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Lowell History: Visitor Observations 1827-1913

Observations of Lowell by Charles Richard Weld, 1854


Furnished with letters from Mr. Abbott Lawrence, I visited Lowell, famous for its factories belonging to a corporation, and for its factory girls, better known by
the more elegant title of the "young ladies" of Lowell. About an hour's railway drive brought me to that phenomenon to an Englishman, a smokeless factory town canopied by an Italian sky. Here, water, pure, sparkling, and mighty in strength, from the Merrimack River, does the duty of steam-engines, driving huge wheels and turbines attached to enormous factories. To describe these is unnecessary, as they differ but little in their internal economy from those in our manufacturing districts. There are eight manufacturing corporations and thirty-five mills, which produce 2,139,000 yards of piece-goods weekly, consisting of sheetings, shirtings, drillings, and printing cloths. These are fully equal in quality to similar goods manufactured in England. Not being in the trade, the "young ladies" interested me more than the spinning-jennies or looms; and, before I had gone through one mill, I was ready to admit that the difference between a Manchester factory girl and a Lowell "young lady," is great indeed. The latter is generally good-looking, often pretty, dresses fashionably, wears her hair à l'Impératrice, or à la Chinoise, and takes delight in finery, and flowers, which give a gay appearance to the factory rooms. But it would be unfair to institute a comparison between the Manchester and Lowell factory girl; as the former is born in that hard school where work is a life-long taskmaster, while the latter is generally the daughter or relative of a substantial farmer, who enters the mills for the purpose of gaining a little independence, and seldom remains there more than a few years. Thus the employment takes higher rank than with us, and the "young ladies" live in a manner that would greatly astonish an English factory girl. Requesting permission to see one of the Lowell boarding-houses, where the "young ladies" reside, I was directed to the establishment usually shown to visitors; but, conceiving it desirable to step aside from the beaten track, I knocked at the door of a different house. The residences of the "young ladies" are excellent, forming rows separated by wide streets, shaded by a profusion of trees, and bright with flowers. My request to be permitted to see the house did not meet with ready assent. After some parley with the servant, the mistress appeared, and made particular inquiries respecting the object of my visit, adding, it was not her custom to show her house to strangers. This made me the more desirous of gaining admission; and having succeeded in satisfying the lady I was merely a curious Englishman, she allowed me to enter, and took great pains in showing me her establishment, assuring me had she been aware of my visit she would have put her house in order. But it needed no preparation to convince me the "young ladies" are admirably provided for. A large sitting-room occupied a considerable portion of the basement floor, beyond which was the refectory; above were airy bedrooms, well furnished, containing from two to four beds. The provisions, which my conductress insisted I should taste, were excellent; and when I add the "young ladies" are waited on, and have their clothes washed, with the exception of their laces, &c., which they prefer washing themselves, it will be seen they are very comfortable. For their board and lodging they pay six dollars a month, one-sixth of which is paid by the corporation; and as their average earnings are about three and a half dollars a week, it is evident that, if not extravagant in their dress, they have it in their power to save a considerable sum yearly. But I fear, from the number of gay bonnets, parasols, and dresses which I saw in the "young ladies'" apartments, a large proportion of the weekly wages is spent on these objects. At the same time it is right to add that the strictest propriety reigns throughout their community, comprising 1870 females; and it was gratifying to hear that, although the famous Lowell Offering periodical has been discontinued, the books borrowed from the town library, for the use of which half a dollar is paid yearly, are of a healthy literary nature. The total number of operatives at Lowell when I visited it was nearly 10,000, and their savings invested in the bank of deposit 1,104,000 dollars.

Mr. Lawrence informed me that the corporation purpose building additional factories for weaving coarse cloths, which can be sold cheaper than those imported from England. At Lawrence, a new seat of cotton manufacture, also situated on the Merrimack, it is intended to erect vast mills on the most improved system. The Atlantic cotton mills, already in operation at that place, turn out 300,000 yards of cotton cloth weekly. The total capital invested in the manufacture of cotton goods in Massachusetts, amounts to 30,000,000 of dollars.