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Lowell History: Visitor Observations 1827-1913

Observations of Lowell by Charles Lyell, 1841





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 1845 he also published Travels in 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.


Went twenty-six miles to the north of Boston, by an excellent railway, to the manufacturing town of Lowell, which has sprung up entirely in the last sixteen years, and now contains about 20,000 inhabitants. The mills are remarkably clean, and weII warmed, and almost all for making cotton and woollen goods, which are exported to the west. The young women from the age of eighteen to twenty-five, who attend to the spinning-wheels, are good-looking and neatly dressed, chiefly the daughters of New England farmers, sometiines of the poorer clergy. They belong, therefore, to a very different class from our manufacturing population, and after remaining a few years in the factory, return to their homes, and usually marry.

We are told that, to work in these factories is considered far more eligible for a young woman than domestic service, as they can save more and have stated hours of work (twelve hours a day !), after which they are at liberty. Their moral character stands very high, and a girl is paid off, if the least doubt exists on that point. Boarding-houses, usually kept by widows, are attached to each mill, in which the operatives are required to board; the men and women being separate. This regard for the welfare and conduct of the workpeople when they are not on actual duty is comparatively rare in England, wherc the greater supply of labour would render such interference and kind superintendence much more practicable. Still we could not expect that the results would be equally satisfactory with us, on account of the lower grade of the operatives, and the ignorance of the lower classes in England. In regard to the order, dress, and cleanliness of the people, these merits are also exemplified in the rural districts of Lancashire, and it is usually in our large towns alone, that the work people are unhealthy and squalid, especially where a number of the poor Irish live crowded together in bad dwellings.

The factories at Lowell are not only on a great scale, but have been so managed as to yield high profits, a fact which should be impressed on the mind of every foreigner who visits them, lest, after admiring the gentility of manner and dress of the women and men employed, he should go away with the idea that he had been seeing a model mill, or a set of gentlemen and ladies playing at factory for their amusement. There are few children employed, and those under fifteen are compelled by law to go to school three months in the year, under penalty of a heavy fine. If this regulation is infringed, informers are not wanting, for there is a strong sympathy in the public mind with all acts of the legislature, enforcing education. The Bostonians submit to pay annually for public instruction in their city alone, the sum of 30,000l. sterling, which is about equal to the parliamentary grant of this year (1841) for the whole of England, while the sum raised for free schools in the state this year, by taxes for wages of teachers, and their board, and exclusive of funds for building, exceeds 100,000l. sterling.

The law ordains, that every district containing fifty families shall maintain one school, for the support of which the inhabitants are required to tax themselves, and to appoint committees annually for managing the funds, and choosing their own schoolmasters. The Bible is allowed to be read in all, and is actually read in nearly all the schools; but the law prohibits the use of books "calculated to favour the tenets of any particular sect of Christians;" Parents and guardians are expected to teach their own children, or to procure them to be taught, what they believe to be religious truth, and for this purpose besides family worship and the pulpit, there are Sunday-schools. The system works well among this church-building and churchgoing population.