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Primary Sources - Workshop in American History The Lowell Systemhomesitemap
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Workshop 3:  Lectures & Activities

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Lecture Transcript One:
The Lowell Experiment

Lecturer: Professor Louis Masur


Image of Louis Masur

In 1833, a man by the name of Michael Chevalier came to America to inspect the canals and the railroads, to tour the country. Foreign visitors were always coming to America. They wanted to see for themselves this special place, this burgeoning new republic that everyone in Europe heard had remarkable goings-on. Another visitor, Harriet Martineau said that America was meant to be everything. Everything could be accomplished; everything could be included.

Well, Chevalier went around the land and he was astounded by what he saw. He passed through this town—a town named Lowell. And what he said was, "Twelve years ago it was a barren waste in which the silence was interrupted only by the noisy dashings of the clear waters of the Merrimack against the granite blocks that obstruct their course. Today, there are huge factories, five, six, seven stories high, each capped with a little white belfry which stands out against the dark hills of the horizon."

He was astounded by what he saw before him—a town full of boardinghouses and bridges, libraries and churches; the ceaseless noise of hammers and spindles in this city of spindles. Chevalier had captured a critical moment in the history of the United States, a moment of deep historical change: the shift from agricultural production to industrial production; the creation of, really, the first experiment in manufacturing on a massive scale that had begun in America.

Lowell was significant, not only because it was the leading site of textile production in the country, the center of the technological and industrial revolution in America, but because its labor force consisted overwhelmingly of women—young, single women, tens of thousands employed in the mills throughout New England. Why New England? Visitors would come and often wonder about that, because they always commented on the differences between New England and the Mid-Atlantic and the South. And it seems a variety of factors, perhaps, came together to help explain why it was in New England that manufacturing sites such as Lowell first burgeoned.

We can talk about demography, about populations, and the history of populations, the fact that there was this surplus population of available laborers. It turned out to be women, and that's, of course, significant for our discussion, whose role in the domestic economy on the farm had also been changing. Farm sizes in general had been growing smaller. People had been being pushed out—sons who were not going to inherit land pushed out into other lands in order to get and acquire farms. Demographically, the size of families were shrinking—less work to do on the farm, releasing labor, or a labor pool, into whatever might be available. And it would turn out to be the mills. So demography is one factor that helps to explain why New England.

Nature is another factor—the land and the landscape itself. Because what powered these mills? You needed water power. That's what powered them. And in order to have water power, you needed rivers, rivers that not only flowed, but that at various points fell precipitously. And it's the falling rivers that moved the wheels that generated the power for the mills. And that's a fact of nature; it's a fate of nature. The Merrimack River on which Lowell would be founded fell some 35 feet, a tremendous source of energy and power. So nature, too, played its hand in privileging New England as the site of the formation of these mills, to begin with.

And I think we have to also include something about ideology, about ideas and thoughts and assumptions, the stuff that people carry around in their heads, because New England in this period was overwhelmingly first Federalist and then Whig. In fact, one of the women whose letters from Lowell we have, a woman named Mary Paul, said, "The whole of Lowell are Whigs." Well, what did she mean by that? What did it mean to be a Whig, a member of the political party that was so prominent in the 1830s and 1840s in New England? Well, it meant that you had a certain belief system, and that belief system meant that you were committed to growth through investment in manufacturing, in internal improvements, in banking, to support an entire vision of growth across time.

The factory system comes to America, and it really emerged with the formation of a company, the Boston Manufacturing Company, in 1813. A group of associates came together, affluent Boston merchants and bankers: Francis Cabot Lowell who, because of his untimely death, would give his name to the very site that we're looking at and talking about today; Nathan Appleton; Patrick Jackson. They formed this corporation; they raised over $400,000 in investments; and they built a textile plant, initially at Waltham—Waltham, Massachusetts. The Waltham plant consisted of a huge capital investment, all the processes of production consolidated and centralized inside of one plant, minimum skills required from the laborers to come and to work.


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