. He purchased land along the Charles River in Waltham, Massachusetts. In 1814 the company erected buildings in Waltham and fitted them with looms and machines based on Lowell's model, all powered by water. By the end of 1814 the mills were operating.

One of the main elements in the successful operation of such a large business was keeping it well funded for expansion, and Lowell's joint-stock company did just that. He raised $300,000 for additional factories by selling more shares of company stock. According to economic education specialist Albert Barnor in his online article "Francis Cabot Lowell," this attracted investors: "If the company did well, they would receive dividends [a share of the profits] on the amount they had invested. If they liked how the company was performing, they could invest additional money. If they wanted to end their investment, they could sell their shares to others. They could also bequeath their shares in their wills." This type of corporation would be the business organization of the future, and Lowell was one of the first Americans to develop it.

The Lowell girls

Lowell was interested in all aspects of his new business. He had devoted a considerable amount of attention to the labor and management of his mills before they went into operation. He came up with an innovative labor program that he hoped would provide a humane alternative to the system of child labor that had long been in use in England. Lowell believed he had found an ideal workforce for his mills—the unmarried daughters of New England farm 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. They were cheap labor, as they were willing to accept significantly lower wages than male workers, and they were quick, intelligent, and dedicated. New Englanders were not used to the idea of women living independently and working for wages. In order to convince farmers to allow their daughters to come to the mills, Lowell knew he would have to provide safety in the workplace and a socially acceptable living environment for the young women, with curfews, required church attendance, and chaperones (adult supervisors). He envisioned establishing the country's first planned industrial communities, and he set up rows of boardinghouses near the factories for the workers. Called the Lowell System, or the Waltham System, farm girls and young women who came to work at the textile factory were housed in the supervised dormitories or boardinghouses and were provided with educational and cultural opportunities.

Although Lowell would not live to see it, by 1831 women made up almost forty thousand of the fifty-eight thousand factory workers in the textile industry. His early death also prevented him from seeing the conflicts that arose between the workers and management in the Lowell mills. Though there was some resentment about the mills' paternalistic, or fatherly, treatment of its workers, initially many young women found working at the Lowell mills for a few years before marrying a great adventure. They worked very hard but found time to take advantage of educational opportunities in the growing city. By the 1840s, though, competition in the textile industry put pressure on the management to obtain more work from employees at less pay. The frustrated Lowell girls protested against long workdays and low wages, staging two major strikes. By 1848 mill managers had stopped following Lowell's ideal of creating a humane workplace. By then, most of the farmers' daughters had left the textile industry in disgust. They were replaced by recent immigrants who were in desperate need of work.

Despite Lowell's death, the company expands

The United States had finally gone to war with England over trade and territorial disputes in the War of 1812 (1812–15). This had made trade with England nearly impossible and created a huge demand for American-made cloth, but the war ended around the time the mill in Waltham finally opened. Suddenly inexpensive English textiles were available in the United States again, which posed a serious threat to Lowell's new business. Lowell went to Washington, D.C., where he helped to convince Congress to impose a tariff (a fee on imported goods) on imported cotton cloth to aid American manufacturers. His influence had beneficial results for his new and prospering business, but Lowell would not live to see the outcome. His health, which had been poor for some time, declined further. He died at the age of forty-two in 1817.

The Boston Manufacturing Company went on to build a complete factory town along the powerful Merrimack River in Massachusetts, naming it Lowell in his honor. The company built more mills along the Merrimack at Lawrence, Massachusetts, and Manchester, New Hampshire. Soon the largest waterwheel in the nation was built on the river and supplied power to a dozen large factories. A waterwheel was a wheel that rotated due to the force of moving water, and the rotation of the wheel was then used to power a factory or machine. By 1836 the Boston Manufacturing Company employed six thousand workers at the Lowell mills. By 1845 just one of Lowell's mills could produce in a week more cotton cloth than was produced in the entire country in the year of 1810. While numerous competitors followed Lowell's example in building factories along New England's rivers, the Lowell mills were for several decades the largest industrial enterprise in America in terms of profit, value of production, and number of employees. The city of Lowell had a population of about twenty thousand by 1848, and its mills produced fifty thousand miles of cotton cloth each year.

For More Information


Brogan, Hugh. The Penguin History of the USA. 2nd ed. London and New York: Penguin Books, 2001.

Hindle, Brooke, and Steven Lubar. Engines of Change: The American Industrial Revolution, 1790–1860. Washington DC and London: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1986.

Rivard, Paul E. A New Order of Things: How the Textile Industry Transformed New England. Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 2002.

Web Sites

Barnor, Albert, with Lynn Elaine Browne. "Francis Cabot Lowell." Economic Adventure.org. http://www.economicadventure.org/decision/index.cfm (accessed on June 7, 2005).

"Francis Cabot Lowell: Consolidated Manufacturing." Who Made America? They Made America: PBS. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/theymadeamerica/whomade/lowell_hi.html (accessed on July 7, 2005).

Lowell, Francis Cabot

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Francis Cabot Lowell (17751817) was a member of a large aristocratic New England family that came to dominate the business, political, and cultural life of Massachusetts. He was born in Newburyport, Massachusetts, a year before the signing of the United States Constitution. Francis was a U.S. business pioneer who helped bring about in the United States what is now called the Industrial Revolution. By memorizing and bringing to the United States mechanical details of the English power loom used to make cotton fabric, Lowell created with his business partners the first U.S. textile factory. It was a revolutionary facility built in Waltham, Massachusetts. There the new water-powered loom technology was used with all the other processes of spinning and weaving cloth to enable the manufacture of finished cloth from raw cotton under one roof. It was known as the "Waltham-Lowell System."

Francis Lowell grew up in Newburyport, Massachusetts, the son of John Lowell, a prominent judge married to Susanna Cabot, the daughter of an immensely wealthy shipping family. Francis enrolled at Harvard University in 1789, where he excelled in mathematics. After graduating in 1793 he began to work in an import-export company owned by his uncle, William Cabot. Lowell traveled widely and sought to develop trade and business connections. He prospered in his work and, when his father died in 1802, Francis inherited one-third of his father's $80,000 estate, invested for the most part in eight commercial ships.

By 1810 Lowell was, according to most standards, a wealthy man. He was not in the best of health, however, and his wife's health was becoming problematic as well. They decided to travel to Edinburgh, Scotland to improve their health and to observe the power looms that were being used for producing cotton fabric in Manchester, England and other locations.

Lowell had thought of building a textile mill back in Massachusetts believing that New England would only prosper by supplementing its cloth trade with manufacturing facilities. When Lowell returned to Massachusetts in 1812 he was aware that the War of 1812 (18121814) would likely cripple his overseas commercial trading business, and so he became intensely active in developing a cloth industry locally, in Massachusetts. The power loom he saw in England was not available in the United States and it was illegal to export the looms for foreign use because the English wanted no competition in their production of power loom finished cloth.

Lowell was determined to bring the power loom to the United States. While he was in England he studied the looms, making sketches and drawings when he could, and memorized mechanical details. Back in Massachusetts, Lowell was able to create his own version of a working power loom with the help of a skilled mechanic, Paul Moody (17791831). In 1812 Francis Lowell and other businessmen established what they called the Boston Manufacturing Company. They incorporated it in 1813 and chartered to capitalize it at $400,000.

With the power loom ready, and the business company established, the loom was patented. Land was purchased by Lowell for the Boston Manufacturing Company along the Charles River at Waltham, Massachusetts, and later along the Merrimack River. In 1814 the company erected buildings on the land at Waltham and fitted them with looms and machines based on Lowell's model, powered by water. At the end of 1814 the mills became operational. They were soon recognized to be the world's first mills capable of converting raw cotton into finished fabric under one roof, revolutionizing the entire textile industry.

Lowell and his fellow entrepreneurs, a group of men who were later widely known as the "Boston Associates," transformed the country's textile industry. So great were the profits at Waltham that the Boston Associates soon looked for new sites throughout the state, and found them at East Chelmsford (later renamed Lowell, Massachusetts), at Chicopee, Manchester, and Lawrence. The "Waltham-Lowell System" of producing cotton fabric from raw cotton under one roof in a mill operation succeeded beyond all expectations. It gave the Boston Associates control over one-fifth of cotton fabric production in the United States by 1850. By expanding into other businesses related and unrelated to cotton production their empire expanded. The Lowell and the Boston Associates turned to philanthropy, establishing hospitals, schools, and universities.

Though he died at the early age of 42 in 1817, Francis Lowell clearly took a part of the young United States into the Industrial Revolution era. He pioneered work in mass textile manufacture, making cotton fabric domestically produced by a U.S. work force available to people in the United States at inexpensive prices.

See also: Rhode Island System of Labor, Samuel Slater Builds First Factory, Samuel Slater


Dublin, Thomas. Lowell: The Story of an Industrial City. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of the Interior, 1992.

. Women at Work: The Transformation of Work and Community in Lowell, Massachusetts 18261860. New York: Columbia University Press, 1979.

Eno, Arthur L., Jr., ed. Cotton Was King: A History of Lowell, Massachusetts. Somersworth, NH: New Hampshire Publishing Co., 1976.

Greenslet, Ferris. The Lowells and Their Seven Worlds. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Publications, 1946.

Josephson, Hannah. The Golden Threads: New England's Mill Girls and Magnates. New York: Russell and Russell, 1967.

Francis Cabot Lowell

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Francis Cabot Lowell

The American merchant and manufacturer Francis Cabot Lowell (1775-1817) introduced the power loom and the integrated factory system to American cotton textile manufactures.

Francis Cabot Lowell was born in Newburyport, Mass., the son of John Lowell, a prominent lawyer, and Susanna Cabot, the daughter of a wealthy family of merchant shippers. Lowell earned a Harvard degree in 1793 and shortly afterward went to sea on family ships. His marriage in 1798 to Hannah Jackson joined him to two other substantial shipping families. By 1810 he was a major merchant in his own right; his trade encompassed Europe, Canada, India, and China.

In 1810 Lowell made an extended visit to England, where he was fascinated by the power loom, not yet available in America. Since it was illegal to export either models or designs, he studied the looms so thoroughly that with the help of a skilled mechanic, Paul Moody, he was able to have them reproduced from his memory and drawings on his return to Boston. The power loom was pivotal in the American attempt to compete in textile manufactures at a time when capital and technological superiority still belonged to the English.

The Boston Manufacturing Company was chartered in 1812 with an authorized capital of $400,000. Lowell, five brothers-in-law, and others in the mercantile community provided the large sums of capital necessary for what quickly became a major enterprise. In 1814 a mill was in operation at Waltham, Mass., which not only exploited the power loom but also, and for the first time, contained all of the processes of spinning and weaving cotton cloth under one roof. The Waltham mill was the parent of the famous mills at Lowell, Mass. Lowell was one of the first American company towns, characterized by a paternalism that has been both praised and damned.

Lowell was an active lobbyist for the protective tariff and in 1816 was influential in achieving the first American tariff that acknowledged an "infant industries" principle and provided a substantial duty on foreign cotton goods. Lowell died at the early age of 42, leaving a daughter and three sons, one of whom, Francis Cabot Lowell II, was to inherit his father's managerial abilities and a leading position in the expanding textile industry. After Lowell's death in 1817, the interrelated family firms produced textile machinery too.

Further Reading

Ferris Greenslet, The Lowells and Their Seven Worlds (1946), provides a popular account of several generations of the Lowell family. Kenneth Wiggins Porter, The Jacksons and the Lees (1937), contains both family and business history. A scholarly analysis of the textile interests Lowell helped to build is in George Sweet Gibb, The Saco-Lowell Shops (1950). Still important as a source is Nathan Appleton, Introduction of the Power Loom, and Origin of Lowell (1858). □

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