Observations of Lowell

Observations of Lowell by Frederick Marryat, 1837




Frederick Marryat (1792-1848) was an English naval officer and novelist. He served in the Royal Navy from age 14 until he retired in 1830 as a captain. He then began a series of adventure novels, includingThe King's Own (1830), Peter Simple (1834), and Poor Jack (1840). His Children of the New Forest (1847), set during the English Civil Wars, is a classic of children's literature. A trip (1837–1839) to North America resulted in his unfavorable account of American manners, A Diary in America (1839).


Mr. Carey appears to have lost sight of this fact when he so triumphantly points at the difference between the working classes of both nations, and quotes the Report of our Poor Law Commissioners to prove the wretchedness and misery of ours. I cannot, however, allow his assertions to pass without observation, especially as English and French travellers have been equally content to admit without due examination the claims of the Americans; I refer more particularly to the large manufactory at Lowell, in Massachusetts, which from its asserted purity has been one of the boasts of America. Mr. Carey says:—

“The following passage from a statement, furnished by the manager of one of the principal establishments in Lowell, shows a very gratifying state of things:— ‘There have only occurred three instances in which any apparently improper connection or intimacy had taken place, and in all those cases the parties were married on the discovery, and several months prior to the birth of their children; so that, in a legal point of view, no illegitimate birth has taken place among the females employed in the mills under my direction. Nor have I known of but one case among all the females employed in Lowell. I have said known—I should say heard of one case. I am just informed, that that was a case where the female had been employed but a few days in any mill, and was forthwith rejected from the corporation, and sent to her friends. In point of female chastity, I believe that Lowell is as free from reproach as any place of an equal population in the United States or the world.’”

And he winds up his chapter with the following remark:—

“The effect upon morals of this state of things, is of the most gratifying character. The number of illegitimate children born in the United States is small; so small, that we should suppose one in fifty to be a high estimate. In the great factories of the Eastern States there prevails a high degree of morality, presenting a most extraordinary contrast to the immorality represented to exist in a large portion of those of England.”

Next follows Miss Martineau, who says—“The morals of the female factory population may be expected to be good when it is considered of what class it is composed. Many of the girls are in the factories because they have too much pride for domestic service. Girls who are too proud for domestic service as it is in America, can hardly be low enough for any gross immorality, or to need watching, or not to be trusted to avoid the contagion of evil example. To a stranger, their pride seems to have taken a mistaken direction, and they appear to deprive themselves of a respectable home and station, and many benefits, by their dislike of service; but this is altogether their own affair, they must choose for themselves their way of life. But the reasons of their choice indicate a state of mind superior to the grossest dangers of their position.”

And the Reverend Mr. Reid also echoes the praise of the factory girls given by others, although he admits that their dress was above their state and condition, and that he was surprised to see them appear “insilks, with scarfs, veils, and parasols.”

Here is a mass of evidence opposed to me, but the American evidence must be received with all due caution; and as for the English, I consider it rather favourable to my side of the question than otherwise. Miss Martineau says that “the girls have too much pride for domestic service,” and, therefore, argues that they will not be immoral; now, the two great causes of women falling off from virtue, are poverty and false pride. What difference there is between receiving money for watching a spinning-jenny, and doing household work, I do not see; in either case it is servitude, although the former may be preferred, as being less under control, and leaving more time at your own disposal. I consider the pride, therefore, which Miss Martineau upholds, to be false pride, which will actuate them in other points; and when we find the factory girls vying with each other in silks and laces, it becomes a query whether the passion for dress, so universal in America, may not have its effect there as well as elsewhere. I must confess that I went to Lowell doubting all I had heard—it was so contrary to human nature that five hundred girls should live among a population of fifteen hundred, or more, all pure and virtuous, and all dressed in silks and satin.

When I went to Lowell I traveled with an American gentleman, who will, I have no doubt, corroborate my statement, and I must say that, however pure Lowell may have been at the time when the encomiums were passed upon it, I have every reason to believe, from American authority as well as my own observation, that a great alteration has taken place, and that the manufactories have retrograded with the whole mass of American society. In the first place, I never heard a more accomplished swearer, east of the Alleghanies, than one young lady who addressed me and my American friend, and as it was the only instance of swearing on the part of a female that I ever met with in the United States, it was the more remarkable. I shall only observe, that two days at Lowell convinced me that “human nature was the same every where,” and thus I dismiss the subject.