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Lowell Stories: Women's History

Helen Augusta Whittier (1846 – 1925)


Helen Augusta Whittier in the 1890s.

Helen Augusta Whittier (1846-1925) born in Lowell, the only daughter of Moses Whittier and Lucinda Blood to survive into adulthood.
Helen Whittier was a Lowell High School Carney Medalist in 1862 and continued taking classes until 1863. She then attended Lasell Seminary, Auburndale, Massachusetts, as a student of art and art history. After graduation she taught china painting at the Lowell Evening Drawing Program. At the age of 23, she and a number of other Lowell women founded a literary society originally named the Dickens Club, since Charles Dickens had visited Lowell in 1842. This organization later changed its name to the XV Club, a group of 15 members that pursued home-study courses under the guidance of Anna E. Ticknor. Helen Whittier was selected to participate in the national 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exposition, submitting a Brussel Carpet with an elegant design. In 1878, Whittier was a founding board member of the Lowell Art Association (now housed at the Whistler House Museum of Art).
Her father, Moses Whittier opened the Whittier Mill on Stackpole Street, near the Concord River’s confluence with the Merrimack, in 1878. He was born in Canaan, New Hampshire, and grew up on the family farm. At the age of 18, he moved to Hallowell, Maine, and learned the trades of machinist and jeweler, while living with a brother. Although troubled by poor health Whittier became a mechanic and in 1825 accepted the position of superintendent of a cotton mill in Winthrop, Maine. He moved to Lowell about 1830 to work as an overseer (manager) at the Merrimack Manufacturing Company and then the Boott Cotton Mills. Whittier started his own company manufacturing loom harnesses in 1852. Moses Whittier died in 1884. Under the direction of his son Henry Francis Whittier a major expansion of the Whittier Mill (manufacturing twine, fire hose cord, weaving and knitting yards) on Stackpole Street occurred in 1887.

Whittier Mill erected 1879, Stackpole Street, Lowell Massachusetts, photo Concord River Greenway essay.


Helen Whittier became involved in the family business in 1888 when her brother, who was seriously ailing with Bright’s disease, died in September of that year. With no other male heir to take over the firm, Helen then assumed control, eventually her cousin Nelson Whittier, moved from Chicopee, Massachusetts, to Lowell to serve as superintendent. Over the next 15 years Helen Whittier served as president and treasurer of the company. She presided over the operation of the Whittier Mill, Lowell in the 1890s, the construction of a new cotton mill in Chattahoochee, Georgia, in 1896.
In the summer of 1895, the Whittier Cotton Company incorporated in Georgia with a capital of $75,000 to build a mill in Chattahoochee, an unincorporated town outside of Atlanta, and completed it the following year. Other members of the Whittier family remained involved in the Georgia mill, including Helen’s nephew Nelson Whittier, as well as Nelson’s son, Walter R.B. Whittier, and two grandsons, Paul and Sidney Whittier. Throughout the textile industry, Helen Whittier was acknowledged and acclaimed as the only woman head of a major textile company in the United States.
One of the more influential leaders in the City of Lowell. The Channing Fraternity, a Unitarian organization formed in 1884, designed to aid the poor, provide lectures, concerts, and occasionally theatrical entertainment was incorporated by Joseph Lafayett Seward, 5 other men, Helen A. Whittier and Martha Coburn. In 1895, Whittier served on the Middlesex Mechanics Association Committee along with Alexander Cumnock in developing a proposal for the creation of the Lowell Textile School (now University of Massachusetts Lowell). Whittier along with a number of friends and colleagues formed the Middlesex Woman’s Club in 1896, she served as its first President. Grew to over 600 members, one of the largest woman’s clubs in the country. During the 1890s, Helen was the first President of the Lowell General Hospital Governing Board.
In 1901, Paul Butler (son of Benjamin F. Butler) and Charles B. Stevens became the primary stockholders of the Whittier Mills, closing the company in Lowell. After, stepping down from managing the Whittier Mills in Lowell and Georgia, Helen Whittier taught Art History at Bradford Academy for girls in Bradford, Massachusetts. She continued to play an important and active role in women’s rights and suffrage. Moving to Boston in 1903, where she collaborated with May Alden Ward, as founders and editors of the General Federation of Women's Clubs “Federation Club Bulletin.” From 1904-1907, she served a President of the Massachusetts State Federation of Women’s Clubs. In 1910, the “Federation Club Bulletin” and the “Conquest Magazine” merged and Whittier became editor and publisher. In 1916. she was the State Director of the Massachusetts Woman Suffrage Association (MWSA), an organization devoted to women's suffrage from 1870 to 1919.
Whittier died in 1925, a few years later the Massachusetts State Federation of Women's Clubs established a Helen A. Whitter Scholarship at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Related Resources

Whittier, Helen Augusta. A Memorial. State Federation of Women's Clubs, 1929. Center for Lowell History.