Observations of Lowell

Observations of Lowell by Charles Lyell, 1849



Charles Lyell was a geologist in England who resolved to make a journey to America to study the terrain of the new country. His trip in the years 1841-2 encompassed Massachusetts, Connecticut, Maryland, Washington, Virginia, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Rhode Island, Vermont, Kentucky, Illinois, Ohio, and Nova Scotia. Lyell published several papers on the scientific discoveries he made while in America, but in 1849 he also published A Second Visit to the United States of North America, a more general account of his impressions of American society.

Lyell's observations about American women excluded the comments about society gatherings so prevalent from other travelers, among them Tocqueville and Beaumont. Lyell noted approvingly the deference shown to female travelers on the railway and on the steamboats, but most of his remarks about American women concerned their work in Lowell in the mills and their work for religious charities. Lyell also included detailed information about slave provisions, slave prices, and a slave wedding.


I was informed by a fellow-traveler that the joint-stock companies of Lowell have a capital of more than two millions sterling invested. "Such corporations," he said, "are too aristocratic for our ideas, and can combine to keep down the price of wages." But one of the managers, in reply, assured me that the competition of rival factories is great, and the work-people pass freely from one company to another, being only required to sign an agreement to give a fortnight's notice to quit. He also maintained that, on the contrary, they are truly democratic institutions, the shares being as low as 500 dollars, and often held by the operatives, as some of them were by his own domestic servants. By this system the work-people are prevented from looking on the master manufacturers as belonging to a distinct class, having different interests from their own. The holders of small shares have all the advantages of partners, but are not answerable for the debts of the establishment beyond their deposits. They can examine all the accounts annually, when there is a public statement of their affairs.

An English overseer told me that he and other foremen were receiving here, and in other New England mills, two dollars and two and a half dollars a day (8s. 6d. and 10s. 6d.).