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
Power, capital, machinery—all were ready. Mut what of labor? The more complex weaving machinery could not be run by children, and yet the cotton factory did not demand the skill and strength of grown men for most of its jobs. Obviously women workers were the answer. New England indeed had what was then called a “fund” of “female labor” in the daughters of its rural folk. But what of that supposed indissoluble bond of union between “manufactures” on the one hand, and “vice and poverty” on the other? Would Yankee farmers send their daughters into the factories to become part of a permanent force of degraded wage workers? Clearly not! Then how would the Boston Manufacturing Company recuit its labor? The answer was an invention as intriguing as any new mechanical gadget for mass-producing cloth. One of Patrick Jackson’s biographers explained it, years later.
By the erection of boarding-houses at the expense and under the control of the factory: putting at the head of them matrons of tried character, and allowing no boarders to be received except the female operatives of the mill: by stringent regulations for the government of these houses: by all these precautions, they gained the confidence of the rural population who were now no longer afraid to trust their daughters in a manufacturing town. A supply was thus obtained of respectable girls: and these, from pride of character as well as principle, have taken especial care to exclude all others.
It was soon found that an apprenticeship in a factory entailed no degradation of character, and was no impediment to a reputable connection in marriage. A factory-girl was no longer condemned to pursue that vocation for her Iife: she would retire, in her turn, to assume the higher and more appropriate responsibilities of her sex; and it soon came to be considered that a few years in a mill was an honorable mode of securing a dower. The business could thus be conducted without any permanent manufacturing population. The operatives no longer form a separate caste, pursuing a sedentary employment, from parent to child, in the heated rooms of a factory; but are recruited, in a circulating current, from the healthy and virtuous population of the country.
In a circulating current! There was the trick. The fathers of Waltham had not invented the notion of an employer’s personal responsibility for the physical and moral welfare of the worker. That was a legacy from indentured labor, apprenticeship—even slavery. But the new factory owners had built a new structure on that foundation. If they brought young girls to the factory for a brief period between maturing and marrying, and if they boarded them under safeguards approved by church, family, and all the gods of respectability, then a rotating labor force would escape the ills of industrial decay. It was simple country logic. Standing water stank; a running stream or a spring-fed pond stayed pure and clear.
So the experiment was tried at Waltham. Not much is known about early working conditions, but from a business viewpoint, success was enormous. The owners played a shrewd game from the start. They concentrated on plain and simple fabrics, marketed through a single firm, and they successfully lobbied, in 1816, for a certain measure of tariff protection. Francis Lowell died prematurely in 1817. He did not live to see another twenty years of dividends rarely falling below ten per cent, even while the price to the consumer dropped from twenty-one to six cents a yard. He did not need to; even by 1817, his kind of textile factory, mass-producing cheap, utilitarian goods, had won a clear decision over the dying system of decentralized craft production. By 1821, the leaders of the Boston Manufacturing Company were looking for new worlds to conquer, hunting for a site for a new factory, to turn out printed calicoes.
They found their spot in December of 1821, in a peaceable little farm community called East Chelmsford, some twenty-five miles from Boston. It was at the junction of the Concord and Merrimack rivers—a quiet place, where men could still fish tranquilly for salmon and alewives in their season. A no-longer-used canal around a fall in the Merrimack was quickly bought by the promoters of the new factory. It gave them water power and an iron grip on any future millbuilding in the area. A new corporation, the Merrimack Manufacturing Company, was created—but its owners were predominantly the Waltham founders. For years they remained a well-knit group, holding tightly to patents and controlling blocks of stock, and admitting outsiders only when they could pass inspection—and pay!