The Working Ladies Of Lowell

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While the labor force thus changed, so did the nature of the owning group. The new ownership was well represented by a man like Amos Lawrence, ancestor of many pious churchmen, whose name was bestowed on a new mill town on the Merrimack, built up in the 1840’s. Lawrence was a nonsmoker and nondrinker who demanded the same abstinence of his male employees. Plagued with stomach trouble, he dined briefly and frugally on watery gruel, and he was not a man to listen sympathetically to complaints that a worker’s salary did not buy an adequate diet. Reproached by some critics with his great wealth, he is said to have snarled: “There is one thing you may as well understand; I know how to make money, and you cannot prevent it.” There was something hard here that made the older, paternalistic, nationalistic outlook of the founders of Waltham seem archaic. The difference between Lawrence and Lowell, the towns, was something like the difference between Lawrence and Lowell, the men.

In addition, as stockholding in the corporations finally became a little more widespread, the personal link between owner and worker was snapped. The original Boston promoters had been drawn from the same Yankee stock as the mill hands. But the difference between a Boston attorney with a few shares of Suffolk Manufacturing Company in his safe, and Bridget Doyle at her spinning frame, was more than one of money. It was a gap between ways of life and understanding. Moreover, as some stock passed into the hands of guardians and estate administrators, company treasurers were at last able to invoke piously the interests of widows and orphans, as they maintained dividends while slashing wages and stretching out tasks.

Through the 1850’s the labor scene darkened as industry spread through the nation. Prices rose in response to gold strikes and industrial booms, but wages remained at ancient levels. Factory workers struck more frequently—and were more frequently replaced by immigrant strikebreakers. Some leaders, despairing of direct action by labor, turned to state legislatures and petitioned for laws restricting the hours of labor and the employment of women and children. Some small gains were made in legislative cutting of the work burden of children under twelve, but most “ten-hour” legislation proposed in New England in the fifties died in the state capitals. The slogans of progress which had justified the beginnings of Waltham and Lowell now rang out to justify a status quo maintained at the price of increasing bitterness.

So it was that in 1860 something more than a single defectively built factory lay in ruins in Lawrence. In all New England there was evidence that the United States was going to have to find another way toward justice for labor—was going to have to walk the long road through decades of violence, organization, degradation, cruelty, bitterness, and protest, before the light would dawn again. The short cut to Utopia had run into a dead end, and Lowell was not, as it turned out, the harbinger of a perfect, harmonious, and just industrial society, in which a “circulating current” of laborers gained bread, education, and stature at the machines. It was not the only Utopian experiment of the Jacksonian era to fail. Like the others, it remains in American history as a memory, the surviving token of a lost innocence that believed in the impossible, and for a few short hours in a simpler time, seemed to make it work.