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Lowell History: Visitor Observations 1827-1913

Observations of Lowell by Mike Chevalier, 1834

Wages for Mill Work; Moral Instruction and Rules of Conduct; Comparison to Manchester, England

By Michel Chevalier

Chevalier published Letters on North America in France in 1836, after Chevalier had completed his tour of America in 1835. Several of the letters comprising the volume were originally published in Journal des Debats, along with observations Chevalier had made about Latin America, Mexico, and Canada.

Chevalier came to America in 1833 intending to gather information about the Indians and the blacks, which he planned to combine with his observations of Spanish Americans and Mexicans in one work on the New World. Later he thought better of his plan and found it more convenient to separate the works, reserving one volume solely for America.  
Chevalier's letters bore little testimony to his original plan to investigate the state of slaves and Indians in America. Instead, he concentrated on the industry and material welfare of the new nation. He devoted several letters to the financial crisis of the country, Andrew Jackson, and the banks; he also explored various methods of moneymaking, including plantation farming, trapping, mining, and manufacturing. The manufacturing section was of special interest in looking at women in America during the time. Chevalier paid a visit to Lowell, Massachusetts, already a major manufacturing center for cotton fabrics and an employer of thousands of women. Lowell was not on Tocqueville and Beaumont's itinerary, although it was already a recognized center of industry at the time of their visit.

Chevalier exhibited none of the caution or ambivalence displayed by Tocqueville and Beaumont in their descriptions of the young republic. In his preface to the volume, Chevalier contended the progress of history rested with America; America was to improve on the civilization of Europe, and it was to be the repository for the best of the Oriental and Occidental worlds.


The making of cotton fabric in Lowell employs six thousand women. Of that number, close to five thousand are young girs from seventeen to twenty-four years old, daughters of farmers from many different New England states, and particularly from Massachusetts, from New Hampshire and from Vermont; they are far from their families, left to themselves. In the morning and in the evening and at the meal hours, one can see them crossing the streets, properly clothed; finding suspended on the walls of their rooms, between the vases of flowers and the plants they tend there, their scarves and their shawls, and the green silk hoods which they wrap around their heads when they leave, in order to protect themselves from the sun and from the rain which is so abundant in Lowell (they have not had the time to pave the town) it is not like in Manchester! Follow me, I say. When someone told me the schedule of salaries, I understood that it was decidedly not like Manchester. Here are the average salaries they they were paid, by the Marrimack Corporation, during the month of last may, by week, that is to say for six days of work: [one dollar is roughly equivalent to five and a half francs]

Diverse operations before the spinning: 15f 73c, 16f 7c, 14f 83c 
Spinning, properly said 16  
Weaving of diverse qualities 16f 64c, 16f 75c 
Preparation of the weft and pasting 18f 40c, 21f 12c 
Measuring and cutting 16f 75c

The numbers are, I repeat, averages. The salaries of the most able workers are at 25 fr. and even 30 fr. Note that last March, at the moment the crisis had brought the quarrels of the President with the Bank, there was a general reduction of 1 fr. 50 c. to 2 fr. each week. You know how the work of women is little compensated in comparison to that of men in Europe. There are few women on the European continent, except in some large towns, who earn 1 fr. each day or 6 fr. each week. It is also necessary to state that in the United States, the necessary objects are at a lower price not only than in England, but also than in France. Thus a large number of workers in Lowell are able to save up to a dollar and a half (8 fr.) each week. At the end of four years spent in manufacturing, their savings is able to accumulate to two hundred fifty to three hundred dollars (1333 fr. to 1600 fr.) They then have a dowry, quit the fabric industry and marry. 

In France it is difficult to imagine the position of young girls, pretty for the most part, thrown twenty, thirty, forty leagues from their families, in a town where their their parents have no one to watch over them or help them with wise advice. It is a fact even so that up to this day, allowing a small number of exceptions which confirm the rule more than they destroy it, this state of things has not had deplorable effects in Lowell. The English race has other manners than our French. There are other habits, other accepted ideas. The Protestant education draws around each individual a circle difficult to step across; much more so than Catholic education. Here the result is greater coldness in social relations, a more or less absolute absence of effusiveness and outpouring; but in turn each is obligated to and accustomed to more respect for the other’s person. That which in our land would be a prank of a young man, a kindness, is severely reproved in England and in America, especially by the Americans of New England, who are as someone said, are intensified Englishmen. Also, no one in this country is astonished to see the daughters of landowners leave their town and their parents after having received a passable education, to travel alone fifty or a hundred leagues to inhabit a new town where they know no one, and spend three or four years in this state of isolation and independence. They are under the safeguard of the public faith. This assumes an extreme reserve in manners, and in the public opinion a vigilant and inexorable rigor. It's necessary to admit that, in this system there is, widespread in that society, a coloring of sadness and even boredom; but when one reflects on the dangers to 
which the opposite system exposes the poor girl who doesn’t have anyone to watch over her, when one counts the victims, it is very difficult, no matter what the popular sympathies, 
not to recognize that the Anglo-American prudery is well worth the ease of our tolerant manners, all things considered, whether or not it has charm. 

The manufacturing companies watch over these young girls with scrupulous care. Twelve years ago Lowell didn't exist. When they constructed the factories, it was also necessary to build lodging for the workers. Each company then built in its enclosure houses which each become a boarding house exclusively for their use. They are there under the supervision of matrons who receive a pension, to which the company pays salary of 1 dollar and a quarter each week. These matrons, who are generally widows, answer for their boarders, and are themselves under the control of the company for the administration of their small community. Each company has its rules, which are not only rules on paper, and of whose strict exectuion is guarateed by this perseverant vigilance which is one of the distinctive attributes of the Yankee. I will give a succint account , for they seem proper to know many essential traits of the physiognomy of the country. I take these from the Lawrence Corporation, which is the must recent of them all. This is a corrected and revised edition from the rules of other companies. They are dated May 21 1833. 

The first general rule is thus conceived: All the persons employed by this company must attend assiduously to their work during work hours. They must be capable of completing the work they have been given, or to make all their efforts to that effect. In all occasions they must , in their speech, in their acts, appear full of a praiseworthy love of temperance and virtue, and animated by a sentiment of their moral and social obligations. The Agent of the company will do his best to set a good example. All persons who will be notoriously dissolute, lazy, dishonest or drunk, who will have a habit of absence from divine services, who will violate the Sabbath, or who will gamble, will be dismissed from the company.

Article 2. All types of spirits are forbidden on company property, except by order of a doctor. All games of chance, all playing of cards is prohibited on company property and in the boarding houses.

The following articles, from three to thirteen, determine the powers of the principal employees, superintendent, assistant director, watchmen, armed guards, firemen. Article 13 establishes that all workers must live in a company boarding house, attend church services in one of the town churches regularly, and strictly observe the rules of the sabbath. Article 14 and the last contain a passage on the necessity of subordination and on the compatibility of obedience with civil and religious liberty.

There is one special rule in the boarding houses. It is there told that the company did not build these houses out of regard for the workers. As a consequence, the company imposes special obligations on the persons to whom she leases. The company holds them responsible for the property and for the comfortable state of these houses, for the punctuality and the quality of meals, for the good order and good harmony among the boarders. The company demands that the matrons do not receive anyone not employed at its factories; it makes them accountable for the conduct of the young girls. This same article stipulates the closing of doors at ten o'clock, and repeats the injunction to go to church services.

These rules, which in our country would stir a thousand complaints and would be in fact impracticable, are here regarded as the most simple and the most natural thing. They are observed without opposition and without difficulty. Those which concern Sunday, for example, which is in our country a day of celebration, of movement and of pleasure, here it is the custom to dedicate it to silence, to prayer, to contemplation. This is one of the aspects in which the French way most differs from the Anglo-American way. As far as morals and religion, in our country there is an abandon and a tolerance which matches the American laissez-faire attitude in politics: while the principal of political authority, which has been vigorously constituted in our country for all time and in all the forms of government, monarchy, empire, or republic, corresponds to the severe reserve in American manners, to the inelasticity of their habits of life, and to the religious rigidity which exists here among the multiplicity of sects. It is true that the necessity of order and that of liberty are two of the essentials to human nature, and that it is impossible to form a society with one of the principles alone! If you leave a portion of social institutions to liberty exclusively, be certain that the principle of order is made a part not less exclusive on another point. If you allow liberty to be the champion of politics, without division, you are imperiously constrained to give the complete ownership of religion and manners to order. Grant religion and manners to liberty, and you will find yourself obligated, under threat of allowing the society to fall into dissolution, to reinforce the principle of order in politics. These are the universal laws which govern the nations and the world of worlds.

To date, the rules of the companies have been observed. Lowell, with its factories higher than the steeples, is like a Spanish village with its nunneries; there is this difference, that in Lowell one encounters neither rags nor madonnas, and that the nuns, in place of making sacred hearts, spin cotton and weave calico. Lowell is not enjoyable, but Lowell is proper and decent, peaceable and sensible. Will it be so always? Will it be so for a long time? They would have the temerity to say yes. Up to now the history of the factories has shown itself little inclined to the maintenance of a severe morality. This is verified in France as in England; in Germany and Switzerland as in France. I recall from one of my friends who had passed through Arau (canton of Argovie), the following lines: "I see the industry which overcomes the mountains, which stretches arms over the most fertile lands. I am able to see also how she frees and how she demoralizes. In passing near a stranger, the countryman and the worker do not greet eachother; the young girl does not murmur "God I greet you" but she watches steadily and smiles. Nevertheless, as there exists an intimate relationship betwen these two facts, morality and ease, it is possible to regard as very probable that, as long as the salaries will be raised in Lowell, the influence of a reasonable education, the sentiment of duty and the fear of public opinion will suffice to maintain the moral habits here. Now, will the salaries in Lowell stay as they are?

There are reasons they may fall; the protective tariff of American industry is going to decrease by degree; on July 1 1842, it will be reduced to 20 per 100 at maximum. But also 

the procedures will be perfected, the workers will become more able, the capitalists will be recovering their costs, with the result that they will no longer see the need to collect dividends of 10 to 12 for 100. A drop is strongly possible, even after that of last March, because the worker is paid, in the factories at Lowell, below their standard value in the in the neighboring towns; but it will be limited. In Europe, it happens often that the worker lacks work; here, to the contrary, it is the work which lacks workers. So long as the Americans will have the vast domain of the West, at the end of which each, in return for work, will be able to draw by himself and for himself a handsome inheritance, the depreciation of manual labor will not be a fear.

Note 29. The town of Lowell is one of those where Puritan standards have been pushed the farthest. The presence of the young girls who work in the factories there is the principal motive. In 1836, one man was placed under arrest in Lowell, for the sole reason that he was a common fiddler. He was treated as if he had outraged the public morality. The magistrates of Lowell fear that the pleasures of dancing will give occasion for disorder among the workers.

Note 32. On the Morality of the Manufacturers.  
In his Essay on Wages, M.H. Carey cites the following letter from the director of one of the factories of Lowell:

"There have never been more than three cases of illicit relations in our establishment, and in the three cases, the parties were immediately married, many months before the birth of the infant; thus we do not count any births which are positively illegitimate." M. Carey adds that he was assured that in the big factoriy of Douvres (New-Hampshire), there was not even one sole case of illigitimate birth.

I do not think that an exemplary purity reigns in all the manufacturing centers of the United States; but I am convinced that the morality of the working class is altogether in harmony with that of the rest of the population. M. Baines (History of Cotton Manufacture) recounts the efforts of these recent times, to put the English fabric on the same footing as those of Lowell. "There are a good number of factories, he says, in Lancashire, Cheshire, Derbyshire, and in Ecosse, where one can see that the workrooms were well-ventilated, proper and nearly elegant, to the great honor of the master and the workers; where the severe rules prevent immorality and dishonest talk; where the schools are open to all the children employed in the establishment; where young girls learn sewing and knitting; where one finds libraries for the use of the workers; where rewards are distributed to the children who attend the Sunday schools; where societies of aid for illness and accident are organized." M. Baines cites, among others, the philanthropic efforts of M. Ashton, who employs twelve hundred workers at Hyde, in Chester County.