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Lowell History: Visitor Observations 1827-1913

Observations of Lowell for Scientific America, 1885

MARCH 21, 1885


Native American labor is best described by reference to a recent past, when it filled all the factories of the United States, and challenged, by its high tone, the admiration of Europe. At the beginning of this century, public opinion in America was most unfriendly to the establishment of manufactories, so great were the complaints of these made in Europe as seats of vice and disease. Thus, when Humphreysville, the first industrial village in America, was built, in 1804, by the Hon. David Humphreys, who wished to see the colony independent of the mother country for her supplies of manufactured goods, parents refused to place their children in his factories until legislation had first made the mill-owner responsible both for the education and morality of his operatives. Similarly, when the cotton mills of Lowell, and the silk mills of Hartford, began to rise, between 1832 and 1840, the American people held the capitalist responsible for the moral, mental, and physical health of the people whom he employed, with the result that all England wondered at the stories of factory operatives, and their so-called "refinements," which were given to this country by writers like Harriett Martineau and Charles Dickens. . . .

Lowell, between the years 1832 and 1850, was, perhaps, the most remarkable manufacturing town in the world. Help, in the new cotton mills, was in great demand, and what were then thought very high wages were freely offered, so that, in spite of the national prejudice against factory labor, operatives began to flow from many quarters into the mills. These people were, for the most part, the daughters of farmers, storekeepers, and mechanics; of Puritan antecedents, and religious training. In the mill they were treated kindly, and, although their hours were long, they were not overworked. A feeling of real, but respectful, equality existed between them and their employers, and the best hands were often guests at the houses of the mill owners or ministers of religion. They lived in great boarding-houses, kept by women selected for their high character, and it is of these industrial families, and of their refined life, that observers like Dickens, Lyell, and Miss Martineau spoke with enthusiasm.

The last writer has made us acquainted, in her "Mind among the Spindles," with the height to which intellectual life once rose in Lowell mills, before the wave of Irish emigration, following on the potato famine, swept native American labor away from the spindles. The morality of the early mill-girls, again, was practically stainless, and, strict as the rules of conduct were in the factories, these were really dead letters, so high was the standard of behavior set and sustained by the mill-hands themselves. . . .

It is not in the valleys of Massachusetts, however, that the greatest manufacturing cities of the Union are to be found, the towns already referred to containing usually only a few thousand inhabitants, and being still, for the most part, rural in their surroundings. They are, indeed, the fastnesses, so to speak, to which the Yankee artisan has retired, after having been almost literally swept out of the great manufacturing cities by successive waves of emigrant labor, chiefly of Irish and French-Canadian nationality. To these great cities we must now turn.

The city of Lowell, whose brilliant past is so well known, exemplifies, on that very account, better than any other manufacturing town in the States, the character of recent alterations in American labor conditions. The mill-hands, formerly such as I have described them, have been almost entirely replaced by Canadians and Irish, who have given a new character and aspect to the Lowell of forty years ago. "Little Canada," as the quarter inhabited by the former people is called, exhibits a congeries of narrow, unpaved lanes, lined with rickety wooden houses, which elbow one another closely, and possess neither gardens nor yards. They are let out in flats, and are crowded to overflowing with a dense population of lodgers. Peeps into their interiors reveal dirty, poorly furnished rooms, and large families, pigging squalidly together at meal times, while unkempt men and slatternly women lean from open windows, and scold in French, or chatter with crowds of ragged and bare-legged children, playing in the gutters.

The Irish portion of the town has wider streets, and houses less crowded than those of "Little Canada," but is, altogether, of scarcely better aspect. Slatternly women gossip in groups about the doorways. Tawdrily dressed girls saunter along the sidewalks, or loll from the window-sills. Knots of shirt-sleeved men congregate about the frequent liquor-saloons, talking loudly and volubly. No signs of poverty are apparent, but everything wears an aspect of prosperous ignorance, satisfied to eat, drink, and idle away the hours not given to work. Such is the general aspect of operative Lowell today; but some of the old well-conducted boarding-houses remain, sheltering worthy sons and daughters of toil.

Similarly, the outskirts of the city are adorned with many pretty white houses, where typical American families are growing up amid wholesome moral and physical surroundings, and enjoying all the advantages of schools, churches, libraries, and free institutions which the Great Republic puts everywhere, with lavish profuseness, at the service even of its least promising populations.

Concerning the Lowell mill-hands of today, I prefer, before my own observations, to quote from an article entitled "Early Factory Labor in New England," written by a lady, herself one of the early mill-girls, and published in the "Massachusetts Labor Bureau Report for 1883." She says:

"Last winter, I was invited to speak to a company of the Lowell mill-girls, and tell them something of my early life as a member of their guild. When my address was over, some of them gathered round and asked me questions. In turn, I questioned them about their work, hours of labor, wages, and means of improvement. When I urged them to occupy their spare time in reading and study, they seemed to understand the need of it, but answered, sadly, 'We will try, but we work so hard, and are so tired.' It was plain that these operatives did not go to their labor with the jubilant feeling of the old mill-girls, that they worked without aim or purpose, and took no interest in anything beyond earning their daily bread. There was a tired hopelessness about them, such as was never seen among the early mill-girls. Yet they have more leisure, and earn more money than the operatives of fifty years ago, but they do not know how to improve the one or use the other. These American-born children of foreign parentage are, indeed, under the control neither of their church nor their parents, and they, consequently, adopt the vices and follies instead of the good habits of our people. It is vital to the interests of the whole community that they should be brought under good moral influence; that they should live in better homes, and breathe a better social atmosphere than is now to be found in our factory towns.