- Historic Sites
The Working Ladies Of Lowell
Proud and independent, the farm girls of New England helped build an industrial Eden, but its paternalistic innocence was not to last
February 1961 | Volume 12, Issue 2
In the years just after 1789, the “establishment of manufactures” was a focus of debate. Men like Alexander Hamilton and Tench Coxe looked upon the few domestic workshops of the infant nation and found them good. They urged that the national government should protect and nurture these producers of “American” clothing, gunpowder, rope, paper, rum, iron, leather, and a miscellany of other articles. From other quarters, however, came warnings that liberty and industry made poor partners. Thomas Jefferson was only one among many to point to England’s experience and predict that factory workers would inexorably sink into pauperism. They would be forced by the workings of human nature and economic law to “the maximum of labor which the construction of the human body can endure, & to the minimum of food … which will preserve it in life.” MaIthus, Marx, and Ricardo together could not have put it more grimly. Jefferson’s implication needed no spelling out—plainly, an impoverished (and therefore vice-ridden and ignorant) laboring class would be indigestible in a democratic republic.
By and large, the Jeffersonians had the better of the argument for some twenty-five years. Capital, markets, and skilled labor—all necessary to a manufacturing economy—were scarce in an undeveloped America, which still found adequate rewards for its work in the soil, the ocean, and the forest. There were a few significant experiments in industry, in Rhode Island, by way of example, two farsighted Quaker merchants, Moses Brown and William Almy, set up in 1790 a “factory” for spinning cotton yarn and thread. They used many of the new machines developed in England during the preceding fifty years to mechanize the spinning process. (The British jealously guarded against the export of those machines or plans for them, but Almy and Brown found a young immigrant from England named Samuel Slater. Slater had stored away the details of the new devices in an incredible memory and come to the United States precisely in the hope of finding sponsors like Almy and Brown. He built their first plant “by heart” and made his fortune and theirs as planned. [See “Father of Our Factory System,” AMERICAN HERITAGE, April, 1958.])
Almy and Brown had their new machinery tended by the children of families whom they induced to settle in the factory neighborhood, and they paid their workers, sometimes, in store orders for Almy and Brown merchandise. Thus high-mindedly did they plant the seeds of the company town and child labor in New England soil. With the coming of the cotton gin in 1793, and with years of wartime high prices, they prospered, and even had a few imitators. Yet for all these, “industry” in any real economic sense remained all but nonexistent in the United States. The real breakthrough came in 1812, and one of the many forces behind it was, as so often, a hunch in a gifted man’s mind.
The man was Francis Cabot Lowell, member of a family which was to crowd the American hall of fame with merchants, ministers, legislators, judges, poets, soldiers, and educators. In 1812, this particular Lowell was visiting England for his health, and, like so many Yankees apparently “resting,” was deep in meditation. His mind ranged over a number of diverse facts. One was that the impending war would severely shake the Lowell family importing business. Another was that “yarn factories” were not a bad substitute investment. A third was that fresh inventions in the field of power looms had opened up still newer profit opportunities in dothmaking. In Great Britain, weaving factories were at last keeping pace with the healthy output of spinning factories. Francis Lowell, thirty-six years old in1812, synthesized these facts into a da/zling American vision. Why not put spinning and weaving machines under one roof? Why not have southern cotton delivered at one end of a factory, while from the other end bales of finished yard goods emerged to find a ready market, swept clean of British competitors by war? Power would come from New England streamlets; capital from Boston’s countinghouse aristocracy. Machinery? That was a little harder, but not impossible. Lowell, an amateur mathematician and scientist, visited the factories of unsuspecting British business contacts, and gave himself a quick course in the intricate process of machine weaving, which saw cotton fibers fluffed, combed, rolled, twisted, stretched, toughened, and cross-laced, moving from winding to winding and machine to machine in a complex and brilliantly-timed ballet of rollers, spindles, and flyers. Returning home to Boston, he took Paul Moody, a talented Massachusetts mechanic, into his confidence. The two of them perspired over drawings, imported a few devices, copied, redesigned, invented where they had to—and had their factory set up in Waltham, near Boston, by 1815. Meanwhile, Lowell’s brother-in-law, Patrick Tracy Jackson, had helped to round up the initial capital, and its donors had been incorporated in 1813 as the Boston Manufacturing Company.