Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Roadtrip 2011 - Lowell National Historic Park


Most people don't consider water when discussing the Industrial Revolution in America, but all the early industrial areas depended on water to power the machines that made industry possible.

Lowell was, in fact, an impressive accomplishment. In 1820 there had been no city at all--only a dozen family farms along the Merrimack River in East Chelmsford.

In 1821, however, a group of Boston capitalists purchased land and water rights along the river and a nearby canal, and began to build a major textile manufacturing center.

Opening two years later, the first factory employed Yankee women recruited from the nearby countryside. Additional mills were constructed until, by 1840, ten textile corporations with thirty-two mills valued at more then ten million dollars lined the banks of the river and nearby canals. Adjacent to the mills were rows of company boarding houses and tenements which accommodated most of the 8,000 factory operatives.

The Lowell National Historic Park does a wonderful job of presenting a complicated mixture of culture, environment and history in a very accessible manner.

The Park is quite literally "woven" into the modern city of Lowell and offers several locations and opportunities for experiencing the realities of cloth manufacture, we were only able to take advantage of two on this trip: The Boott Cotton Mills and the Mill Girls & Immigrants Exhibit at the Morgan Cultural Center.

Our first stop was the Visitor Center, to orient ourselves, all the other venues were withing easy walking distance.

We started at the Boott Cotton Mill.

I loved the weaving shuttle on the weather vane atop this bell tower. This tower was not meant to be solely ornamental, it had a function - to keep the workers on schedule. Workers were said to "live by the bells", as this schedule shows:

A couple items of interest, just inside the entry - early anti-smoking legislation:

And this incredible stairwell:

A sign shared the sad story of a young mill girl, who broke the rules by sliding down the banister of this staircase, fell and later died.

It's often the little details that people remember most and I suspect a good example is your entry ticket to the mill - a time card! You can even "punch in" on the original time clock.

The highlight of the mill is touring the 1920's era weaving room:

While only a fraction of the looms were in operation, the noise was overwhelming, I really can't imagine spending 10 hours a day with all the looms working, the poor light and ventilation.

In the years before 1850 the textile mills of Lowell, Massachusetts were a celebrated economic and cultural institution. Foreign visitors invariably included them on their American tours. Interest was prompted by the massive scale of these mills, the astonishing productivity of the power-driven machinery, and the fact that women comprised most of the workforce. Visitors were struck by the newness of both mills and city as well as by the culture of the female operatives. The scene stood in sharp contrast to the gloomy mill towns of the English industrial revolution.

Lowell was at the forefront of the American Industrial Revolution and its heyday leading up to the middle of the 19th century. At one time Lowell operated 10 mill complexes with more than 300,000 spindles and 10,000 looms producing a million yards of cloth each week. Cotton was transported from the southern fields to Lowell and turned into cloth.

Lowell cloth was a term for cheap, coarse cotton cloth, produced originally in the textile mills of Waltham, later Lowell, and eventually on plantations and textile mills in the South.

"In my young days all we wore was homespun and lowel. We lived in a log house with a dirt floor and the cracks was chinked with mud and our bed was some poles nailed against the wall with two legs out on the dirt floor, and we pulled grass and put in a lowel bed tick. My aunty would get old dresses, old coats, and old pants and make quilts."

From the Ex-Slave Narratives conducted by the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s.

Watching the looms was hypnotic, the shuttle moving back and forth, the harnesses moving up and down, cloth methodically being created.

As the Industrial Revolution intensified in America in the first half of the 1800s, our nation’s social and economic fabric changed dramatically.

The mill owner's needed workers and they turned to the young women in the rural countryside to fill that need - but how to convince them to come?

The company boardinghouse was the answer; chaperoned, communal living. One of the original boardinghouses is open for tours, outfitted as it would have been circa 1850.

The social position of the factory girls had been degraded considerably in France and England. In her autobiography, Harriet Robinson (who worked in the Lowell mills from 1834–1848) suggests that "It was to overcome this prejudice that such high wages had been offered to women that they might be induced to become mill girls, in spite of the opprobrium that still clung to this degrading occupation.…"

The Lowell System combined large-scale mechanization with an attempt to improve the stature of its female workforce and workers. A few girls who came with their mothers or older sisters were as young as ten years old, some were middle-aged, but the average age was about 24. Usually hired for contracts of one year (the average stay was about four years), new employees were given assorted tasks as sparehands and paid a fixed daily wage while more experienced loom operators would be paid by the piece. They were paired with more experienced women, who trained them in the ways of the factory.

The investors or factory owners built hundreds of boarding houses near the mills, where textile workers lived year-round. A curfew of 10:00 pm was common, and men were generally not allowed inside. About 25 women lived in each boarding house, with up to six sharing a bedroom. One worker described her quarters as "a small, comfortless, half-ventilated apartment containing some half a dozen occupants". Trips away from the boarding house were uncommon; the Lowell girls worked and ate together. However, half-days and short paid vacations were possible due to the nature of the piece-work; one girl would work the machines of another in addition to her own such that no wages would be lost.

Newcomers were mentored by older women in areas such as dress, speech, behavior, and the general ways of the community. Workers often recruited their friends or relatives to the factories, creating a familial atmosphere among themselves. The Lowell girls were expected to attend church and demonstrate morals befitting proper society. The 1848 Handbook to Lowell proclaimed that "The company will not employ anyone who is habitually absent from public worship on the Sabbath, or known to be guilty of immorality."

Meals were heavy, servings huge!

Breakfast: Fried cod fish, fried hash, fried potatoes, pumpkin mash with cream, bread and butter, apple pie, coffee or milk.

Dinner: Pease soup, Boiled dinner of corned beef with potatoes, carrots, turnips and parsnips, pickles, bread and butter, bread pudding, coffee.

Supper: Baked beans with pork, brown bread with cheese, fried potatoes, flap jacks with applesauce, Indian pudding, plum cake, tea.

The Park also offers boat tours of the canals, something I would have loved to have done, but unfortunately not available the day we visited.

I'm never interested in the typical souvenirs, but I was thrilled to find toweling yardage, actually woven on site available for sale - I just need to cut and hem for new towels!

Visiting Lowell was a wonderful experience and I would love to visit again when we had more time to explore and I would urge you to visit also.

1 comment:

  1. What a fabulous opportunity! Thank you for typing this all out, with the photos, for those of us not likely to get out east for a look-see of our own. I'm more than a bit sad at the loss of our country's textile industry; while it had its downsides, I feel we have lost something very valuable.