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The Town & the City: Lowell Before The Civil War

The health of the operatives controversy - 1837 to 1850

This is Part 6 of "The capital of the poor man" - The History of Public Health in Lowell

“a few feeble constitutions are somewhat undermined”

1837 to 1850

The evidence of the factory girls themselves, the respectable keepers of the boarding-houses, in which they reside, and the physicians in the manufacturing settlements, all, moreover, tend to show, that the health of the operatives is not generally impaired by being employed in the mills, although, doubtless, a few feeble constitutions are somewhat undermined by the steady occupation and confinement.
Hunt’s Merchants’ Magazine, April 1847

This sixth part of the series focuses the health of the operatives controversy, which was a series of very public debates about mill conditions that included working hours, air quality, and the physical demands of mill work. During these years, the realities of mill work began to attract attention from outsiders, and some of the mill girls themselves began to speak up. This part of the series will also address the general health of Lowell during this period.

        Before 1837, there were turn-outs (i.e., strikes) in 1834 and 1836. The 1834 turn-out was in response to a 15% wage reduction, which was the result of a slump in the textile market. It was estimated that about 800 workers or one in six of the total workforce participated. The strike was not successful in reversing the wage cuts. The 1836 strike occurred during a boom period as a result of a proposed rise in board costs for the millworkers. It is estimated that one in four (1500 to 2000) of the workforce participated in that turn-out. The workers won this round and the hike in board was withdrawn. All the mills acted jointly in these types of actions, so there was no option to just go to another mill. Also, mills in other industrial centers in New England would often wait for, then follow Lowell’s lead in these actions.

        Within the period covered in this section (1837 to 1850), there were years of favorable markets and surpluses (e.g., 1844 to 1848) and contractions (e.g., the early 1840’s). Generally, the “panic of 1837” and the ensuing economic depression, 1837 to 1844, were years of deflation in wages and prices. It was becoming evident to investors in the mills that the immense profits of the early years were not going to continue forever (profits in 1830-31 were close to 20%). In addition, at the beginning of this period textile prices were falling because of overproduction earlier in the decade.

        It was also evident that the investors were not going to absorb any losses themselves. A series of “speed-ups,” “stretch-outs,” wage cuts, and board increases meant that the mill workers would pay both a physical and economic price for any downturns in the industry. Improvements in technology enabled the machinery to run faster, so “speed-ups” were ordered and resulted in millhands working faster with no increase in pay. “Stretch-outs” increased the number of looms per weaver. For example, from 1840 to 1854 the average number of looms per weaver went from 1.3 to 2.9. While this increased productivity, there was no increase in wages.

Below are a series of extended quotes the health and working conditions of the operatives during this period. They come from different sources and perspectives and represent the different sides of the health of the operatives controversy. They were published by a variety of outlets over a ten-year period - 1839 to 1849.

First though, I want to include a quote that appeared in the Harbinger -

The operatives work thirteen hours a day in the summer time, and from daylight to dark in the winter. At half past four in the morning the factory bell rings, and at five the girls must be in the mills. A clerk, placed as a watch, observes those who are a few minutes behind the time, and effectual means are taken to stimulate to punctuality. This is the morning commencement of the industrial discipline (should we not rather say industrial tyranny?) which is established in these associations of this moral and Christian community.

At seven the girls are allowed thirty minutes for breakfast, and at noon thirty minutes more for dinner, except during the first quarter of the year, when the time is extended to forty-five minutes. But within this time they must hurry to their boardinghouses and return to the factory, and that through the hot sun or the rain or the cold. A meal eaten under such circumstances must be quite unfavorable to digestion and health, as any medical man will inform us. At seven o'clock in the evening the factory bell sounds the close of the day's work.

        This quote, sometimes with less and sometimes with more from the original article, appears many times on the web. It is correctly attributed to a publication called The Harbinger. The problem I encountered was trying to put this in chronological order with the other articles from this period. Many or even most of the times that this appears on the web, the date of publication is given as November 14, 1836. My first impression was that The Harbinger was aptly named because this appeared almost three years before what seems to be the opening salvo of the health of the operatives controversy, which was in the Boston Daily Times on July 13, 1839. Also, although there were two turn-outs before the November 14, 1836 publication date, these were the result of wage cuts and board hikes, not the number of hours worked.

It turns out that this article appeared in The Harbinger on November 14, 1846, well into the controversy and in the midst of the ten-hour movement. The Harbinger was only published from 1845 to 1849, it did not exist in 1836. The article certainly makes more sense if placed in 1846 rather than 1836, as in 1846 the battle lines were drawn and people were taking sides.

There is one other note I would like to make about this series of extended quotes. They are presented in chronological order with one exception. Elisha Bartlett’s “Vindication” is second on the list even though it was published in 1841. This is because the text of the pamphlet was originally published in a series of five articles in the Lowell Courier during the month of July 1839 as a direct response to the article in the Boston Daily Times on July 13, 1839. The pamphlet was produced for wider distribution as the controversy continued.

The opening salvo of the health of the operatives controversy came from the Boston Daily Times, a Democratic newspaper, while the industrialists in Lowell were decidedly Whig. The article stated that

the young girls are compelled to work in unhealthy confinement for too many hours every day; that their food is both unhealthy and scanty; that they are not allow sufficient time to eat: , . . that they are crowded together in ill- ventilated apartments in the boarding-houses of the corporations, and that in consequence they become pale, feeble, and finally broken in constitution . . . and that hundreds of the vilest of the female sex throng to the manufactories with corruption in their manners and upon their tongues to breathe out the pestilence of the brothel in the boarding-places.
 - Boston Daily Times, July 13, 1839, “A Manufacturing Population.” (This quote is from The Industrial Worker, 1840-1860: The Reaction of American
Industrial Society to the Advance of the Industrial Revolution by Norman Ware (1924), not from the original newspaper.)

Dr. Bartlett -

The general and comparative good health of the girls employed in the mills here, and their freedom from serious disease, have long been subjects of common remarks among our most intelligent and experienced physicians. The manufacturing population of this city is the healthiest portion of the population, and there is no reason why this should not be the case. They are but little exposed to many of the strongest and most prolific causes of disease, and very many of the circumstances which surround and act upon them are of the most favorable hygienic character. They are regular in all their habits. They are early up in the morning, and early to bed at night. Their fare is plain, substantial, and good, and their labor is sufficiently active, and sufficiently light to avoid the evils arising from the two extremes of indolence and over-exertion. They are but little exposed to the sudden vicissitudes, and to the excessive heats and colds of the seasons, and they are very generally free from anxious and depressing cares.

 - Elisha Bartlett, A Vindication of the Character and Condition of the Females Employed in the Lowell Mills: Against the Charges Contained in the Boston Times, and the Boston Quarterly Review, 1841 (earlier published as a series of five articles in the Lowell Courier - July 20, 23, 25. 27, & 30 1839).

Orestes Brownson -

We pass through our manufacturing villages; most of them appear neat and flourishing. The operatives are well dressed, and we are told, well paid. They are said to be healthy, contented, and happy. This is the fair side of the picture; the side exhibited to distinguished visitors. There is a dark side, moral as well as physical. Of the common operatives, few, if any, by their wages, acquire a competence. A few of what Carlyle terms not inaptly body- servants are well-paid and now and then and agent or overseer rides in his coach. But the great mass wear out their health, spirits, and morals, without becoming one whit better off than when they commenced labor. The bills of mortality in these factory villages are not striking, we admit, for the poor girls when they can toil no longer go home to die. The average life, working life we mean, of the girls that come to Lowell, for instance, from Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont, we have been assured, is only about three years. What becomes of them then? Few of them ever marry; fewer still ever return to their native places with reputations unimpaired. "She has worked in a Factory," is almost enough to damn to infamy the most worthy and virtuous girl.


 - Orestes Brownson. The Laboring Classes, The Boston Quarterly Review, July, 1840

A Factory Girl -

Mr. Brownson may rail as much as he pleases against the real injustice of capitalists against operatives, and we will bid him God speed, if he will but keep truth and common sense upon his side. Still, the avails of factory labor are now greater than those of many domestics, seamstresses, and school- teachers; and strange would it be, if in money-loving New England, one of the most lucrative female employments should be rejected because it is toilsome, or because some people are prejudiced against it. Yankee girls have too much independence for that. And now, if Mr. Brownson is a man, he will endeavor to retrieve the injury he has done;    though he will find error, ignorance, and folly among us, (and where would he find them not?) yet he would not see worthy and virtuous girls consigned to infamy, because they work in a factory.

 - A Factory Girl, “Factory Girls” Lowell Offering, December 1840

A Citizen of Lowell -

We have seen that the operatives in the mills are employed fifteen hours, leaving them but nine hours out of the twenty-four, for sleep and other purposes. According to the best information, I can gather from the experience of distinguished physiologists laboring persons generally, require eight hours sleep. Allowing them this time, there remains but one hour to be devoted to moral and religious instruction, the cultivation of their intellectual capacities, and for diversion and social amusements. Now all these things are just as necessary for the full development of the faculties of the human mind and body, as is the food we eat or the air we breathe; and no one can be a whole and perfect human being without them. No one will contend, that one hour is a sufficient time for the cultivation and gratification of all these capacities and desires. If then they be gratified, it must be, by robbing the physical nature, by encroaching upon time, that should be devoted to sleep. If on the other hand they be not gratified, the intellectual nature must be robbed of its due cultivation and enjoyment. In either case, a wicked robbery is committed — a robbery, that as sure as there is a God, who has ordained immutable laws, by which the universe is governed, shall be punished with the vengeance of violated law, visited upon the heads of the transgressors.

 - A Citizen of Lowell, Vox Populi; Summer 1841; Corporations and Operatives: Being an Exposition on the Condition of Factory Operatives, and a Review of the "Vindication," by Elisha Bartlett, M.D., 1842


Henry A. Miles -

That there is sickness among the seven thousand factory girls of Lowell, — cases of prostration of strength, and incapacity to bear the fatigues of confinement and toil, it would, of course, be absurd to deny. Some come with the seeds of disease already growing within them, and they find that their constitutions would soon break down by continued labor. Others, freed from the guardianship of parental care, are greatly imprudent in their diet, or dress, or exposure to cold and damp air. It will not be expected but that others still, will feel that devotion to fashion which is characteristic of the sex, and will contract a serious, perhaps fatal cold, through a neglect to provide themselves with a warm shawl, or a pair of stout shoes. Moreover, there is something in the monotony of a mill-life which seems to beget a morbid hankering for little artificial stimulants of the appetite, and the tone of the stomach is frequently deranged by a foolish and expensive patronage of the confectioner. Painful instances, likewise, have occurred, where the hope of relieving an embarrassed parent, or of helping a struggling brother through college, excited too strongly by the ability of earning fifteen or twenty dollars per month, has over-tasked the energies of an ambitious young woman, and she has sunk beneath her self-imposed burden. To all these cases should be added a too frequent attendance, in times of religious excitement especially, upon evening meetings, at the churches or vestries, to which many are drawn, partly through a social influence, and partly through a devout one of the most commendable kind. After the work of the day, the close air of the conference and lecture room, for three or four evenings a week, must be highly prejudicial to health; and it is well that there is an increasing conviction of the importance of attention to this subject, on the part of clergymen and others, who have the direction of the meetings referred to.

 - Henry  A. Miles,  Lowell, As It  Was, and  As It  Is, 1845

Amelia -

It is not enough, that like the poor peasant of Ireland, or the Russian serf who labors from sun to sun, but during one half of the year, she must still continue to toil on, long after Nature’s lamp has ceased to lend its aid—nor will even this suffice to satisfy the grasping avarice of her employer; for she is also through the winter months required to rise, partake of her morning meal, and be at her station in the mill, while the sun is yet sleeping behind the eastern hills; thus working on an average, at least twelve hours and three fourths per day, exclusive of the time allotted for her hasty meals, which is in winter simply one half hour at noon,—in the spring is allowed the same at morn, and during the summer is added 15 minutes to the half hour at noon. Then too, when she is at last released from her wearisome day’s toil, still may she not depart in peace. No! her footsteps must be dogged to see that they do not stray beyond the corporation limits, and she must, whether she will or no, be subjected to the manifold inconveniences of a large crowded boarding- house, where too, the price paid for her accommodation is so utterly insignificant, that it will not ensure to her the common comforts of life; she is obliged to sleep in a small comfortless, half ventilated apartment containing some half a dozen occupants each, but no matter, she is an operative—it is all well enough for her; there is no “abuse” about it; no, indeed; so think our employers,—but do we think so? time will show.

 - Amelia, Factory Tracts. Factory Life As It Is, 1845

2,139 petitioners -

We the undersigned peaceable, industrious and hard working men and women of Lowell, in view of our condition--the evils already come upon us, by toiling from 13 to 14 hours per day, confined in unhealthy apartments, exposed to poisonous contagion of air, vegetable, animal and mineral properties, debarred from proper physical exercise, mental discipline, and mastication cruelly limited, and thereby hastening us on through pain disease and privation, down to a premature grave, pray the legislature to institute a ten hour working day in all of the factories of the state.

 - Lowell Textile Workers Petition 1845: Signed by J. Q. Adams Thayer, Sarah G. Bagley and over 2,000 others

Voice of Industry -

We were not aware, until within a few days, of the modus operandi of the factory powers in this village of forcing poor girls from their quiet homes to become their tools and, like the Southern slaves, to give up their life and liberty to the heartless tyrants and taskmasters.

Observing a singular-looking "long, low, black" wagon passing along the street, we made inquiries respecting it, and were informed that it was what we term a "slaver." She makes regular trips to the north of the state, cruising around in Vermont and New Hampshire, with a "commander" whose heart must be as black as his craft, who is paid a dollar a head for all he brings to the market, and more in proportion to the distance--if they bring them from such a distance that they cannot easily get back.

This is done by "hoisting false colors," and representing to the girls that they can tend more machinery than is possible, and that the work is so very neat, and the wages such that they can dress in silks and spend half their time in reading. Now, is this true? Let those girls who have been thus deceived, answer.


Let us say a word in regard to the manner in which they are stowed in the wagon, which may find a similarity only in the manner in which slaves are fastened in the hold of a vessel. It is long, and the seats so close that it must be very inconvenient.

Is there any humanity in this? Philanthropists may talk of Negro slavery, but it would be well first to endeavor to emancipate the slaves at home. Let us not stretch our ears to catch the sound of the lash on the flesh of the oppressed black while the oppressed in our very midst are crying out in thunder tones, and calling upon us for assistance.

 - Voice of Industry, January 2, 1846

Dr. Green -

While we maintain that many of the conditions of health are as little violated by manufacturing industry, as by an immense proportion of other pursuits, we still believe that factory labor is, on some accounts, injurious. How, indeed, can it be otherwise, when regarded as a whole? Individuals thus employed, do not spend in the open air, on an average, more than an hour or an hour and a half in the twenty-four: and work is resumed almost the moment the meal is swallowed, allowing scarcely any rest for the commencement of a healthy digestion. Causes like these must and do depress, more or less, the vital powers, and induce certainly, perhaps slowly, a lower state of the general health than would exist with the opposite state of things. In all this, however, we have nothing peculiar to the factory system. With the great majority of the working classes, these causes have a general operation. In the case of hundreds of females employed in various occupations with their needles, the same conditions of labor are applicable, and present almost the same exceptionable points as those of our manufactories.

 - John O. Green, The Factory System in its Hygienic Relations, 1846

Hunt’s Merchants’ Magazine -

The evidence of the factory girls themselves, the respectable keepers of the boarding-houses, in which they reside, and the physicians in the manufacturing settlements, all, moreover, tend to show, that the health of the operatives is not generally impaired by being employed in the mills, although, doubtless, a few feeble constitutions are somewhat undermined by the steady occupation and confinement.

 - Hunt’s Merchants’ Magazine, April 1847

Dr. Curtis -

There is not a State's Prison, or House of Correction, in New England, where the hours of labour are so long, the hours for meals so short, or the ventilation so much neglected, as in all the cotton-mills with which I am acquainted.

 - Josiah Curtis, Public Hygiene of Massachusetts; but more particularly of the Cities of Boston and Lowell," Transactions of the American Medical Association, 1849

So, who was right? Who described the conditions in the mills, the boarding houses, and the gathering places in Lowell most accurately? Although we will never know for sure, there seems to be enough evidence and consensus that some inferences can be made.

It is clear that the mills had become an ideological issue with strong feelings on both sides and in the middle. Some wanted the Lowell experiment to fail even if some aspects of it were working, some wanted it to succeed even if some unfortunate consequences had to be covered up or portrayed with positive spin, and some wanted to keep it going but with changes in working and living conditions. I call these three groups the critics, the defenders, and the change advocates, respectively.

These three groupings are contrived by me and didn’t exist at the time. There were variations within each group and opinions on these issues were actually spread across a continuum and did not fall into distinct groups. But I think that these groupings can be helpful in discussing the trends in thinking about the past, present, and future of the mills during this period.

The critics

The Harbinger writers and other Associationists/Fourierists, Orestes Brownson, the owners of the Boston Daily Times and other Democrats, and the Voice of Industry writers represent Americans who equated millwork with slavery, and pro-labor groups who saw the mills as moving in the wrong direction and against the best interests of workers. The paternalism and temporary nature of the mill girls’ workforce did not mitigate the excessive and increasing demands made on the workers. For this group, the debate was about the future of the country and its citizens.

The problem for the people on this side of the issue, though seemingly supportive and advocating for the operatives, was that they did not speak for them or attempt to form any allegiances with them. Many or most of these people did not actually work in the mills. It seems that these outsiders took a definite condescending and male tone in their polemics that operatives could not identify with. One obvious reason for this is that women could not vote. The political dynamic of the time would have been vastly different if the pro-labor men were courting women’s votes in the young republic.

For this group, the debate was about the future of the country and its citizens and even the future of humanity. Lowell was a shock city and the country was at a crossroads. Lowell was not yet like Manchester England, the first industrial shock city with its permanent factory population, but it was moving in many ways in that direction.

They critics could not depend on the passing of laws protecting the workers at the state, Federal, or local levels. The mill owners made sure their brethren were in the General Court and firmly entrenched in local government. In addition, the Federal government at the time was unwilling and unable to undertake seemingly local or regional issues like this.

In 1845, the mill girls’ sent a petition with 2,139 signatures to the Massachusetts Legislature prompting the formation of a “Special Committee” and leading to one of the first government-level hearings on working conditions in the mills. William Schouler (1814 – 1872) who was owner and editor of the Lowell Courier also served as a member of the Massachusetts House of Representatives at this time was appointed the chair of the committee. His support of the mill owners and opposition to the operatives demands were well-known in advance of his appointment.

Schouler tried to intimidate the mill girls by insisting they testify before the committee, which is something women had never done before that time. The intimidation did not work and female operatives testified at the hearings.

The committee recommended against a proposal to shorten the work day to ten hours concluding that “the remedy is not with us” and that the solution was in fact in “a less love for money, and a more ardent love for social happiness and intellectual superiority.”

The mill girls accused the committee of “cringing servility to corporate monopolies” and passed a resolution that:

. . . the Female Labor Reform Association deeply deplore the lack of independence, honesty and humanity in the committee to whom were referred sundry petitions relative to the hours of labor. – especially in the chairman of that committee; and as he is merely a corporation machine, or tool, we will use our best endeavors to keep him in the “city of spindles,” where he belongs, and not to trouble Boston folks with him.

Schouler was up for reelection that fall and some of the mill girls successfully worked to defeat him though they could not vote. The activist mill girls thanked the voters for “consigning William Schouler to the obscurity he so justly deserves.”

There were more petitions and more hearings, but the Legislature did not take any action. However, the activists’ efforts were not all for naught as the textile companies themselves until 1847 when the workday was shortened by 30 minutes by adding 15 minutes to both the breakfast and lunch breaks.

The defenders

          Some Americans wanted the Lowell experiment to continue as is even if some unfortunate consequences had to be covered up or portrayed with positive spin. The Lowell Courier, Dr. Bartlett, Rev. Miles, Hunt’s Merchants’ Magazine, and members of the Whig party believed that the Lowell system got off to a good start and did not see, or want to see, that the system was getting worse and couldn’t last forever. Some of the justifications for its continuance were that it was not like England’s factory system, it didn’t depend on a permanent factory class, there was significantly less, and less exploited, child labor, and the Lowell workers were paid regularly and in cash, not with “store orders” or “truck.”

It was also significant that Lowell at this point was using waterpower and not coal and steam to power the mills. This avoided the “dark satanic mills” of Blake, the "serpents of smoke" of Dickens, and the "soot-vomiting mills" of Brontë that casted a literal and figurative cloud over the mills in England. The other advantage of waterpower was that the mills were built in the country and not in the city. Cities grew up around the mills, but their beginnings were in a more pastoral setting than the mills in England. However, the advent of coal, increased child labor, and a permanent factory population were inevitable under the laws, lack of laws, and free-market capitalist system in the United States at that time.

Rev. Miles has been repeatedly criticized over the decades for his rosy portrayal of life in the mills, often being referred to as an “apologist” for the mill owners. His gathering of statistics in many areas is commendable, but his statistics in the chapters about the hours of labor and comfort and health, and his interpretations of the data in these areas are suspect. I believe that we can dismiss many or most of Rev. Miles’s interpretations of his own data in two areas; hours of labor and comfort and health. As examples, the reporting of the operatives health categorized as better, as good, or not as good was made to supervisors, which could have made respondents wary of responding truthfully. No attempt was made to ask the operatives directly about health issues and their possible causes. While boarding house keepers were asked about the health of the borders, they may have been a conscious or unconscious desire to present their boarders in as healthy a light as possible.

          While the statistics in these areas are skewed towards positive results, Miles’s subjective and vague interpretations of them further slant them toward the positive. So, when Hunt’s Merchants’ Magazine is looking for facts about Lowell, where did they look? In this case they looked to Rev. Miles. While reading the article in Hunt’s Merchants’ Magazine, one notices many similarities between the statistics and interpretations there and in the Miles book. And, sure enough, there is one footnote in the Hunt’s article that states, “For many of the facts embodied in this article, we are indebted to Miles’ ‘Lowell, as it Was, and as it Is.’” The Hunt’s article reports the “facts” and reports the interpretations of them without questioning.

The change advocates

Some Americans wanted to keep the Lowell experiment going, but with changes in working and living conditions for the mill workers. They were change advocates but not change agents or reformers. As with the critics, there wasn’t much the change advocates could do as long as local, state, and federal lawmakers were defenders of the capitalists and the status quo.

Dr. Green, Dr. Curtis, and the more activist and outspoken mill girls seemed to foresee that the system as it existed at the time was not sustainable. Dr. Green (1846) and Dr. Curtis (1849) seem to describe conditions in the mills that were harsh but not barbaric. Because of this, certain changes might benefit the workers and might keep the system going.

How long was the workday?

It seems that that the length of the workday depended on where the reporter stood on the health of the operatives controversy. Was ten and a half hours (Rev. Miles), 13 to 14 hours (the 2,139 petitioners), or 15 hours (A Citizen of Lowell)?

The method for calculating the hours of the work day depends on whether the reporter uses the time from the start of the workday to the end, deducts the times for meals, uses the average workday, uses the hours for a specific time of the year, and/or averages in the shorter Saturday hours with the Monday through Friday hours.

Below are two time tables from the Lowell mills; the first from 1851 and the second from





Because of the Byzantine and inconstant bell schedule and the different ways that the workday can be defined and measured, it is difficult to say what the length of the workday was. It was not 10 hours, it was not 10 and a half hours, and it was too long. Using the system of the start of work to the end of work for a day and deducting meal times, a good idea of a worker’s day was 13 hours in 1846, 12 hours and 50 minutes in 1851 (fewer in November through February when work began after breakfast), and 11 hours and 15 minutes in 1853.

There are a number of references on the internet that referred to Saturday as a “half day” for the operatives; however, that is not accurate. Saturdays were from 30 minutes to 2½ hours shorter than weekdays depending on the time on year; this was not close to a 50% reduction in Saturday hours.

Other health-related issues

The health of the operatives controversy was the focus of this chapter; however, I also want to address other health-related issues of the residents of Lowell during this period including the general public’s health, the Lowell Dispensary, the Corporation Hospital, the physicians, and available medicines.

The purpose here is to talk about these issues within the time period covered in this section, not to go into depth or give a full history of any topic. The main theme that runs through these topics is that, while sickness was everywhere and was not well-understood, there was a widespread belief that something could be done to help oneself and others. Some of the proposed remedies were dangerous (e.g., bleeding, blistering, and purging) and some were pure quackery (many of the patent medicines); however, individuals were looking for solutions and not succumbing to fatalism. The inhabitants of Lowell were speaking up politically to advocate for their health and they were also acting individually. The local government and the mill owners were also responding in certain ways and not in others.

The general health of Lowell

          Dr. Curtis wrote that for the millworkers’ health “many points demand attention, yet, to imperfect ventilation, or rather to an absence of ventilation, more than to any other one cause, can we trace the origin of impaired health.” In terms of the general health of Lowell outside the mills, things were even worse:

In turning our attention to Lowell at large, we find much more than we can ever allude to, which deserves serious attention. The city is supplied with water from wells, though a project for bringing water for domestic purposes, from the Merrimack river, has been proposed. Sewerage and drainage are in a very imperfect condition in many parts of the city, and many lanes and alleys are without either; the house-slops and other refuse remaining on the surface, especially in wet weather. Filth accumulates in various places, and tells the hygienist where zymotic diseases prevail. Typhus and dysentery especially, which we have seen to be so fatal of late, spring up around these fomites. Various memorials and petitions have gone to our city government from the physicians as a body, through the Middlesex District Medical Society. They probably were read, but nothing was ever known of their subsequent history. Means have recently been used for very imperfectly ventilating our school-houses, and some other public buildings, on the plan adopted in Boston.

The rapid influx, especially of foreign population, has placed small tenements and cellars in high demand, and crowded them infinitely beyond a healthful condition.

 - Curtis; Pages 35 and 36

Large parts of the public health infrastructure were not laid out first and then the city was built around them. The city continued to grow quickly and some efforts were made to keep up with the growth or, as Dr. Curtis mentioned, some of problems that the growth was causing were simply ignored.

The Lowell Dispensary

Dr. Curtis wrote in 1849 that “The Lowell Dispensary received its charter from our legislature in 1836. It appoints three physicians, who render gratuitous [free of charge] services. No reports have ever been made."


From the Lowell Directory 1838

Only secondary source documents are available about the Lowell Dispensary and those don’t go into a lot of detail. For that reason, I cannot go into any detail here. (For an account of the Lowell Dispensary, see Contributions of the Old Residents’ Historical Association, Vol. III. No. 1 (1884), Organized Charities of Lowell by Charles Hovey.)

The Corporation Hospital

There is a great deal of information available about the Corporation Hospital from both primary and secondary sources. For that reason, opposite of the one above, I will not go into a lot of detail about this institution here.


(Information about The Corporation Hospital can be found at Greenlees, J. (2013). ‘For the Convenience and Comfort of the Persons Employed by them’: The Lowell Corporation Hospital, 1840–1930. Medical History, 57(1), 45-64. Primary source: Kimball, Gilman. Report of the Lowell Hospital, from 1840 to 1849: made to the Trustees, June 12th, 1849.

In spite of all the good things that were and can be said about the Corporation Hospital, prevailing beliefs against hospitals caused many potential patients to avoid it. In 1849, Dr. Curtis wrote

It is proper here to remark, that this is a private institution, intended to benefit those engaged in the mills. But a small proportion, however, of our sick operatives find their way to the hospital. Some are too ill to be removed from their boarding-houses to the hospital before it is known to the officers of that institution; others improperly attach a certain degree of odiam to the idea of being sick in a “hospital;” and others, again, very properly prefer to select their own medical attendant, when sick. The corporations own the boarding-house, and let them to various individuals, subject to certain regulations, and require, with few exceptions, their operatives to board in them. Within the last twelve months, the agents of the several manufacturing companies, who constitute the Board of Trustees to the Hospital, issued a circular to each boarding-house, for the purpose of inducing and urging, to use no stronger term, the sick among their employed to resort to the hospital. This circular terminates with the following sentence: “It is requested that all boarding-house keepers will use all proper means to induce the sick among their borders to avail themselves of its privileges ; and notice is hereby given, that a neglect or refusal, on the part of the occupant of any boarding-house, to carry out this request, will be considered sufficient cause for terminating the occupancy of said house.

Earlier in the 19th century, hospitals were not places to go to get treated and cured, they were places to go to die. By 1849, at least when led and staffed by forward-thinking and scientifically-oriented practitioners, things were improving, but the public was still weary of hospitals and often went to great lengths to avoid them.

Health practitioners

In 1837, there were 21 Physicians and surgeons listed in the Lowell Directory. In 1849, the Lowell Directory and Business listed 54 Physicians, 8 Botanic Physicians, and 2 names were listed under Botanic Medicines. Homeopathy was still relatively new and I could not find any references to it in Lowell during the period covered here.

Some physician/surgeons were good at some things and not others, some were good at specific things, and some were doing far more harm than good. For surgeries, asepsis was still in the future and anesthesia was coming into use. Bleeding, blistering, and purging were used on patients.


Throw out opium, which the Creator himself seems to prescribe, for we often see the scarlet poppy growing in the cornfields, as if it were foreseen that wherever there is hunger to be fed there must also be a pain to be soothed; throw out a few specifics which our art did not discover, and it is hardly needed to apply; throw out wine, which is a food, and the vapors which produce the miracle of anaesthesia, and I firmly believe that if the whole materia medica, as now used, could be sunk to the bottom of the sea, it would be all the better for mankind,—and all the worse for the fishes.

- Oliver Wendall Holmes Sr., 1860

There was a lot of sickness, but very few cures or treatments based on science. There was some comfort from some medicines, often with side effects. Some preparations provided sedation, analgesia, and of course there was some placebo effects. Patent medicines soon were to be found everywhere claiming to cure everything. Lowell later became a major center for patent medicine production, but this was not yet the “Golden Age” (in quotes) of patent medicines.

Druggists and apothecaries during this period compounded physician’s prescriptions and sold patent medicines. Patent medicines were available elsewhere as well. I have included four ads from the Lowell Directory and Business Key of 1849 for illustration.

Some medicines used in this period did work on some diseases and symptoms. In the quote above, Dr. Holmes, mentions some those and included a category of “a few specifics which our art did not discover” and “the miracle of anaesthesia.” It is also important to note Holmes’s use of the phrase “as now used,” not ruling out future discoveries.

          There is no doubt that opium produced relief of pain, diarrhea, and nervousness. However, morphine was first isolated from the opium poppy in Germany in 1804. It was first marketed to the public in 1817 and commercial production began in Germany in 1827. So, opium was used, often effectively, but dosages were not controlled until morphine was widely available. Use was also unregulated and it was often given to children and babies. Some users became addicted. Opium and morphine would be unregulated for decades, regulated first by individual cities and states, then in 1890 by the Federal government.

Cinocha bark from Peru was effective against malaria because it contained quinine. The active ingredient was isolated from cinchona bark in France in 1820. While only effective for malaria, it was used by many as a treatment for any fever. Emetics such as ipecac, from the dried root of the ipecacuanha, plant were used to induce vomiting, and a variety of purgatives including Calomel (mercury chloride) were used to stimulate bowel movements. These were effective if the problem could be cured with an emetic or laxative, but were also used when the patient would do better having the vomiting or diarrhea slowed or stopped. Alcohol was used in the forms of “medicinal wine” and distilled spirits. Again, however, dosages and uses were uncontrolled and unregulated. Babies, children, and pregnant and nursing women were administered alcohol and preparations containing alcohol.


As discussed above, the people I called the change advocates seemed to foresee that the existing system was not sustainable and they suggested changes (e.g., shorter hours, more time for meals, better ventilation, reducing the number of looms per weaver) that could benefit the workers and might keep the system going. Would the system be sustainable if these changes had been made? I don’t think so, but the reason that it was not sustainable is that there were other strong social and economic factors at work other than problematic and difficult working conditions.

First of all, the levels of profits for textile manufactures were not sustainable. The next generation of owners were now in charge, and they were holding on to the hope that profits would continue as they had in the past. Most of the costs of production were fixed, while they saw the cost of labor as manipulatable, in terms of both lowering wages and increasing workloads. Wages could only go so low and workload could only go so high, and the new generation of owners pushed at both extremes.


Secondly, the rotating native-born, mostly female workforce was not sustainable and paternalism was not going to sustain it. The idea that people in power can restrict the freedom of subordinates because it is in the subordinates' best interest was becoming increasingly unacceptable. The speed-ups, stretch-outs, wage cuts, and board increases, in addition to the domineering and controlling black list and premium system, were making paternalism feel much less paternal.

Thirdly, the Westward Expansion provided new opportunities, which made both millwork and returning to the often-struggling family farm in New England less attractive to existing and potential workers. The California Gold Rush in 1848 and 1849 shifted Western Expansion into hyperdrive.

And finally, immigrants from the across the Atlantic provided workers to replace those who were leaving and not being replaced with native-born Americans. The immigrants did not drive out the mostly native-born population, they were leaving anyway. The immigrant population allowed the owners to keep the mills running without having to make concessions to labor.

Were there positive trends that resulted from this period? Yes!

In 1847, the workday in the mills was shortened by 30 minutes by adding 15 minutes to both the breakfast and lunch breaks. Then in 1853, the companies shortened the workday to 11 hours. Finally, in 1874 the 10-hour workday became law in Massachusetts.

Women began to become involved in politics, initiate and sign petitions, and speak in public including testifying before legislative committees. Women’s involvement also strengthened the abolitionist and temperance movements and empowered the suffrage movement. Although national suffrage didn’t happen until the 20th century, some localities began to allow women to vote in school committee elections.

          Employers and the government began to at least recognize, though not fully address, the health of the workers and the citizens. The Lowell Dispensary was a good faith effort, though its efficacy may never be known, the Corporation Hospital was ahead of its time in its concept and many of its practices, and public health measures with meaningful enforcement were implemented. Mandatory and free small pox vaccinations continued. The city continued to grow quickly and many, though imperfect, efforts were made to keep up with the growth.