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Lowell History: Visitor Observations 1827-1913

Observations of Lowell by Robert Playfair, 1848



Monday, 19th.--procured the usual order of admission, through the British consul, I this morning took the railroad for Lowell, a distance of twenty-six miles, on a visit to its factories.

Lowell is the Manchester of the United States, and every stranger, possessing any curiosity, is expected to visit it. Its machinery is moved by water-power, of which it possesses a vast amount. Unlike its prototype in England, it is a clean, healthy-looking place, of recent origin, regularly laid out, built of brick, surrounded by pleasant hills and valleys, and seated on the Merrimack River, below Pawtucket Falls, at its junction with the river Concord. The population about 35,000.

The water-power is furnished by a canal about one mile and a half long, commencing at the head of Pawtucket Falls, which have a descent of thirty-one feet. From the main canal the water is carried by lateral canals to the mills and manufactories. There are thirteen large manufacturing companies, having nineteen mills and 250 houses--employing a capital of 12,000,000 dollars, and 9235 operatives, of whom upwards of 6000 are females, making 76,000,000 yards of cloth, and 14,000,000 yards printed calico per annum; paying for labour 1,500,000 dollars per annum, and consuming annually 12,500 tons of coal, 3270 cords of wood, 61,100 bales of cotton, 47,000 gallons of oil, 600,000 bushels of charcoal, and 800,000 lbs. of starch. Extensive as these statistics are, the manufactures are said to be much on the increase.

A great amount and variety of other business is done, besides that of the incorporated companies--such as extensive powder-works, a bleachery, mills for flannels, blankets, paper-card factory, and various others, employing a large capital.

The operatives are neat and respectable in appearance, and of good moral character. 
A periodical, entitled, "The Lowell Offering," is published monthly; the articles written by the factory girls, who are the daughters of respectable farmers and others, for whom there are boarding-houses in the town at a moderate rate, and who come for a time to the factories to save a little money. Wages are said to average, in addition to board and lodging, for females, one dollar seventy-five cents--i.e., 7s. 3 ½d. per week; for males, seventy cents--i.e.3, 2s. 11d. a day. 
On presenting my ticket I was kindly received by the late American ambassador, the head of one of the largest proprietary firms. I then visited, in succession, the cotton print-works, 
spinning-works, and the Middlesex factory of woollen cloths. I afterwards found no difficulty, as a stranger, with any of the others, until I had thoroughly satisfied my curiosity, when I took some refreshment at a pastry-cook's, and returned to Boston in the afternoon, very well pleased with my day's work. The day's expenses--i.e., the railway train there and back, including the refreshment, not exceeding one dollar forty-four cents (7s. 10d.)

Manufacturing industry is but of recent origin in the United States (Lowell, now so thriving, was a barren spot in 1821, being incorporated into a town as late as 1826). Now, throughout the Northern States, wherever water-power is available, a disposition to take advantage of it is manifested; these manufactures are as yet probably of the coarser kinds, being still chiefly dependent on Great Britain for a large supply of the finer fabrics; with whom they cannot yet compete in any without protective duties, for which they are clamorous, in contradistinction to the Southern States, who, depending on the mother-country as a ready market for their cotton, rice, tobacco, and other raw produce, are desirous that there should be no such duties. A moderate tariff, on the principle of a compromise, has been the consequence; and it is said to be the great cause of the struggle between the two sections of the Union, for a balance of power, if not a preponderance, in Congress, and for the nomination of President.

It is difficult to convince a nation of its true interests, because every one wants a monopoly of his own calling; and is content to conclude that what, it is self-evident, would be beneficial to him must be so to others. I have met with foolish people, who have contended that America--meaning the United States--could supply herself, and ought to be independent of the rest of the world. To these I have contented myself with replying, that it was so once when her inhabitants ran wild in the woods, and that this argument, followed to its source, could only tend to bring matters again to a like pass.