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Lowell History: Visitor Observations 1827-1913

Observations of Lowell by William Chambers, 1854



Like most visitors of Massachusetts, I made an excursion to Lowell--a manufacturing city of 37,000 inhabitants, at the distance of twenty-five miles northwest of Boston. A railway-train occupied an hour in the journey, which was by way of Lexington--a small town at which the first shots were fired (April 19, 1775) at the beginning of the revolutionary struggle. The country traversed was level, enclosed, and here and there dotted over with pretty villages and detached dwellings, in the usual New England style. Lowell may be described as a village of larger growth, composed of houses of brick or wood, disposed in straight lines forming spacious and airy streets. Several railways centre at the spot, but there is little noise or bustle in the thoroughfares. All the children are at school, and most of the adult inhabitants are in the several manufactories. The day is sunshiny and pleasant, and a few infants are playing about the doors of neat dwellings in the short streets which lead to the mills. These mills are of the ordinary cotton-factory shape--great brick-buildings, with rows of windows with small panes, and all are enclosed within courtyards, or otherwise secluded from intrusion.

The whole of the Lowell mills being moved by water-power, we agreeably miss the smoky atmosphere which surrounds the Lancashire factories. The power is derived from the Merrimack, a river of considerable size, which is led by an artificial canal from a point above a natural fall in its course, to the various works. In 1853, there were twelve incorporated manufacturing concerns in Lowell and its neighbourhood; principally engaged in cotton spinning and weaving, carpet-manufacturing, calico-printing, and machine-making. The chief and oldest of the various corporations is the Merrimack Manufacturing Company, established in 1822, and possessing a capital of 2,500,000 dollars. Its operations are carried on in six large buildings; it has at work 71,072 spindles, 2114 power-looms, employs 1650 females and 650 males, and makes 377,000 yards of cloth per week. The goods it produces are prints and sheetings. Besides going over the extensive works of this establishment, I visited the mills of the Lowell Manufacturing Company, where I found 800 females and 500 males employed principally in the spinning of wool and weaving of carpets--the designs of these articles being good, with bright and decided colours.

Cotton-spinning and weaving factories are pretty much the same all the world over, and I do not feel entitled to say that there was any remarkable exception in the establishments which here fell under my notice. In each there prevailed the greatest neatness and regularity. 

The females employed were tidy in dress, yet not very different in this respect from what I had seen in factories at home; for the nature of the work does not admit of finery, and it is only at leisure hours and on Sundays that silks and parasols make their appearance. In the windows of one of the large factories, I saw that flowers in pots were a favourite subject of culture, which I accepted as a token of the good taste of these young lady-artisans. Boarding-houses, generally the property, and under the supervision of the mill-owners, are situated at a short distance from the factories. These houses are of brick, three stories in height, and have exteriorly the aspect of what we should call dwellings of the middle classes. Of the orderliness of these establishments, their neatly furnished rooms, pianos, and accommodations of various kinds, it is unnecessary for me to go into particulars; neither need I call to remembrance the literary exercitations of the female inmates, demonstrated by the Lowell Offering, andMind among the Spindles. Among American girls, the general objection to domestic service is not attended with any dislike to working in factories. Many young women, the daughters of farmers, do not therefore disdain to employ themselves three or four years at Lowell, in order to realise a sum which will form a suitable dowry at marriage, to which, of course, all look forward as a natural termination of their career at the mills; and as no taint of immorality is attachable to their conduct while under the roof of any of the respectable boarding-houses, they may be said to be objects of attraction to young farmers looking out for wives. I was informed that, latterly, a number have come from Lower Canada, and return with quite a fortune to the parental home.

Undoubtedly, the strict regulations enforced by the proprietors of the mills, along with the care taken to exclude any female of doubtful character, largely contribute to the good working of this remarkable system. But as human nature is the same everywhere, I am disposed to seek for another cause for the orderly behaviour and economic habits of the Lowell operatives--and this I believe to be the hope of a permanent improvement of their condition. The sentiment of hope is observed to enjoy a vigorous existence in America. Prepared by education, the way is open to all; and so easily is an independent position gained, that none need to sink down in despair, or become tipplers in mere desperation and vacuity of thought. Even in working at cotton-mills, hope has its aspirations in a way not permitted by the customs of England. The factories of Lowell have been spoken of as belonging to incorporations. These are joint-stock companies, established by a charter from the state legislature, and have the validity and privileges accorded only to such companies in England as are established by special act of parliament. To procure such an act, supposing it would be granted to an ordinary manufacturing concern, would cost at least £500, or more probably £800; but in Massachusetts, or any other state of the Union, the entire expense of a charter would be thought high at 100 dollars, or £20; and I heard of cases in which charters did not cost more than £5. At whatever expense these state-charters are procured, they enable small capitalists to unite to carry out with safety a particular commercial object. The shareholders are responsible only to the extent of their shares, unless they become managers, they are bound to the limit of their fortune. For anything I know, there may be inherent weakness in the principle of these organisations, but they seem to go on satisfactorily at Lowell, and other places in the New England states; and if they do not command the respect of large capitalists, they at all events do not give rise to feelings of hostility between employer and employed. The stock of the Merrimack Manufacturing Company, which has been stated at 2,500,000 dollars, consists of shares of 1000 dollars each; and I have the authority of Mr Isaac Hinckley, the resident manager, for saying, that the persons employed by the company own more than eighty shares of the capital stock, or 80,000 dollars; and as the market-value of a share is at present 1320 dollars, it is tolerably evident that the concern is paying well, and in good credit. While it may be acknowledged that the management of factories established on this plan is not likely to be so prompt and vigorous as those owned by a single individual, it is surely a matter of some importance to have arranged a scheme, by which operatives have the power of becoming proprietors, to a certain extent, of the mills in which they habitually labour. Whether with the hope of obtaining this distinction, or of investing accumulated capital in other kinds of property, the operatives are depositors to a very great amount in the savings-banks in Lowell. Mr Hinckley mentioned, 'that the Lowell Institution for Savings, had at last report about 1,060,000 dollars of deposits, mostly belonging to persons employed in mills; and he thought the City Institution had about half that amount.' In a published account, it is stated that the number of depositors last year was '6224, nearly all of whom were persons employed in the mills.' Facts such as these say more for the good habits of the New England operatives than the highest eulogy.

All the manufacturing establishments in Lowell concur in issuing a printed table of statistics annually. In the paper of this kind, dated January 1853, the average wage of females, clear of board, per week, is two dollars; and of males, clear of board, four dollars, eighty cents. If we add that one dollar, twenty-five cents is the price of board for females, and two dollars for males, a fair idea will be obtained of the wages of labour in the Lowell factories. In English money, the average weekly earnings of a female may be set down at 13s. 6d., and of a male, at from 19s. 6d. to 21s.; and, keeping in view that the practice is to secure on an average twelve working-hours each day, English factory-operatives may draw for themselves a comparison between their own position and that of the workers in the mills of Lowell.

It is scarcely necessary to remark, that the prosperity of Lowell, and the agreeable circumstances of the operatives, rest on a somewhat precarious foundation, owing their existence as they do to a tariff which excludes the more cheaply produced goods of England. America has, indeed, strong prejudices in favour of paying high prices within herself for clothing, as contrasted with being supplied more cheaply from a distance; but, after what we have seen of the instability of a protective system in our own country, no one can tell what revolutions of sentiment a few years may bring about amongst so quick and intelligent a people as those of the United States. Were it not for this consideration, I should be inclined to express my surprise that the mill-operatives of Lancashire and Lanarkshire have never struck upon the idea of removing to one or other of the many fields of demand for their labour across the Atlantic.

It appears from statistical returns, that there are now upwards of a thousand cotton manufacturing establishments in the United States, fully one-half being in New England; and of these, Massachusetts has 213, the value of the goods produced in which, in 1845, was above 12 millions of dollars. Considerable as was this item, it formed only a small amount in a general estimate of manufactures in Massachusetts, which reached a total of 115 millions of dollars. Leaving to Connecticut much of the trade of fabricating clocks and other light and ingenious articles, Massachusetts owns many concerns in which the great staples of industry in textile fabrics and metals are produced. Among the trades which it may be said to have made peculiarly its own, at least as regards the eastern states, is that of boot and shoemaking. I may state on credible authority, that in 1845, the value of leather tanned was 3,800,000 dollars, and that boots and shoes were produced to the value of 14,799,000 dollars. Probably the value is now as much as 20 millions of dollars; and that anything like such a sum (£4,000,000 sterling) should be realised every year for these articles, in a state with no more than a third of the population of Scotland, is not a little surprising; and the fact is only comprehended by referring to the vastly extended territory over which the manufacturer finds a market. No inconsiderable quantity of the coarser kind of shoes, called 'brogans,' is disposed of for the use of slaves in the south, where manufacturing arrangements are on a limited and imperfect scale; and as these shoes are only one of many varieties of articles made in the free, for sale in the slave states, it is tolerably evident that, so far as material interests are concerned, the northern manufacturers, and all depending on them, have little reason to wish for a speedy termination to slavery. Lynn, a seaport town in Massachusetts, I understand, takes the lead in the boot and shoe trade; the quantity made in that place alone being 4,500,000 pairs per annum, mostly of a fine kind, for ladies and children. Recently, a machine has been introduced for fixing the soles of shoes by means of pegs; the inventor being a person in Salem, in Massachusetts. I was shewn some boots which had been prepared in this manner, and was told that a pair could be pegged in two minutes. One can imagine from all he hears, that the shoe manufacture must exercise a commanding importance in the state; and if any doubt be left as to the fact, it will be removed by knowing that a few years ago there were as many as fifteen members of the 'gentle craft' in the legislature of Massachusetts