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Lowell History: Visitor Observations 1827-1913

Observations of Lowell by Eliot Washburton, 1846


There were few things in the United States that I had a greater wish to see than the factories of Lowell, and I accordingly took early steps to accomplish it. It is by railroad twenty-six miles from Boston, on the Merrimack River; the site was chosen on account of the extensive available water-power which it possesses; a canal sixty feet wide supplies the stream to the wheels of the mills. It extends to the length of a mile and a half from the head of some falls higher up the river, called by the euphonious name of Pawtucket. Five and twenty years ago Lowell was a solitude; now there are five-and-twenty thousand people; there are ten wealthy companies of cotton manufacturers, employing six thousand five hundred females, and two thousand five hundred males; there are also cloth factories, a powder-mill, foundry, and various other sources of employment for the population. These ten companies have thirty-three
mills, besides printworks. The average wages of men is ten shillings a week, women seven, over and above their expenses of living. They are well fed, and have neat and airy dwellings. I was shown over some of them; they were very clean, and a few had little book-cases, bird-cages, and boxes of flowers, with altogether a great air of comfort.

Any flagrant case of immorality is punished with dismissal, when brought to the notice of the authorities; both sexes are generally well conducted, considering the temptations of so populous a town. It is, however, I grieve to say, insinuated that their moral state is not so immaculate as many people fondly believe, nor does the increase of purity keep pace with the progress of the town. There are a great many schools, with wise regulations for the education of the people employed, and no fewer than fifteen places of worship of different denominations. The place was named after Mr. Francis Lowell, of Boston, the great founder of the cotton manufactures in his country.

There is little doubt that, without the tariff protection, now so likely to be removed, these works could not have prospered and increased as they have done. The duty of more than a third of the value charged on cotton cloths has been nearly prohibitory to the produce of English looms, and thrown a great part of the home trade into the hands of the American manufacturers. Now they have so much improved their arrangements and are so firmly established, that in China and in other foreign markets they can rival the English in the coarser kinds of cotton cloths; for in them they can afford to put a better material, as they get it cheaper, and but very little labor is required. Their advantages are, that their choice of cotton is at hand, water power cheaper, and poor rates less. In England, on the other hand, wages are lower, capital demands less return, and machinery is better and cheaper. In the fabric of the finer sorts and in the printing of all, Lowell cannot compete with Lancashire; in the manufacture of woollen cloth it is far inferior to Yorkshire.

But, in an infinitely higher point of view, Lowell stands unquestionably pre-eminent among manufacturing towns; the interests and welfare of the people are attended to with the most enlightened liberality, and as yet it is comparatively free from that dark mass of crime and misery which defiles our large communities. But it has had no stormy times, no working short hours, with crammed warehouses and none coming to buy. I fear the evils which have hitherto been found inseparable from the system of great congregations of people are beginning to appear: the alteration of the tariff will bring on the day of trial.

The establishment of any sort of manufacturing industry here, from shoes upwards, appears to me an error. The men so employed could get higher wages in the agricultural labors of the West, where they would be free from the danger of contamination in crowded cities. If the English Corn Laws be materially relaxed, the cultivation of these grain-growing districts will be still more profitable; while, by a removal of the American prohibitory duties, all articles of clothing could be obtained at one-third less price than that now exacted, and paid for in food to England.

Without giving an opinion on the advantages of free trade for ourselves, I cannot see the possible cause of its being denied to the people of the United States, where there is no vital interest to be endangered, no great mass of people or capital to be put out of employment; for who can doubt that a few months would absorb the scanty manufacturing population of New England among the millions of the new States, and that, in all probability, their condition would be thus very much improved? I have said before, that they can in some coarse cloths rival the English factories; but why should they try, when they would be so much better off elsewhere? I have not the least doubt that, if my friend from Chicago, and his western neighbors, could sell their corn in England, they would not for any length of time allow the interests of the Lowell capitalists to stand in the way of their barter.

The factories are well built and ventilated; from water power being used, cleanliness has not got smoke to contend with. There were three hundred women in one which I visited, all young, and not more sad or unhealthy-looking than the generality of Americans; but I cannot say that I was so much struck with their beauty and neatness of apparel as many of my predecessors have been. I saw, however, one very pretty girl, her hair smoothly braided, with a bow of blue ribbon placed coquetishly among the folds; her manner was very pleasing, and her conversation highly intelligent. She looked so gay and happy that I am sure the dark brown hair, and the blue ribbon, and the still bluer eyes (for whose glances I found the spinning-jenny a most formidable and successful rival), had just made some conquest; I mean besides myself, for I certainly was one. I went to the extent of purchasing a "Lowell Offering" for her sake, but my constancy failed me and I did not read it. Should this ever happen to meet those bright blue eyes of hers, I wonder whether she will recollect a fat elderly gentleman admiring her through a pair of spectacles, and saying as many agreeable things as the quick ascent of a long flight of stairs had left him breath to utter!