Skip to Main Content

Lowell History: Visitor Observations 1827-1913

Observations of Lowell by Thomas L. Nichols, 1864


About the year 1835 I resided in Lowell, Massachusetts, a manufacturing town some twenty-five miles north of Boston. It was the first important manufacturing town in America, and is still the largest. The falls of the Merrimack river furnish abundant water-power. There is a dam across the river above the falls, and the water from this basin is brought to the factories, machine-shops, &c., by a canal sixty feet wide. These works are owned by an incorporated company, and each of the ten manufacturing companies pays this company for its site and water-power.

At the time of my residence in Lowell, the population did not exceed ten thousand. Two-thirds of the whole were operatives, and a large proportion of these young women, not residents, but daughters of farmers, &c., from the country a hundred miles around, who had come to the factories to work a few months or years, and lay up money for their marriage-portions. 

Great covered waggons--such as are called vans in England--went about the country collecting the rosy maidens from villages and rural districts, and conveying them to the factories.

Among these girls were many of exceeding beauty--that delicate beauty nowhere else found in greater perfection--too delicate often to last. It is too often the delicacy of the scrofulous diathesis and incipient consumption. Many were well educated. Some of them were contributors to a monthly magazine, called the Lowell Offering, from which a small volume has been published in England, entitled, Mind among the Spindles. Some of these young ladies--factory operatives--cultivated music in their leisure hours, and had pianofortes in their private parlours. Many of them no doubt read French and Latin, possibly a few had a smattering of Greek, and tended their looms none the worse for it. It is certain that while the greater part came to earn money for their own setting-out in life, many came to relieve a father from debt, to help a widowed mother and younger orphan children; and there were instances of brave girls who earned in the cotton-mill the money which supported a brother in college--the brother who afterwards became a senator, perhaps.

The Lowell of that day was a very curious place. The girls all boarded in blocks of regularly built boarding-houses, owned by the manufacturing corporations, and managed by persons in their employ, and under very strict rules of their making. No girl was allowed to be out after a certain hour. Up to that time the brilliantly lighted shopping streets would be full of girls; then the bells rang, they hasted home, the shops closed, and the streets were desolate. The boarding-house regulations were as strict as those of a fashionable boarding-school.

The churches on Sunday had a very singular aspect. There would be a thousand girls from fifteen to twenty-five--rarely one older--all dressed with neatness and even a degree of elegance, and, scattered about, a hundred men perhaps, who seemed quite lost and unprotected, as forlorn as one man with eleven women in an omnibus. On a warm Sunday, what a whirr it was, with the flutter of a thousand fans! And how the Methodist hymns rang out with a thousand soprano and contralto voices, and the almost inaudible undertones of bass and tenor!

In the congregational churches the girls, being in such an overwhelming majority, asserted their right to vote; and as the few men were of no account against them, they deposed disagreeable ministers, and invited those they liked better, at their own sweet wills; and as they paid their salaries, why not? They paid their money, and they took their choice; and if they preferred a young, handsome, and agreeable preacher, to an old, ugly, and sour one, who shall blame them? The Methodist girls were obliged to take those who were sent them; but the bishops and presiding elders had enough of the wisdom of serpents not to appoint those who would thin the seats, or drive these lambs of the flock to other and more gentle shepherds.

Not in the churches only did these self-reliant Yankee girls act for themselves. It was at their peril that the factory corporations added half an hour to their time of work, or took sixpence from their weekly wages. The girls would turn out in a procession, hold a public meeting, make speeches and pass resolutions, and hold the whole manufacturing interest at their mercy. Every mill was stopped; there were no other hands to be had; there was not a girl in New England would come to take their places. The officers had nothing to do but quietly knock under. The men took no part in these émeutes, except as sympathizing spectators. And what could be done? I should like to see the magistrate who would read the Riot Act to four or five thousand Yankee girls, or the military that would charge upon them. So they had their own way in these matters, while they submitted without a murmur to the regulations which were made for their benefit and protection.

When General Jackson visited New England during his presidency, the Lowell factory-girls, all dressed in white, with wreaths of flowers, went out to meet him. They walked out two and two, under their own marshals; the tallest and loveliest girls from the white hills of New Hampshire, the green mountains of Vermont, and the lovely valleys of Massachusetts, with bands of music and songs of welcome for the old chieftain. When they met him, their leader made a patriotic speech. The gallant old man thanked her, and kissed her for all the rest; and then, with his head bare to the mountain breezes and the sun shining on his silvery hair, the old veteran rode between two files of white-robed girls for miles, all the way to the City of Spindles, whose mills were closed for a great holiday.  
The population of Lowell, aside from the factory-operatives, was small. There were the families of the agents, engineers, clerks, &c.; tradesmen, professional men, editors of newspapers, &c.; and the mechanics and labourers of a fast-growing city. After this lapse of nearly thirty years, there is but one family that I can vividly remember. It was that of a retired Methodist preacher, who lived in a pretty white cottage on the banks of a small river, in what was then a suburb of the town. He was a gentleman of character and intelligence, and had a family of four children--two sons and two daughters, of fifteen to twenty-five. The young ladies--whom I saw the most of, and greatly admired--were two of the most beautiful, intellectual, and amiable girls I ever knew. The young men were tall, handsome, energetic, enterprising, and destined, I believed, to make their way in the world. The fortunes of these four young people were those of thousands of Americans, and curiously illustrate the character of the country.

The eldest son studied law, removed to New Orleans, married a lady who owned large plantations on the Red River, was elected to Congress, and is now a leading statesman of the Confederate States. The second son became an engineer, invented machinery and firearms; and the last I heard of him was at Washington, a strong Union man, contracting to supply an improved rifle. The two girls--who went to visit their elder brother in Louisiana--both married rich planters there. Just as the war broke out in 1861, and before the mails were stopped, I received a letter from the elder sister. I knew her handwriting, though she signed a strange Creole name. I had not seen or heard directly from her for twenty-five years, and now, just as the bloody, horrible war was beginning, she wrote to me with the fervour of our old sweet friendship of early days.

She had been married, and was a widow. Her eldest son had just gone to college. The country all round her was flying to arms. There was, she averred, but one feeling with men and women, old and young--the determination to repel invasion and be independent of the hated North. I could form no idea, she said, of the unanimity or intensity of this feeling. As she wrote, a steamer passed down the Red River to the Mississippi with a regiment en route for the seat of war--one of those Southern regiments, not made up of foreigners, mercenaries, or outcasts, but in which fathers, sons, and brothers are banded to fight and die for country and home. On the steamer were twenty-five women--mothers, wives, and sisters of the regiment--at work, with seven sewing-machines to help them, making up uniforms on the passage, that those they loved might lose no time in meeting the invader. "Can such people as these," she asked, "ever be conquered?"

She has lived, if she still lives, to see the capital of her own adopted State burned and plundered; to see New Orleans under the rule of a Butler, a lawyer from this very town of Lowell, where she formerly resided. She has seen the southern portion of Louisiana ravaged by Banks, formerly a Massachusetts shoemaker. Ere this her own plantation may have been plundered, her servants scattered, and her dwelling given to the flames; and she has the terrible bitterness of knowing that one of her brothers is a Northern partizan, supplying, perhaps, the very arms that may slay her dearest friends. Such is this war. There are thousands of such cases. Northern men, and still more, Northern women married to Southern husbands, are spread over the whole South. I have never heard of a case in which they were not true as steel to their adopted land.   
There is another feature of the case I have described above. This lady, my correspondent, when we were friends in her Northern home, was an ardent Abolitionist. She was, and is, noble, pure minded, and earnestly religious; but she became, notwithstanding, mistress and owner of many slaves, and her conscience would now revolt as urgently against the cruelty of turning them out to take care of themselves, as it once would have done against holding a fellow creature in bondage. This is one of thousands of cases which prove that the most thorough Abolitionists generally change their opinions when they come into actual contact with slavery and the enslaved race.

I have not visited Lowell for many years. Those who have tell me it has greatly changed. The population has increased to over thirty-six thousand. It is so largely Irish that there are four Roman Catholic churches. There is a large resident population of operatives, who must be quite a different class from the rosy country girls who used to come in their white sun-bonnets, packed into those long waggons. Many other large manufacturing towns have grown up, fostered by high protective tariffs, that give a virtual monopoly of many kinds of fabrics, and which enabled the American mill-owners to buy cotton at Liverpool, while half a million of operatives in Lancashire were reduced to pauperism for the want of it.

Lowell has now ten manufacturing corporations, having an aggregate capital of about 3,000,000l., 12,234 looms, 400,000 spindles, 12,500 operatives, and makes two and a half million yards of fabrics a-week. There are twenty churches, an abundance of schools, and four or five newspapers.

I must say a word of this beautiful Merrimack river. The name is Indian, and was also given to the United States steam-frigate, converted by the Confederates into an iron-clad, which did such terrible execution in Hampton Roads, Virginia. The Merrimack is formed by the union of two roaring mountain streams, at the southern base of the White Mountains in New Hampshire; then it runs, with a clear swift current, through beautiful valleys, down a series of rapids to the Atlantic Ocean, running south some eighty miles to Lowell, and then east thirty-five miles, and at its debouchment making a harbour for the pretty town of Newburyport. Besides hundreds of mills and factories, the Merrimack supplies water-power to four large towns, Nashua and Manchester in New Hampshire, and Lowell and Lawrence in Massachusetts, doing the work of more steam-engines, or horses, or men than I have time to calculate, or the reader would be likely to remember.