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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 Two:
The Legacy of Lowell

Lecturer: Professor Louis Masur


Image of Louis Masur

Well, that was quite a debate, and it captures, I think, the challenges of doing history. And we have these sources, these rich sources, and I think you—both sides did a terrific job of laying out the terms of the divide. Was it empowering? Was it enslaving? Was it economic independence? Was it economic necessity? Happiness? Or did it lead to misery? Of course, these kinds of splits, these kinds of dichotomies, we know we don't have to necessarily choose one or the other. Oftentimes it's both, and many more things.

But as I was listening to the debate, I was also thinking about the larger picture with respect to Lowell, and ultimately where this Lowell experiment went. And I think that word "experiment" is important, because as we were saying, it's the first thing; it's a transitional stage, a transition to clear-cut capitalism—all that paternalism, the boardinghouses, the concern for the other elements of the workers' lives. Well, in time, that fades away. Indeed, Lowell itself transforms when the labor force of young women from New England give way to a largely immigrant workforce, Catholics rather than Protestants, and that too creates part of—less of this benevolent concern for the worker.

So one of the things that we have to realize is the way in which Lowell is almost a Utopian experiment, and perhaps a Utopian experiment that fails, an experiment in the transition to wage labor, in making a transition in such a way that workers aren't exploited, workers aren't oppressed. And sure, we may say, "But wait a minute, you know. We have opportunities, opportunities to work in a factory, opportunities to make some money." And people sometimes volunteer for the purposes of their own exploitation. And they have all kinds of reasons to do so. But if we step back and look at the larger system, then what's the other side of the equation? What about—what about capital? What about the bosses? What about the overseers? What about the owners of production? So I think there are some larger questions here that really speak across time with respect to this issue of capital, the relationship between the workers and the owners. And Lowell, in some ways, in those early strikes that a number of you mentioned, that sort of opens it up. And once it's opened up, it's hard to get back in.

There are other ways as well—other legacies, if you will, I think, of the Lowell experiment. And clearly the importance of women and the experience of working outside the home is one that can't be taken back. It couldn't be taken back for the women themselves who time and again in their memoirs talked about how, for example, one said, "It brought out in the women a dormant strength of character which the world did not previously see." And a few of you mentioned, quite appropriately, the links of these women to a larger women's rights movement taking place in America, to the participation of women in social reforms and social activism, as a sort of legacy, both for their own lives, as well as for their daughters and their daughters' daughters, down through the line.

So to come back to experience and the complicated nature of experience—And we have to listen to those voices, and I think you guys have done a great job of listening to those voices and hearing the tension and the ambivalence—the good side, the negative side, and understanding that these women still speak to us. They are alive in our historical memory because we can recapture parts of their experiences, parts of their voices.

One of the women whose memoir we read an excerpt from, Lucy Larcom, she worked in the mills for nearly 10 years, starting at age 11. And she wrote a memoir late in life called A New England Girlhood, and of all the things in her life, late in life—this was at the end of the 19th century looking back—what she remembered, what she thought about, was her experience in the mills. And she said, "Yeah, I never cared much for the machinery. Who could? The loud noise, the whirring sounds, the thunderous cascades of the machines." And she said that she was somewhat worried, and she remembered feeling confined, nervous about becoming a machine herself, a drudge of labor. "And yet the experience," as she reflected, she said—and here I think her words are worth concluding upon—"I regard it as one of the privileges of my youth that I was permitted to grow up among these active, interesting girls, whose lives were not mere echoes of other lives, but lives that had principle and purpose, distinctly their own."


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