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Lowell History: Visitor Observations 1827-1913

Observations of Lowell by Harriet Martineau, 1837

Society in America

Lowell, Massachusetts 1837 
By Harriet Martineau

"The crude treasures, perpetually exposed before our eyes, contain within them other and more valuable principles. All these, likewse, in their numberless combinations, which ages of labour and research can never exhaust, may be destined to furnish, in perpetual succession, new sources of our wealth and of our happiness."  

The whole American people suffered, during the revolutionary war, from the want of the comforts and some of the necessaries of life, now so called. Their commerce with the world abroad being almost wholly intercepted, they had nothing wherewith to console themselves but the stocks which might be left in their warehouses, and the produce of their soil. It is amazing, at this day, to hear of the wants of the commonest articles of clothing and domestic use, undergone in those days by some of the first families in the republic. 

The experience of these troubles suggested to many persons the expediency of establishing manufactures in the United States: but there was an almost universal prejudice against this mode of employment. It is amusing now to read Hamilton's celebrated Report on Manufactures, presented in 1790, and to see how elaborately the popular objections to manufactures are answered. The persuasion of the nation was that America was designed to be an agricultural country; that agriculture was wholly productive, and manufactures not productive at all; and that agriculture was the more honourable occupation. The two former prejudices have been put to flight by bappy experience. The last still lingers. It is not five years since tbe President's message declared that "the wealth and strength of a country are its population; and the best part of that population are the cultivators of the soil."

Such prepossessions may be left to die out. They arise mainly from a very good notion, not very clearly defined;--that the more intercourse men have with Nature, the better for the men. This is true; but Nature is present in all places where the hands of men work, if tbe workmen can but see her. If Nature is supposed present only where there is a blue sky overhead, and grass and trees around, this shows only the narrowness of mind of him who thus supposes. Her forces are at work wherever there is mechanism; and man only directs them to his particular purpose. In America, it may be said that her beauty is present wherever her forces are at work; for men have there set up their mechanism in some of the choicest spots in the land. There is a good and an evil aspect belonging to all things. If tourists are exasperated at fine scenery being deformed by the erection of mills, (which in many instances are more of an ornament than a deformity,) let others be awake to the advantage that it is to the workpeople to have their dwellings and their occupation fixed in spots where the hills are heaped together, and the waters leap and whirl among rocks, rather than in dull suburbs where they and their employments may not annoy the eye of the lover of the picturesque. It always gave me pleasure to see the artisans at work about such places as Glen's Falls, the Falls of the Genessee, and on the banks of some of the whirling streams in the New England valleys. I felt that they caught, or might catch, as beautiful glimpses of Nature's face as the western settler. If the internal circumstances were favourable, there was little in the outward to choose between. If they had the open mind's eye to see beauty, and the soul to feel wonder, it mattered little whether it was the forest or the waterfall (even though it were called the "water-privilege") that they had to look upon; whether it was by the agency of vegetation or of steam that they had to work. It is deplorable enough, in this view, to be a poor artisan in the heart of our English Manchester: but to be a thriving one in the most beautiful outskirts of Sheffield is, perhaps, as favourable a lot for the lover of nature as to be a labourer on any soil: and the privileges of the American artisans are like this. 

As to the old objection to American manufactures, that America was designed to be an agricultural country,--it seems to me, as I said before, that America was meant to be everything. Her group of republics is merged in one, in the eyes of the world; and, for some purposes, in reality: but this involves no obligation to make them all alike in their produce and occupations; but rather the contrary. Here, as everywhere else, let the laws of nature be followed, and the procedure will be wise. Nature has nothing to do with artificial boundaries and arbitrary inclosures. There are many soils and many climates included within the boundary line of the United States; many countries; and one rule cannot be laid down for all. If there be any one or more of these where the requisites for manufactures are present, and those for agriculture deficient, there let manufactures arise. If there is poor land, and good mill-seats; abundant material, animal and mineral, on the spot, and vegetable easily to be procured; a sufficiency of hands, and talent for the construction and use of machinery, there should manufactures spring up. This is eminently the case with New England, and some other parts of the United States. It was perceived to be so, even in the days when the growth of cotton in the south was spoken of as a small experiment, not likely to produce great consequences.  
New England formerly depended chiefly on the carrying trade. When that resource was diminished, after the war, it is difficult to see how her people were to be prevented setting up manufactures, or why they needed any particular exhortation or assistance to do it. They had the opportunity of obtaining foreign capital; their previous foreign intercourses having pointed out to them where it had accumulated, and might therefore be obtained with advantage. They had a vast material, left from their fisheries, of skins, oil, and the bones of marine animals; they had bark, hides, wood, flax, hemp, iron, and clay. They had also the requisite skill; as may be seen by the following list of domestic manufactures, carried on in private houses only, in 1790. "Great quantities of coarse cloths, coatings, serges and flannels, linsey-woolseys, hosiery of wool, cotton, and thread, coarse fustians, jeans, and muslins, coverlets and counterpanes, tow linens, coarse shirtings, sheetings, towellings, and table-linen, and various mixtures of wool and cotton, and of cotton and flax, are made in the 
household way; and, in many instances, to an extent not only sufficient for the supply of the family in which they are made, but for sale, and even in some cases for exportation. It is computed, in a number of districts, that two-thirds, three-fourths, and even four-fifths of all the clothing of the inhabitants, are made by themselves."* If all this was done without the advantage of division of labour, of masses of capital, or of other machinery than might be set up in a farmhouse parlour, it is elear that this region was fully prepared, five-and-forty years ago, for the introduction of manufactures on a large scale; and there appears every reason to believe that they might have been left to their natural growth. 

The same Report mentions seventeen classes of manufacture going on as distinct trades, at the same time, in the northern States. 

The only plausible objection to the establishment of manufactures was the scarcity and dearness of labour, in comparison with that of the old countries of Europe. But, if the exportation of some articles actually took place, while the labour which produced them was scattered about in farm-houses, what might not be expected if the same labour could be called forth and concentrated, and aided by the introduction of machinery? A great immigration of artisans might also be looked for, when once any temptation was held out to the poor of Europe to come over to a young and thriving country. Moreover, improvements in machinery are the invariable consequence of a deficiency of manufacturing labour; for the obvious reason that men's wits are urged to supply the want under which their interests suffer. Again: manufactures can, to a considerable degree, be carried on by the labour of women; and there is a great number of unemployed women in New England, from the circumstance that the young men of that region wander away in search of a settlement on the land; and, after being settled, find wives in the south and west. 

Thus much of the case might have been, and was by some, foreseen. What has been the event? 

In 1825, the amount of manufactures exported from the United States, was 5,729,797 dollars. Of these about one-fourth were cotton-piece goods, in the sale of which the American merchants were now able to compete with the English, in some foreign markets. The manufacture of cottons in the United States afforded a market for one hundred and seventy-five thousand bales of cotton annually; and the printed cottons manufactured at home amounted annually to fourteen millions of yards. The importation of cotton goods into the country in 1825 was in value between twelve and thirteen millions of dollars; and in 1826, between nine and ten millions. The woollen manufacture has never flourished like the cotton; the bad effects of the tariff being more immediately visible in regard to articles of manufacture whose raw material must be chiefly derived from abroad. 

In 1828, the legislature of Massachusetts passed resolutions deploring the increasing depression of the woollen manufacture, and praying for increased protection from Congress. The exportation of cotton goods that year amounted to upwards of a million of dollars; and the next year to nearly a million and a hal£ The importation of cotton goods was all but prohibited by the tariff of 1824: aud the consequence was an immense investment of capital in the cotton manufacture, almost on the instant; and some perilous fluctuations since, too nearly resembling the agitations of older countries, where the pernicious policy of ages has accumulated difficulties on the present generation. 

At Lowell, in Massachusetts, there was in 1818, a small satinet mill, employing about twenty hands; the place itself containing two hundred inhabitants. In 1825, the Merrimack Manufacturing Company was formed; it was joined by others; and in 1832, the capital invested was above six millions of dollars. The whole number of operatives employed was five thousand; of whom three thousand eight hundred were women and girls. The quantity of raw cotton used was upwards of twenty thousand bales. The quantity of pure cotton goods manufactured was twenty-five millions of yards. The woollen fabric manufactured in these establishments was, at the same time, one hundred and fifty thousand yards. Sixty-eight carpet-looms were at work also. The workmen employed in all these operations received for wages about 1,200,000 dollars per annum. About two hundred mechanics, of a high order of ability, are constantly employed. The fuel consumed in a year is five thousand tons of anthracite coal, besides charcoal and wood. 

The same protective system which caused the sudden growth of such an establishment as this, tempted numerous capitalists to seek their share of the supposed benefits of the tariff. The manufacturing interest was well nigh ruined by the protection it had asked for. The competition and consequent over-manufacture were tremendous. Failure after failure took place, till forty-five thousand spindles were standing idle, and thousands of operatives were thrown into a state of poverty unnatural enough in such a country as theirs. A cry was raised by many for a repeal of the tariff: this created a panic among those who, on the strength of the tariff, had withdrawn their capital from commerce, and invested it in manufactures. The stock of all the manufacturing companies was offered in vain, at prices ruinously low. Thus stood matters in 1829. 

The history of the quarrel between the north and south about the tariff, and the nature of the Compromise Bill, is already known. The mischief done will be repaired, as far as reparation is possible, by the reduction of the import duties, year by year, till 1842. If the demands of the country and of foreign customers should not rise to the limit of the over-manufacture which has taken place, time is thus allowed for the gradual withdrawing of the capital and industry which have been seduced into this method of employment. Meantime, the manufactures of the northern States are permanently established, though not in the wisest way. If they had been left to themselves, they would have been an unmixed good to the community. As it is, society has suffered the inevitable consequences of an irrational policy,--a policy indefensible in a republic. It is well that the experiment wrought out its consequences so speedily and so plainly that any repetition is unlikely,--little as the natural laws which regulate commerce are yet understood.  
In 1831, the total number of looms employed in the cotton manufacture of the United States was 33,433. Of these, 21,336 were in New England; 3,653 in New York State; 6,301 in Pennsylvania; and the rest in Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey, and Virginia.  
Next to the cotton and woollen manufactures, the most valuable are manufactures from flax and hemp; from tobacco and grain; sugar, soap, and candles, gunpowder, gold and silver coin, iron, copper and brass, hats, medicinal drugs, and shoes. 

The shoe manufacture is one of the most remarkable in the States, from the suddenness and extent of its spread. It has been mentioned that the shoe trade of New York State is more valuable than the total commerce of Georgia. The extent to which the manufacture is carried on in one village in Massachusetts, with which I am acquainted, shows the prosperity of the business. 

In order to shoemaking, there must be tanning. There are many and large tanneries in Danvers and the outskirts of Salem, for the supply of the Lynn shoe-manufacture. The largest tannery in the United States is at Salem. The hides are partly imported. The bark is brought from Maine. These tanneries were in a state of temporary adversity when I saw them. Some kinds of skins are two or three years in tanning; and capital is thus locked up in such amounts as render fluctuation dangerous. It had lately been discovered that oak bark could be had cheaper, and tanning consequently carried on to a greater advantage up the Hudson than on the Massachusetts coast: so that the tanners and curriers of Salem and Danvers were descending somewhat from their high prosperity. But nothing could exceed the flourishing aspect of Lynn, the sanctum of St. Crispin. 

In 1831, the value of boots and shoes, (very few boots, and chicely ladies' shoes,) made at Lynn was nearly a million of dollars a year. The total number made was above a million and a half pairs: the number of people employed, three thousand five hundred; being about seven-eighths of the population of the place, partially employed; and some hundreds from other places, wholly employed. Last year, the place was much on the increase. A green, with a piece of water in the middle, and trees, was being laid out in the centre of the town. New houses were rising in all directions, and fresh hands were welcomed from any quarter; for the orders sent could not be executed. Besides the domestic supply, two million pairs of ladies' shoes a-year were sent off to the remotest corners of the States; and, as they have once penetrated there, it seems difficult to imagine where the demand will stop; for those remote corners are all being more thickly peopled every day. Their united demand will be enough to make the fortune of a whole State. 

It seems probable that a few more manufactures may be added to those which are sure to flourish in the United States: as silk and wine. If the government firmly refuses to interfere again in the way of protection, it will be easily and safely discoverable what resources the country really possesses; and what direction her improving industry may naturally and profitably take.  
* Hamilton's Report on Manufactures. 1790.