Lowell, Massachusetts 1861
By Anthony Trollope
I am not at all aware whether the nature of the manufacturing corporation of Lowell is generally understood by Englishmen. I confess that until I made personal acquaintance with the plan, I was absolutely ignorant on the subject. I knew that Lowell was a manufacturing town at which cotton is made into calico, and at which calico is printed—as is the case at Manchester; but I conceived this was done at Lowell, as it is done at Manchester, by individual enterprise—that I or any one else could open a mill at Lowell, and that the manufacturers there were ordinary traders, as they are at other manufacturing towns. But this is by no means the case.
That which most surprises an English visitor on going through the mills at Lowell is the personal appearance of the men and women who work at them. As there are twice as many women as there are men, it is to them that the attention is chiefly called. They are not only better dressed, cleaner, and better mounted in every respect than the girls employed at manufactories in England, but they are so infinitely superior as to make a stranger immediately perceive that some very strong cause must have created the difference. We all know the class of young women whom we generally see serving behind counters in the shops of our larger cities. They are neat, well dressed, careful, especially about their hair, composed in their manner, and sometimes a little supercilious in the propriety of their demeanor. It is exactly the same class of young women that one sees in the factories at Lowell. They are not sallow, nor dirty, nor ragged, nor rough. They have about them no signs of want, or of low culture. Many of us also know the appearance of those girls who work in the factories in England; and I think it will be allowed that a second glance at them is not wanting to show that they are in every respect inferior to the young women who attend our shops. The matter, indeed, requires no argument. Any young woman at a shop would be insulted by being asked whether she had worked at a factory. The difference with regard to the men at Lowell is quite as strong, though not so striking. Working men do not show their status in the world by their outward appearance as readily as women; and, as I have said before, the number of the women greatly exceeded that of the men.
One would of course be disposed to say that the superior condition of the workers must have been occasioned by superior wages; and this, to a certain extent, has been the cause. But the higher payment is not the chief cause. Women’s wages, including all that they receive at the Lowell factories, average about 14s. a week, which is, I take it, fully a third more than women can earn in Manchester, or did earn before the loss of the American cotton began to tell upon them. But if wages at Manchester were raised to the Lowell standard, the Manchester women would not be clothed, fed, cared for, and educated like the Lowell women. The fact is, that the workmen and the workwomen at Lowell are not exposed to the chances of an open labor market. They are taken in, as it were, to a philanthropical manufacturing college, and then looked after and regulated more as girls and lads at a great seminary, than as hands by whose industry profit is to be made out of capital. This is all very nice and pretty at Lowell, but I am afraid it could not be done at Manchester.
There are at present twelve different manufactories at Lowell, each of which has what is called a separate corporation. The Merrimack Manufacturing Company was incorporated in 1822, and thus Lowell was commenced. The Lowell Machine-shop was incorporated in 1845, and since that no new establishment has been added. In 1821, a certain Boston manufacturing company, which had mills at Waltham, near Boston, was attracted by the water-power of the River Merrimack, on which the present town of Lowell is situated. A canal called the Pawtucket Canal had been made for purposes of navigation from one reach of the river to another, with the object of avoiding the Pawtucket Falls; and this canal, with the adjacent water-power of the river, was purchased for the Boston company. The place was then called Lowell, after one of the partners in that company.
It must be understood that water-power alone is used for preparing the cotton and working the spindles and looms of the cotton mills. Steam is applied in the two establishments in which the cottons are printed, for the purposes of printing, but I think nowhere else. When the mills are at full work, about two and a half million yards of cotton goods are made every week, and nearly a million pounds of cotton are consumed per week, (i e. 842,000 lbs.,) but the consumption of coal is only 30,000 tons in the year. This will give some idea of the value of the water-power. The Pawtucket Canal was, as I say, bought, and Lowell was commenced. The town was incorporated in 1826, and the railway between it and Boston was opened in 1835, under the superintendence of Mr. Jackson, the gentleman by whom the purchase of the canal had in the first instance been made. Lowell now contains about 40,000 inhabitants.
The following extract is taken from the hand-book to Lowell: “Mr. F.C. Lowell had, in his travels abroad, observed the effect of large manufacturing establishments on the character of the people, and in the establishment at Waltham the founders looked for a remedy for these defects. They thought that education and good morals would even enhance the profit, and that they could compete with Great Britain by introducing a more cultivated class of operatives. For this purpose they built boarding-houses, which, under the direct supervision of the agent, were kept by discreet matrons”—I can answer for the discreet matrons at Lowell—“mostly widows, no boarders being allowed except operatives. Agents and overseers of high moral character were selected; regulations were adopted at the mills and boarding-houses, by which only respectable girls were employed. The mills were nicely painted and swept”—I can also answer for the painting and sweeping at Lowell—“trees set out in the yards and along the streets, habits of neatness and cleanliness encouraged; and the result justified the expenditure. At Lowell the same policy has been adopted and extended; more spacious mills and elegant boarding-houses have been erected;” as to the elegance, it may be a matter of taste, but as to the comfort, there is no question—“the same care as to the classes employed; more capital has been expended for cleanliness and decoration; a hospital has been established for the sick, where, for a small price, they have an experienced physician and skillful nurses. An institute, with an extensive library, for the use of the mechanics, has been endowed. The agents have stood forward in the support of schools, churches, lectures, and lyceums, and their influence contributed highly to the elevation of the moral and intellectual character of the operatives. Talent has been encouraged, brought forward, and recommended.” For some considerable time the young women wrote, edited, and published a newspaper among themselves, called the Lowell Offering. “And Lowell has supplied agents and mechanics for the later manufacturing places who have given tone to society, and extended the beneficial influence of Lowell through the United States. Girls from the country, with a true Yankee spirit of independence, and confident in their own powers, pass a few years here, and then return to get married with a dower secured by their exertions, with more enlarged ideas and extended means of information, and their places are supplied by younger relatives. A large proportion of the female population of New England has been employed at some time in manufacturing establishments, and they are not on this account less good wives, mothers, or educators of families.” Then the account goes on to tell how the health of the girls has been improved by their attendance at the mills; how they put money into the savings banks, and buy railway shares and farms; how there are thirty churches in Lowell, a library, banks, and insurance office,; how there is a cemetery, and a park; and how everything is beautiful, philanthropic, profitable, and magnificent.
Thus Lowell is the realization of a commercial Utopia. Of all the statements made in the little book which I have quoted, I cannot point out one which is exaggerated, much less false. I should not call the place elegant; in other respects I am disposed to stand by the book. Before I had made any inquiry into the cause of the apparent comfort, it struck me at once that some great effort at excellence was being made. I went into one of the discreet matrons’ residences; and, perhaps, may give but an indifferent idea of her discretion, when I say that she allowed me to go into the bed-rooms. If you want to ascertain the inner ways or habits of life of any man, woman, or child, see, if it be practicable to do so, his or her bed-room. You will learn more by a minute’s glance round that holy of holies, than by any conversation. Looking-glasses and such like, suspended dresses, and toilet-belongings, if taken without notice, cannot lie or even exaggerate. The discreet matron at first showed me rooms only prepared for use, for at the period of my visit Lowell was by no means full; but she soon became more intimate with me, and I went through the upper part of the house. My report must be altogether in her favor and in that of Lowell. Everything was cleanly, well ordered, and feminine. There was not a bed on which any woman need have hesitated to lay herself if occasion required it. I fear that this cannot be said of the lodgings of the manufacturing classes at Manchester. The boarders all take their meals together. As a rule, they have meat twice a day. Hot meat for dinner is with them as much a matter of course, or probably more so, than with any Englishman or woman who may read this book. For in the States of America regulations on this matter are much more rigid than with us. Cold meat is rarely seen, and to live a day without meat would be as great a privation as to pass a night without bed.
The rules for the guidance of these boarding-houses are very rigid. The houses themselves belong to the corporations, or different manufacturing establishments, and the tenants are altogether in the power of the managers. None but operatives are to be taken in. The tenants are answerable for improper conduct. The doors are to be closed at ten o’clock. Any boarders who do not attend divine worship are to be reported to the managers. The yards and walks are to be kept clean, and snow removed at once; and the inmates must be vaccinated, etc. etc. etc. It is expressly stated by the Hamilton Company—and I believe by all the companies—that no one shall be employed who is habitually absent from public worship on Sunday, or who is known to be guilty of immorality, it is stated that the average wages of the women are two dollars, or eight shillings, a week, besides their board. I found when I was there that from three dollars to three and a half a week were paid to the women, of which they paid one dollar and twenty-five cents for their board. As this would not fully cover the expense of their keep, twenty-five cents a week for each was also paid to the boarding-house keepers by the mill agents. This substantially came to the same thing, as it left the two dollars a week, or eight shillings, with the girls over and above their cost of living. The board included washing, lights, food, bed, and attendance—leaving a surplus of eight shillings a week for clothes and saving. Now let me ask any one acquainted with Manchester and its operatives, whether that is not Utopia realized. Factory girls, for whom every comfort of life is secured, with 21l. a year over for saving and dress! One sees the failing, however, at a moment. It is Utopia. Any Lady Bountiful can tutor three or four peasants and make them luxuriously comfortable. But no Lady Bountiful can give luxurious comfort to half a dozen parishes. Lowell is now nearly forty years old, and contains but 40,000 inhabitants. From the very nature of its corporations it cannot spread itself. Chicago, which has grown out of nothing in a much shorter period, and which has no factories, has now 120,000 inhabitants. Lowell is a very wonderful place and shows what philanthropy can do; but I fear it also shows what philanthropy cannot do.
There are, however, other establishments, conducted on the same principle as those at Lowell, which have had the same amount, or rather the same sort of success. Lawrence is now a town of about 15,000 inhabitants, and Manchester of about 24,000, if I remember rightly; and at those places the mills are also owned by corporations and conducted as are those at Lowell. But it seems to me that as New England takes her place in the world as a great manufacturing country—which place she undoubtedly will take sooner or later—she must abandon the hot-house method of providing for her operatives with which she has commenced her work. In the first place, Lowell is not open as a manufacturing town to the capitalists even of New England at large. Stock may, I presume, be bought in the corporations, but no interloper can establish a mill there. It is a close manufacturing community, bolstered up on all sides, and has none of that capacity for providing employment for a thickly growing population which belongs to such places as Manchester and Leeds. That it should under its present system have been made in any degree profitable reflects great credit on the managers; but the profit does reach an amount which in America can be considered as remunerative. The total capital invested by the twelve corporations is thirteen million and a half of dollars, or about two million seven hundred thousand pounds. In only one of the corporations, that of the Merrimack Company, does the profit amount to twelve per cent. In one, that of the Booth Company, it falls below seven per cent. The average profit of the various establishments is something below nine per cent. I am of course speaking of Lowell as it was previous to the war. American capitalists are not, as a rule, contented with so low a rate of interest as this.
The States in these matters have had a great advantage over England. They have been able to begin at the beginning. Manufactories have grown up among us as our cities grew—from the necessities and chances of the times. When labor was wanted it was obtained in the ordinary way; and so when houses were built they were built in the ordinary way. We had not the experience, and the results either for good or bad, of other nations to guide us. The Americans, in seeing and resolving to adopt our commercial successes, have resolved also, if possible, to avoid the evils which have attended those successes. It would be very desirable that all our factory girls should read and write, wear clean clothes, have decent beds, and eat hot meat every day. But that is now impossible. Gradually, with very up-hill work, but still I trust with sure work, much will be done to improve their position and render their life respectable; but in England we can have no Lowells. In our thickly populated island any commercial Utopia is out of the question. Nor can, as I think, Lowell be taken as a type of the future manufacturing towns of New England. When New England employs millions in her factories instead of thousands—the hands employed at Lowell, when the mills are at full work, are about 11,000—she must cease to provide for them their beds and meals, their church-going proprieties and orderly modes of life. In such an attempt she has all the experience of the world against her. But nevertheless I think she will have done much good. The tone which she will have given will not altogether lose its influence. Employment in a factory is now considered reputable by a farmer and his children, and this idea will remain. Factory work is regarded as more respectable than domestic service, and this prestige will not wear itself altogether out. Those now employed have a strong conception of the dignity of their own social position, and their successors will inherit much of this, even though they may find themselves excluded from the advantages of the present Utopia. The thing has begun well, but it can only be regarded as a beginning. Steam, it may be presumed, will become the motive power of cotton mills in New England as it is with us; and when it is so, the amount of work to be done at any one place will not be checked by any such limit as that which now prevails at Lowell. Water-power is very cheap, but it cannot be extended; and it would seem that no place can become large as a manufacturing town which has to depend chiefly upon water. It is not improbable that steam may be brought into general use at Lowell, and that Lowell may spread itself. If it should spread itself widely, it will lose its Utopian characteristics.
One cannot but be greatly struck by the spirit of philanthropy in which the system of Lowell was at first instituted. It may be presumed that men who put their money into such an undertaking did so with the object of commercial profit to themselves; but in this case that was not their first object. I think it may be taken for granted that when Messrs. Jackson and Lowell went about their task, their grand idea was to place factory work upon a respectable footing—to give employment in mills which should not be unhealthy, degrading, demoralizing, or hard in its circumstances. Throughout the Northern States of America the same feeling is to be seen. Good and thoughtful men have been active to spread education, to maintain health, to make work compatible with comfort and personal dignity, and to divest the ordinary lot of man of the sting of that curse which was supposed to be uttered when our first father was ordered to eat his bread in the sweat of his brow. One is driven to contrast this feeling, of which on all sides one sees such ample testimony, with that sharp desire for profit, that anxiety to do a stroke of trade at every turn, that acknowledged necessity of being smart, which we must own is quite as general as the nobler propensity. I believe that both phases of commercial activity may be attributed to the same characteristic. Men in trade in America are not more covetous than tradesmen in England, nor probably are they more generous or philanthropical. But that which they do, they are more anxious to do thoroughly and quickly. They desire that every turn taken shall be a great turn—or at any rate that it shall be as great as possible. They go ahead either for bad or good with all the energy they have. In the institutions at Lowell I think we may allow that the good has very much prevailed.
I went over two of the mills, those of the Merrimack corporation and of the Massachusetts. At the former the printing establishment only was at work; the cotton mills were closed. I hardly know whether it will interest any one to learn that something under half a million yards of calico are here printed annually. At the Lowell Bleachery fifteen million yards are dyed annually. The Merrimack Cotton Mills were stopped, and so had the other mills at Lowell been stopped, till some short time before my visit. Trade had been bad, and there had of course been a lack of cotton. I was assured that no severe suffering had been created by this stoppage. The greater number of hands had returned into the country—to the farms from whence they had come; and though a discontinuance of work and wages had of course produced hardship, there had been no actual privation—no hunger and want. Those of the work-people who had no homes out of Lowell to which to betake themselves, and no means at Lowell of living, had received relief before real suffering had begun. I was assured, with something of a smile of contempt at the question, that there had been nothing like hunger. But, as I said before, visitors always see a great deal of rose color, and should endeavor to allay the brilliancy of the tint with the proper amount of human shading. But do not let any visitor mix in the browns with too heavy a hand!
At the Massachusetts Cotton Mills they were working with about two-thirds of their full number of hands, and this, I was told, was about the average of the number now employed throughout Lowell. Working at this rate they had now on hand a supply of cotton to last them for six months. Their stocks had been increased lately, and on asking from whence, I was informed that that last received had come to them from Liverpool. There is, I believe, no doubt but that a considerable quantity of cotton has been shipped back from England to the States since the civil war began. I asked the gentleman, to whose care at Lowell I was consigned, whether he expected to get cotton from the South—for at that time Beaufort, in South Carolina, had just been taken by the naval expedition. He had, he said, a political expectation of a supply of cotton, but not a commercial expectation. That at least was the gist of his reply, and I found it to be both intelligent and intelligible. The Massachusetts Mills, when at full work, employ 1300 females and 400 males, and turn out 540,000 yards of calico per week.
On my return from Lowell in the smoking car, an old man came and squeezed in next to me. The place was terribly crowded, and as the old man was thin and clean and quiet, I willingly made room for him, so as to avoid the contiguity of a neighbor who might be neither thin, nor clean, nor quiet. He began talking to me in whispers about the war, and I was suspicious that he was a Southerner and a secessionist. Under such circumstances his company might not be agreeable, unless he could be induced to hold his tongue. At last he said, “I come from Canada, you know, and you—you’re an Englishman, and therefore I can speak to you openly;” and he gave me an affectionate grip on the knee with his old skinny hand. I suppose I do look more like an Englishman than an American, but I was surprised at his knowing me with such certainty. “There is no mistaking you,” he said, “with your round face and your red cheeks. They don’t look like that here,” and he gave me another grip. I felt quite fond of the old man, and offered him a cigar.