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Lowell History: Visitor Observations 1827-1913

Observations of Lowell by Alexander Mackay, 1846


Journey from New Haven to Worcester and Boston.--Proceed to Lowell.--Appearances of Lowell.--Its rapid Growth.--Colonial Manufactures.--Difficulties with which they had to contend.--Progress of American Manufactures during the War of Independence, and that of 1812.--Motive Power used in Lowell, and means of employing it.--The Operatives of Lowell.--Educational and other Institutions.--The different Manufacturing Districts of the Union.--New England.--The Northern Atlantic States.--The Southern Atlantic States.--The States on the Mississippi.--Distribution of Manufacturing Capital throughout the Union.--Rise of Cotton Manufacture in America.--Exports of Cotton Goods.--Progress of other Manufactures.--Steam v. Water Power.--Comparative strength of the Manufacturing and Agricultural Interest.--The dream of Self-dependence.--The Future.

From New Haven I proceeded through the interior of Connecticut to Worcester, in Massachusetts, and thence direct, by railway, to Boston. Almost every inch of this portion of New England is rich in colonial reminiscences; the traveller constantly meeting with objects which remind him of the time when the early colonists were struggling for existence with the Indians; when, relieved from their common enemy, they persecuted one another; when the regicides ay concealed amongst them; when they entered into defensive leagues against their enemies the French, who overhung their northern border: and when they merged into that still mightier league, which embraced the greater part of the Atlantic sea-board, and gave nationality and independence to half a comment.

Between Worcester and Boston the country now looked very different from what it appeared when I first passed over it on my way to Washington. It was then arrayed in the garb of winter, but was now clad in the warmer and more attractive habiliments of autumn. The trees were beginning to lose their freshness, and some of them had slightly changed their colour; but that transformation had not yet been wrought in them which arrays in such brilliant effects the last stages of vegetation in America for the year. When the frost comes early, the change is sometimes wrought almost in a night. To-day the forest seems clothed in one extended mantle of green--to-morrow, and it appears to have appropriated to itself the celebrated coat of Joseph. The change looks like the work of magic.  
The leaves are "killed" by the frost during the night, and
dyed in their new colours by the sun of the succeeding morning. When a large expanse of it can be commanded by the eye, nothing can exceed in beauty the American forest thus bedecked in its brilliant robe of many colours.

The eastern portion of Massachusetts is very flat, and is in this respect quite a contrast to its western section, lying between the beautiful town of Springfield and the Hudson. The soil is light, and much of it is under pasturage. The vegetation became more stunted as we approached the coast, and we were surrounded by many of the indications which usually mark a tract consisting of a marine deposit.

After remaining a few days in Boston, I proceeded by railway to Lowell, the distance being about twenty-five miles. In point of construction, this line was one of the best on which I had travelled in America. The great majority of my fellow-travellers were New Englanders, and not a few of them would have served as specimens of the genuine Yankee. One cannot fail to observe the tone and demeanour which distinguish the population of this part of the country from that inhabiting the south and west. They are sober, sedate, and persevering; not restless and impatient, like their more mercurial fellow-countrymen. . . .

On approaching Lowell, I looked in vain for the usual indications of a manufacturing town with us, the tall chimneys and the thick volumes of black smoke belched forth by them. Being supplied with an abundant water power, it consumes but little coal in carrying on its manufacturing operations, the bulk of that which it does consume being anthracite and not bituminous coal. On arriving I was at once struck with the cleanly, airy, and comfortable aspect of the town; cheerfulness seeming to reign around, and employment and competence to be the lot of all.

The town of Lowell, a creation as it were of yesterday, is situated on the south bank of the Merrimac, close to the junction of the Concord with that stream. Immediately above it are the falls of the Merrimac, known as the Pawtucket Falls, and which supply the town with the motive power for nearly all its machinery. In 1820 Lowell was scarcely known as a village, its population at that time not exceeding 200 souls. It is now, in little more than a quarter of a century, the second city in Massachusetts in point of size and wealth, and about the twelfth in the United States. Its present population must exceed 30,000.

Until recently American manufactures have had a very up-hill game to play. During the colonial times the jealousy of the mother country threw every obstacle in their way. Still they had in them a germ of vitality which not only outlived every effort made to quench it, but which also enabled them to expand, notwithstanding all the adverse influences against which they had to contend. The imperial legislation of the period would be ludicrous if it were not lamentable, redolent as it was of the spirit of monopoly and self-interest. Its whole object was to make the colonist a consumer, and nothing else, of articles of manufacture, confining his efforts at production to the business of agriculture. If a manufacturing interest raised its head, no matter how humbly, in any of the colonies, it was not directly legislated down, it is true, but was immediately surrounded by conditions and restrictions which, in too many instances, sufficed to cripple and destroy it. The imperial mind seemed to be peculiarly jealous of the manufacture of hats; an epitome of the legislation in respect to which, if now published, would scarcely be credited, were it not that the whole is to be found in the Statutes at Large. Of course, no hats of colonial manufacture were allowed to cover a British head on what was strictly speaking British ground. But not only were the colonists disabled from exporting their hats to England, they were also forbidden to export them to the adjacent colonies. A hat made in New Jersey was not only forbidden the English market; it was also a malum prohibitum in that of New York or Massachusetts. And to enhance as much as possible their value in the colony in which they were manufactured, it was forbidden to convey them from point to point by means of horses. In carrying them to market, therefore, the manufacturer had to take as many upon his head or shoulders as he conveniently could; but to the ordinary modes of conveyance for merchandise he could not resort without the violation of an imperial act. This is a mere specimen of the narrow-minded and sordid spirit in which our colonial legislation was so long conceived. If it discovers any consistent object throughout, it was that it might render itself as odious and vexatious as possible to those who were long in a position which rendered any thing but submission hopeless. The wonder is not that the Americans rebelled in 1776, but that they bore the unnatural treatment to which they were subjected so long. It was not the stamp act or the tea tax that originated the American revolution, but that feeling of alienation from the mother country which had been for the previous century gradually taking possession of the American mind. These acts of parliament were but the pretext, not the cause, of the outbreak. The mine was long laid, they only set fire to the train.

Notwithstanding the many difficulties with which they had to contend, colonial manufactures had taken a firm hold on the continent for some time previous to the epoch of the Revolution. That event, by freeing them from all imperial restrictions, and throwing the American people for some time upon their own resources, afforded them an opportunity by which they failed not to profit. The revolted colonies not only emerged from the war with an independent political existence, but also with a manufacturing interest exhibiting itself in unwonted activity at different points, from the sources of the Connecticut to the mouth of the St. Mary's. This interest steadily progressed, with occasional checks, until the war of 1812, when the Republic was once more, as regarded its consumption of manufactured articles, thrown to a considerable extent upon its own resources. So much so was this the case, that large sections of the country, where the maple was not abundant, had to supply themselves with sugar made from the stalk of the Indian corn. During the war, a large amount of additional capital was invested in the business of manufacturing, to which the three years from 1812 to 1815 gave an immense and an enduring stimulus. Still, even as far down as 1816, the manufacturing system in America had attained, as compared with that of England, but a trifling development; the whole consumption of raw cotton by the American looms for that year being but about half that now consumed by those of Lowell alone, and not more than one-eighth the annual consumption of England at the same period. From that time, by adventitious aids, the system has been forced into rapid growth, until it now owns no rival but that of England herself. 
But as far down as 1816, Lowell, now the American Manchester, was undreamt of. A few huts then dotted the banks of the Merrimac, but the Pawtucket Falls had no interest but such as arose from their scenic attractions. Indeed it was not until ten years afterwards that the advantages of its site were fully appreciated; immediately on which the capital of Boston was rapidly invested in it. And what has been the result? The town of Lowell, with all its wealth, industry, achievements, and prospects. In twenty years its population increased one hundred fold; the value of its property during the same period was enhanced one hundred and twenty fold. In 1820 its population, as already observed, was about 200; the value of its property not above 100,000 dollars. In 1840 its population was 20,000, and its property was assessed at 12,500,000 dollars.

It is supplied with motive power by means of a broad and deep canal, proceeding from the upper level of the Falls along the bank of the river; the majority of the mills and factories being built between this canal and the stream. The canal serves the purpose of a never-failing mill-dam to them all, each drawing from it the supply of water necessary for the working of its machinery. The motive power thus placed at the disposal of capital is equal to the task of turning about 300,000 spindles. In 1844 the number in use did not exceed 170,000; there was therefore power then wasted sufficient to turn 130,000 more. But as new companies are constantly springing up, a power so available will not long be unemployed.

Almost all the mills in Lowell of any great size, are owned by incorporated companies. A few years ago there were eleven such companies, owning amongst them no less than thirty-two mills, exclusive of print and dye-works, and all supplied with power from the canal. The chief of these is that known as the Merrimac Company, which owns most of the valuable property in the neighbourhood. To it belongs the canal itself, the other companies, as it were, renting the use of it. In addition to several large mills, the Merrimac Company possesses a large machine establishment, in which is manufactured the machinery used in most of the other mills. In addition to the mills owned by the companies, there are some factories of a miscellaneous description, and on a comparatively small scale, owned by private individuals. The great proprietary company, from the very first, took good care that the enterprise of others should not seriously compete with it, by purchasing, when it could be procured at a low rate, all the ground of both sides of the river immediately below the Falls. It is in this way that the other companies are not only dependent upon it for their water power, but are also its lessees or grantees, as regards the very sites on which their mills are erected.

In 1844 there were upwards of 5,000 looms at work in the establishments of the companies, who were then employing nearly 10,000 people, of whom only about one-fourth were males. Scarcely any children were employed under fifteen years of age. The average wages of a male were then from seventy-five to eighty cents a day, or about four dollars eighty cents a week, which make about a pound sterling. Those of a female were from thirty to thirty-five cents a day, or about two dollars a week, being 8s. 4d. sterling. In many cases they were higher. The wages here specified were, in both cases, received exclusive of board.     
In 1844 the aggregate produce of the different companies amounted to about 60,000,000 yards of cotton. This constituted their produce simply in the shape of plain goods, their print and dye works during the same year turning out upwards of 15,000,000 yards of printed cloth. The consumption of raw cotton was close
upon 20,000,000 lbs.; the aggregate consumption of the Union during the same year was nearly 170,000,000 lbs.; so that Lowell, which as late as 1820 had no existence as a manufacturing town, was consuming, in little more than twenty years after its foundation, fully one-eighth of all the raw cotton manufactured into fabrics in the United States. In 1816, as already intimated, the whole consumption of the American looms did not exceed 11,000,000
tbs. By this time Lowell alone must be consuming nearly treble that quantity.

The operatives in the different establishments are paid their wages once a month, the companies, however, paying their respective workmen on different days, an arrangement which obviously serves more than one good purpose. A great portion of the wages thus monthly received is deposited in the Savings' Bank, particularly by the females, who make their work in Lowell a stepping-stone to a better state of existence. After labouring there for a few years they amass several hundred dollars, marry, and go off with their husbands to the West, buy land, and enjoy more than a competency for the remainder of their days.

In all that conduces to the improvement of the physical and moral condition of the operatives, the companies seem to take a common interest, working together to a common end. The mills are kept as clean, and as well ventilated, as such establishments can be, and their inmates, with but few exceptions, appear in the best of health; nor is there about them that look of settled melancholy which so often beclouds the faces of our own operatives. They are comparatively light-hearted, their livelihood being less precarious, and their future prospects far brighter, if they will only improve their opportunities, than those of the English factory-labourer.

Every attention is also paid in Lowell to the education, not only of the young, but also of the adults. By economy of their time and means the women not only manage to be instructed in the elementary branches of education, but also to be taught some of the accomplishments of their sex. It would not be easy to find a more acute and intelligent set of men anywhere than are the artizans and mechanics of Lowell. They have established an institution for their mutual improvement, which is accommodated in a substantial and handsome-looking edifice known as Mechanics' Hall. There are other institutions on a smaller scale, but of a kindred nature, in Lowell. It also possesses eight grammar-schools, at which the pupils who attend receive an excellent education. In addition to this it has no less than thirty free public schools, at which the children of the poorer classes are educated. The number of children attending all the schools is about 6,000, and this out of a population of about 30,000. As elsewhere in the Union, the great business of secular education is harmoniously promoted, without being marred and obstructed by sectarian bigotry and jealousy. Even the Catholics, who are numerous in Lowell, join with the Protestants in the work, all parties wisely and properly agreeing to forget their differences, in furthering that in which they have a common interest,--the education of the young. 
Such is Lowell, the growth as it were of a night, the quick result of arbitrary minimums; the fondling of Boston capital, and the pet child of American protection. If it does not owe its existence to high tariffs, its unexampled progress is at least attributable to them. Two years after its incorporation as a city, the almost prohibitive tariff of 1828 was passed, which enabled Lowell at once to realise the most sanguine expectations of its projectors. It was no wonder that under the fostering influence of that tariff, the
manufactures of America, both at Lowell and elsewhere, rapidly developed themselves, seeing that its effect was to secure by law to capital invested in a particular employment, a much larger profit than it could count upon with any certainty when otherwise employed. The rise of manufacturing communities in other states as well as in Massachusetts has been the consequence,--the manufacturing capitalist finding himself everywhere rapidly enriched by act of Congress at the expense of the consumer. The plethoric corporations of Lowell owing their success to protection, it is no wonder that they should take the lead in its advocacy. When the Compromise bill expired in 1842, they managed to secure the enactment of a tariff more stringent in its provisions, and consequently more favourable to themselves, than that which had existed for the previous ten years. The injustice to the consumer of the fiscal system established in that year became so manifest in 1846, that it was at length overthrown to make way for the revenue tariff of that year. The manufacturers fought hard in its defence, but in vain. Massachusetts took the lead on their side, Lowell led Massachusetts, the Merrimac Company led Lowell, and Mr. Appleton led the Company. But the consumers had got their eyes opened, and saw no reason why they should any longer be taxed in addition to what they were willing to pay for the support of the government, for the benefit of Massachusetts, Lowell, the Merrimac Company, or Mr. Appleton. The fight, however, was a severe one, and if the free-trade party triumphed on the occasion, it was only by just escaping a defeat.

Although Lowell is, perhaps, the spot in which is concentrated the greatest amount of manufacturing energy, and in which the largest investment of capital has been made for the sole purpose of manufacturing, it forms but a single point in the general survey of the industrial system of America. There is scarcely a State in the Union in which manufactures of some kind or other have not sprung up. The system has as yet obtained but a partial development west of the Alleghanies, but most of the sea-board States present to the observer numerous points characterised by great industrial activity. Massachusetts is undoubtedly preeminent in the extent to which she has identified herself with manufactures, in the proper acceptation of the term. In 1846 the capital invested in the business of manufacture in that State must have amounted to from fifty to sixty millions of dollars. In 1837 the amount invested was upwards of fifty-two millions and the value of the manufactures produced was above eighty-five millions. Between that period and 1842, that is to say, during the last five years of the existence of the Compromise Act, there were no great additional investments made, the operation of that Act not being such, as regarded home fabrics, as to induce capitalists to turn their attention extensively to the business of manufacture. At the same time there was great uncertainty as to the commercial policy which would be pursued on the expiration of the Act, which served as an additional drawback to such an investment of capital. But on the passing of the high tariff act of 1842, when the Union in its economical policy appeared to be reverting to the order of things established in 1828, home manufactures being protected against serious competition, and manufacturing capital being virtually guaranteed large returns by Congress itself, great additions were made to that capital; so that the amount now employed in Massachusetts cannot fall much short of sixty millions of dollars. Whether the low tariff bill of 1846 has caused any withdrawal of capital or checked the increase of capital invested in manufactures, I cannot say. But although Massachusetts may thus claim the lead as the chief manufacturing State, she is behind one of the sisterhood of States, at least, in the amount of capital invested in industrial pursuits, in the broader sense of the term.