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Lowell History: Visitor Observations 1827-1913

Observations of Lowell by James Finlay Weir Johnston




People profess to be alarmed at the increase of manufacturers in the United States, but in reality these manufacturers are not increasing so fast as the population; and, in truth, there are two circumstances which must keep back the manufacturers from being able fairly to enter into successful competition with us, except in heavy goods, and in such as involve little labour. These are the high price of labour and the expensive was in which manufacturing is at present generally conducted.

The male and female operatives in Lowell receive, in addition to their board, an average daily and weekly wage of -  

                      Per Day                Per Week

Males            80 cents, or           20s. 9d. 
Females         33   “                     8s. 8d. 
These wages are normally higher than with us, and they must ass a certain additional price to the cotton and other cloth produced. [At Lowell about 7500 females, and 2000 males, are employed in the production of the 362,000 yards of cloth per day.] The increase of manufactories has had the natural effects of raising the price of labour, and of thus increasing the most important obstruction to a successful competition with ourselves. 
In my travels in the agricultural districts of North America, I was everywhere, except among the French habitants, struck with the reckless waste of female labour which universally prevails. Household drudgery of any kind the females will perform in their own houses or homes, but out-of-work is too degrading! To the daughters of the poor farmers of Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Maine, and even of New Brunswick, the chance of employing themselves in a new form of labour, to which no fancied stigma attaches, comes as a welcome outlet for their wasting energies; and consequently, from these sources the supply of factory females is chiefly drawn. It is certainly a pleasure to see the clean, healthy, and respectable appearance of these females at their work in the mills, and to hear of their steady and virtuous behaviour in private. One cannot but wish that such a state of things may long continue. But the struggle has already begun between the master and the operative—the employer and the employed. The price of labour is considered by the manufacturer as the great obstacle to a successful competition with England, and his anxiety is to reduce it. That of the labourer, who knows the bias of his employer, is to keep wages up. In this struggle, in spite of democratic institutions, the labourer must gradually give way. It has been so with ourselves. [Note: referring to England] When the cotton manufacturing was first introduced (so late as 1772) prices were high, wages were good, the sons of comparatively rich men went upon the loom, respectable females filled the first factories, and domestic comfort, healthy families, and general morality prevailed. But the demand for hands gradually introduced black sheep into the workshops, and disreputable neighbors in the crowded streets of the employed. It will be so sooner or later in the United States, and sooner in proportion to the rapidity with which the number of mills and work-people is increased.

The females live in boarding-houses, generally belonging to the factory in which they are employed. Their rooms and accommodation are very comfortable, costing 1 dollar and 35 cents (about 5s. 9.d) a-week, and they are under careful superintendence. The esprit de corps is so strong that, upon the slightest suspicion of impropriety of behaviour, the suspected party must be dismissed, or the mills stop forthwith for want of hands. It is melancholy to think that the very progress of which Massachusetts is so proud, must inevitable bring this fine moral control to an end.

I have said that masters and workmen have already arrayed themselves on opposite side in the manufacturing districts; and there are not wanting abundance of persons to foster distrust and dislike among the working classes. The democrats are jealous of corporations—of all person, who, by employing many, or bearing the relation of landlord to many, may exercise, directly or indirectly, what is regarded as an undue influence upon the elections. I was informed by a gentleman high in office in Massachusetts, that to the Irish who arrive at Boston one of the first lessons taught is, that the manufacturers in their new country are to the employed what their landlords were to them at home—what Britain is to Ireland!—that tyrant and slave are relations they bear to each other. In consequence, nearly all such importations become additions to the democratic party.

The, at the elections, the democratic press does not fail to stignatise the 10,000 female workers as slaves, and the mill-owners as aristocrats, and to denounce the influence exercised by their employers over the votes of the 3744 males employed in the mills, when the whigs gain victory. This outcry on a late occasion became so strong, that, in self-defence, the mill corporations found it expedient to publish a list of votes, showing that no influence in favour of the whig party could have been exercised, inasmuch as a majority of the workmen and managers of the mills actually voted with the democratics.

How the feeling of soreness in the minds of the employed, comfortable and well paid as they are, is encouraged by the public press, is shown by such paragraphs as the following, which I extract from an Albany periodical:—

“That prince of manufacturers, Abbott Lawrence, has made a donation of 50,000 dollars, for the purpose of erecting suitable buildings, and endowing professorships, for a new department of education in the University of Harvard. . . .This magnificent gift of Mr. Lawrence is worthy of praise. How vastly better to do good in one’s own lifetime than to hoard up the shining dust. . . .And the inquiry has involuntary arisen in our mind, from whence came this vast wealth? From the looms and spindles of Lowell. And this is one of those men who have besieged Congress for protection, so they might live.

“Was any of this trumpet-tongued charity made up from the sixpenny a-week clippings from the wages of weavers and spinners at Lowell? How many, many thousand extra hours of wearisome, life-wearing toil did it add to the over-wrought limbs and hands of the operatives, in order that one man may be gazetted as a great public benefactor?

. . .When feelings such as those I have spoken of, as being served up and fostered in Lowell, take root to any extent among the workmen, and in a country where each grown-up man has a vote, the struggle to maintain prices must be both more violent and more prolonged than among ourselves, and the victory more frequently on the side of the employed. On the part of the masters, the tendency will be, in consequence, as much as possible to employ machinery, female labour, and persons under age, and as little as possible the higher priced, full-grown, more unmanageable, political-power-possessing labour of the males. The influence of this tendency, indeed, is already perceptible, I think, in the Lowell mills. It is machine or power-loom weaving that is almost exclusively practiced. The “Lowell Manufacturing Company” make 12,000 yards of carpet per week upon 124 power carpet-looms, which are attended by women. It was very pleasing sight to see the large rooms full of these beautiful carpet-looms, all braced together by which patterns are formed working as easily as if only plain calicoes were the fabric produced. The Middlesex Company, also who manufacture 20,000 yards a-week of broad-cloths and cassimeres, upon 400 looms, and have 4 mills and 3 dyehouses, employ 730 women to 575 men.

Still, like our own manufacturers, before they were submitted to so many trials, the Lowell and other mills in Massachusetts—as I was informed by an English mill-owner who had visited them much more extensively than myself, and with a view to judge of their economical condition—are conducted expensively, independent of the price of labour. He mentioned processes to me, in which he knew that large annual savings might be effected; and generally he said, the “expense gone to produce such inferior goods, would not pay at all in England.”

There are two reasons why this expensive management should continue. First, the mills are nearly all joint-stock concerns, and it is not in the nature of things, as a general rile, that a manager, who has at most only a small share in a business, should as if the whole profit of such improvements were to come to himself and his few partners. Beside, protecting duties remove the stimulus to such improvements as would naturally cheapen the manufacturer. At p[resent Lowell mills divide something less than ten per sent, while the import duty, charges and commissions, add fifty per cent to the price of English manufactured goods, before they can compete with them in the American market/. So long as the other states consent to pay this fifty per cent higher price for manufactured goods than the same can be said for in Liverpool, so long they contribute not merely to pay a somewhat higher wage to the farmers’ daughters who work in the mills, and raise the price also of all other labor in the country, but they encourage also a more expensive system of manufacture than would be adopted were the mill-owners left to their own wits, and to that natural protection only which nearness to the home markets give them.