Skip to Main Content

Overseers in Lowell's Textile Mills

Lowell Labor History

Overseers in Lowell’s Textile Mills
by Gregory G. Fitzsimons, Ed.D​

 

Of the many histories of American textile manufacturing few have explored the role of one of the most powerful managerial groups on the factory floor, the overseer. This lack of attention is especially puzzling because members of this occupation, overwhelmingly dominated by men, shaped the daily working lives of countless women, men, and children. And outside the factory, in cities such as Lowell, Massachusetts, overseers were often heavily involved in the political, social, and cultural lives of their communities.1

 undefined

 Selections from UMass Lowell Libraries Special Collections, Lowell Historical Society Collections, Center for Lowell History

 

Historically, only a few overseers rose through the ranks and joined the highest managerial positions in the textile corporations. But a majority held their jobs as overseers for a decade or longer, remained fiercely loyal to their employers, and prospered financially. Most overseers, especially those who were involved in supervising production and directing wage earners, lived in corporation boardinghouses. Some, notably the men who were overseers of the print works or repair shops, lived “off the corporation.” In either case, a large number amassed sufficient wealth which enabled them, upon retiring from the mill, to purchase a home and, after their deaths, pass property and other assets to their descendants. Throughout their years in the mill they were well compensated for their work on the shop floor, earning far higher wages than the employees they supervised and they often received bonuses for high levels of worker productivity.2  

While overseers involved in textile manufacturing possessed technical knowledge of the machinery used in production—indeed, some were well versed in particular facets of textile technology—their duties concentrated on personnel matters, namely supervising workers, and ensuring proper use of materials as well as the quality of the goods produced. Overseers of repair shops (each of large textile corporations operated shops for fixing machinery and mechanical power systems, as well as for repairing factory buildings and boardinghouses) and print works tended to be more technically proficient than production overseers. Yet, as historian Steven Lubar discovered, overseers of repair shops had less wealth than print works or production overseers, they tended to be younger, and there was higher turnover within this group.3

Unlike the repair shops and print works, which employed only males, the various departments associated with cloth manufacturing had primarily female workers. Lowell’s large cotton corporations organized these departments, arranged the layout of machinery, and structured the jobs of these women in relation to each of the steps in the manufacture of cloth—namely, picking, carding, spinning, weaving, and cloth finishing. Within each of these departments on each floor of the cavernous factory buildings there were several rooms, with an overseer placed in charge of the workers in each room. Typically they supervised between 40 and 60 employees, aided by assistants, referred to as “second hands.” Together overseers and second hands directed the actions and tasks of workers, as well as the use of materials, and ensured that the quality of goods that workers produced met the requisite standards. Overall responsibility in each room, however, rested with the overseer. While overseers took their orders from the mill agents, they had a measure of discretion in directing and disciplining the women and men in their rooms. And throughout the antebellum years, although there were a few female overseers in Lowell’s mills, the vast ranks of overseers and second hands were filled with men.4 

The material well-being of overseers and their families, as well as their enhanced social standing in textile centers like Lowell, secured their positions within the growing urban middle-class. Unlike many other middle-class urban dwellers, however, overseers maintained daily contact with members of the city’s growing working class, which, over the course of the 19th century in Lowell, was becoming increasingly composed of Irish, French-Canadian and other continental European immigrants. Largely from old Yankee, Protestant stock, overseers generally reflected the values and interests of the textile corporation managers who employed them.  Their major responsibilities included not only maintaining high levels of factory production, but also instilling in their workers a sense of discipline, thrift, and sobriety. They frequently mediated disputes with workers over pay, corporate regulations, and job assignments. Although mill agents were vested with the authority to hire and fire workers, they typically consulted with overseers prior to taking any such action.

Overseers consistently upheld managerial policies of mill agents and treasurers prohibiting labor reform activism on the part of workers. Often with the encouragement of mill agents, overseers employed in several of Lowell’s textile corporations, led the formation of political clubs. Membership was composed primarily of voting males and included not only overseers, but second hands and loom fixers, as well as wage-earning mechanics and laborers. Up until the mid-1850s, these clubs were associated with the Whig Party, which virtually all of the senior corporation management and investors supported.5 

Although loyalty to the corporation was paramount to their continued employment, overseers occasionally supported worker actions and political parties aimed at ameliorating harsh working conditions and pay cuts, and even reducing the long work day. In part, this stance stemmed from family and kinship networks of overseers within the textile industry. Indeed, it was common for sons, daughters, or relatives of overseers to be employed as wage earners in the mills. But, as overseers discovered in the early 1850s, those who pressed for labor reforms faced dismissal. Mill agents, indeed, fired several reform-minded overseers, including one who was elected state representative on the Coalition Party’s ten-hour ticket.6   

Nevertheless, beginning in the early 1850s and following the Civil War, a small number of overseers participated in the campaign for the ten-hour day. Several aligned themselves with the city’s workingmen’s movement that pushed for higher wages and improved working conditions.The efforts of female textile workers, joined with the workingmen’s movement in Lowell and in other Bay State cities, aided the passage of a ten-hour law in the legislature in 1874.8 

Although by the 1870s Fall River eclipsed Lowell as the leading producer of inexpensive cotton goods, Lowell remained an important center for cotton textiles. The number of mill workers continued to grow through the First World War but this workforce was increasingly ethnically diverse with large numbers of French Canadians joining Irish and, beginning in the 1880s, immigrants from other European nations, Russia, the Portuguese Atlantic Islands, and the Middle East. Lowell’s overseers remained primarily Protestant and native-born New Englanders, but their ranks were also filled by British Islanders, Irish, French Canadians, and a smaller number of Poles and Greeks. Typically, these immigrants who were non-English speakers started in the mills as wage or piece-rate earners, and worked their way into supervisory positions.9 

By a large margin men continued to outnumber women as overseers in Lowell’s mills. But, by the last two decades in the 19th century there were several women working as forewomen or foreladies, as they were called. The city directory for 1900 listed six forewomen in the mills, the majority employed in the smaller hosiery and knitting mills. Only one of the six, Vermont-born Ida E. Brown, worked in one of the city’s larger cotton corporation factories, the Merrimack Mills. Brown spent nearly 40 years as an overseer finally retiring in the early 1930s.10 

While women made some inroads in obtaining overseer positions, this role remained largely a male domain not only on the factory floor but also in the overseers’ social and organizational realms. One such organization, established in 1883, was the Overseers and Artisans’ Association. Among the earliest associations of its kind, it was affiliated with a national organization of overseers in the textile industry. In Lowell the association originated in response to concerns over the status of overseers within the industry, as well as a belief in the need of overseers to improve their technical competence. Leading the initiative was Daniel W. Bugbee (1849-1919), an overseer at the Suffolk Mill and Francis E. Saunders (1841-1914), overseer at the Hamilton Mills. Both men were involved in the national organization as well. For over three years, the association held monthly meetings covering a variety of technical topics ranging from improved carding and weaving technology to proper climates of temperature and humidity, to techniques in yarn preparation. The association struggled for a lack of members, however, and in the late 1880s it ceased to function.11 

Over the decades that textiles were Lowell’s foremost industry, many of the mill overseers thrived along with corporation agents and high-ranking factory managers. But as the cotton corporations began to struggle, notably with the emergence of competition from Southern mills, overseers found themselves facing cuts in salaries and increases in workloads.12 Their numbers decreased especially in the 1920s and 1930s when several of the large textile corporations abandoned the city’s factories. By the mid-1950s, Lowell had fewer than 50 overseers working in its textile mills.13 

April 22, 2020

The author is currently Research Associate at UMass Lowell's Saab Center for Portuguese Studies

He may be contacted at Gregory_Fitzsimons@uml.edu

 

The best published scholarly work on Lowell’s overseers is Steven Lubar, “Managerial Structure and Technological Style: The Lowell Mills, 1821-1880,” Business and Economic History, v. 13 (1984), see especially pp. 22-23. This introductory essay draws heavily from Lubar’s article and his “Corporate and Urban Contexts of Textile Technology in Nineteenth-Century Lowell, Massachusetts: A Study of the Social Nature of Technological Knowledge,” unpublished dissertation (University of Chicago, 1983); and from an examination of the federal manuscript census for Lowell for 1850, 1860, 1870, 1880, and 1900, with names of overseers found in Lowell city directories beginning in the 1830s up to 1900.
Lubar, “Managerial Structure,” p. 23.
Lubar, “Managerial Structure,” p. 23.
For examples of female overseers in antebellum Lowell mills see Janet Greenlees, Female Labour Power: Women Workers’ Influence on Business Practices in the British and American Cotton Industries, 1780-1860, (Hampshire, England: Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., 2007), pp. 102-103.
Bruce Laurie, Beyond Garrison: Antislavery and Social Reform, (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005, p. 200.
6 One of the most blatant public displays of mill managers pressuring overseers to refrain from engaging in labor reform occurred in 1851. That year a statewide Coalition party, which was established in 1850 and was comprised of disaffected Whigs, Free Soilers, and Democrats, campaigned for the ten-hour day. Among the Coalition’s slate of candidates for state representative from Lowell was Jesse E. Farnsworth, overseer in a carding room for the Lawrence Corporation. Apart from Farnsworth, the party’s leaders in Lowell included maverick attorney and outspoken Democrat Benjamin F. Butler. In the course of the election several mill agents informed their overseers and other male employees that support of the ten-hour day would result in their dismissal. A placard posted at the gate to the Hamilton Mills stated “Whoever, employed by this corporation, votes the Ben Butler ten-hour ticket on Monday next, will be discharged.” Most conspicuous was Boott Mills agent Linus Child, who methodically visited each department warning his men that they would be fired if they supported the ten-hour day. Nonetheless the Coalition ticket prevailed and a number of overseers, including Farnsworth, lost their jobs. These events in Lowell resulted in a series of hearings in the state legislature in 1852, published in Massachusetts House of Representatives, House Doc. 230, “Report of Special Commission on Alleged Election Irregularities in Lowell,” 1852.
7 Among the best sources on the workingmen’s movement in Massachusetts after the Civil War is David Montgomery, Beyond Equality: Labor and Radical Republicans, 1862-1872, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1967), chapter 7, although as Mary H. Blewett points out in Constant Turmoil: The Politics of Industrial Life in Nineteenth-Century New England (Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 2000), pp. 103-104, Montgomery fails to recognize that this movement achieved some success, namely in the establishment of 10-hour legislation in 1874. Born in Hudson, New Hampshire, in 1827 Foster Wilson began work in one of the mills at Cocheco Falls on the Salmon River, while living in Rollinsford, but by 1853 he had moved to Lowell and was working as an overseer in a carding room at the Merrimack Mills. After serving in the Union Army for over three years, Wilson returned to Lowell in 1865, resumed work as an overseer and became politically involved in the workingman’s committee. Supported by this committee he won election to the city council and later served one term as state representative. After the death of his first wife, Foster remarried and moved in 1887 to Holyoke, Massachusetts, where he also worked as a carding room overseer for the Lyman Mills. Foster produced a well-received book The Cotton Carder’s Companion, which he wrote while in Lowell. It contains some biographical information. He died in 1897.
For a more recent scholarly work on the 10-hour movement in Massachusetts see Renee Diane Toback, “Protective Labor Legislation for Women: The Massachusetts Ten-Hour Law,” (January 1, 1985) Electronic Doctoral Dissertations for UMass Amherst; paper AAI8602700.
9 Comparing Lowell city directories for the years 1870 and 1920, and searching for those listed as overseers in the city’s textile mills, reveals the growing ethnic diversity within the overseers’ ranks.
10 Obituary of Ida E. Brown, Lowell Sun, February 14, 1934. The Lowell city directory for 1900 lists Brown and five other forewomen in Lowell’s mills.
11 “Cotton Mill Overseers Organized,” Lowell Daily Courier, March 15, 1883; “Overseers and Artisans,” Lowell Daily Courier, August 12, 1884; “Suggestions for Lowell Cotton Overseers,” Lowell Daily Courier, March 15, 1884; “A Sad Death,” Lowell Morning Mail, March 27, 1885; “The Association Votes to Continue and Chooses Officers,” Lowell Morning Times, May 5, 1885; “Effect of Humidity and Temperature on Cotton Fiber,” Lowell Morning Times, January 5, 1886; obituary of Francis E. Saunders, Lowell Sun, October 9, 1914; obituary of Daniel Webster Bugbee, Lowell Sun, September 3, 1919.
12 For an example of the cuts that overseers began experiencing in the late 19th century, see “A Reduction of Overseers,” [Lowell] Saturday Vox Populi, March 26, 1887.
13 See, for example, the Lowell city directory of 1956.