Alice and I adventured to Lowell, MA on Saturday. I had recently read The Daring Ladies of Lowell by Kate Alcott. Whereas the author succumbed to romance-novel tropes, I loved her description of the daily life of the mill girls. I wanted to see for myself, and Alice was game to visit the National Park Service site there.
There we got our first glimpse at the managed waterway.
Clever businessmen, wanting to harvest timber for ship building in Newburyport, figured out how to maneuver a 32′ drop in the Merrimack River, turning it into a highway for the transport of goods. Through a series of locks.
In 1796, farmers sold part of their land and then provided the labor to dig through the massive rock layers and open up trenches for the canals. Lock chambers were constructed to manage the rise and drop of water levels that ranged from 2′ to 17′. Our own lock experience: a 5′ water level change, after a particularly heavy rain, when it would normally be about 2-3′.
You might get a kick out of the import rates on the canal. Manure cost 50 cents per boatload. Uh huh. Manure was imported into Lowell, not the other way around. Some clever experimenter found out that a chemical in manure set dyes to prevent fading. Imagine that smell!
Perhaps you’d rather import white oak pipe staves. 100 cents per M.
We bumped our way through the lock system, away from the mills toward the open river.
We learned about the Chief of Police of Water, James Francis. This clever engineer invented a flood gate system (you’ve heard “opening the flood gates”) to protect the town during wild weather. He was given a parade and a tea set when he saved the town from flooded catastrophe in 1848, with the first use of the 4 1/2 ton, wood gates.
In 1816, the original canal system was expanded from the initial 10′ width, opening up the waterway to larger boats and more traffic. The timing was perfect for Mr. Lowell, who, in 1810, traveled to England, well into its own Industrial Revolution, to study its mill system. Returning in 1817, he began to invent Lowell as a mill town, but more importantly as an “industrial laboratory.”
Ironically, with the farmers looking for short-term cash, they in essence brought their way of life to an end. In less than 30 years, the farms were gone. The pastoral was replaced with the industrial.
By the 1830s, Lowell was a showplace of industrial prowess. And a new labor force was created–the daughters of those nearby farmers. Now, the girls and young women could become financially useful to their families by working for wages and living by the “clock and bell,” instead of the sun.
First bell, 4 a.m. Work at 4:30 a.m. The girls would take a 35 minute break for breakfast, and later, their other meals. They would rush from the mill back to their boardinghouse, shared with 25-40 other girls.
A typical mill owned some 70 boardinghouse blocks, some reserved for men, who performed the awful tasks of carding the wool–a lung-killing job. After the Civil War, mill owners were less “paternalistic” and workers could live wherever they chose in the city. But initially, it was a factory town system.
Part of worker wages were garnished to pay the “Keeper,” who could then skimp or over-indulge as she pleased. One daughter complained about her mother who couldn’t make ends meet as a Keeper, being too generous in her portions. Some made up the difference, breaking the rules by serving non-mill residents. Tension over pay spilled beyond the disgruntled mill girls, who in 1847, made $2 per week, after room and board was deducted.
Still $2 was enough for financial autonomy. After sending money home, they still had some left for themselves and became instrumental in creating a consumer economy of readymade products geared toward women. Inexpensive jewelry, hat decorations, even a book, all became desirable treats after working their 73 hour work week. 13 hours Monday through Friday, 8 hours on Saturday. In their free time, they might ride the trolley to the end of the line for the amusement park (which encouraged the trolley use on non-work days; always thinking how to make a $).
One child who was hired to “doff the bobbins” (taking the empty bobbins to the spinners and full bobbins to the weaving floor) said that, at first, the job seemed like play. But after doing the same thing over and over, all week long, well…
And the noise. Perhaps the most evocative part of the day was hearing just a few weaving machines running at Boott Cotton Mill. Incessant bang, bam, bang, bam, bang, bam. Really Loud. You’ll notice in this video, that the “mill girl” is wearing ear plugs.
Not so back in the day. No surprise, the girls only lasted 3-4 years on average. The job was a path to independence or marriage or … illness. This is one aspect the Alcott novel explores pretty well, as does Elizabeth Gaskell’s amazing North and South.
With such efficient production, supply soon exceeded demand, and the manufacturers wanted to cut wages. After all, the mill girls were making more than teachers. The workforce started to shift to immigrants, desperate for the work even at lower wages. Irish, Greeks, French Canadians, Jews, and more took over from the moral “mill girl,” and Lowell began its slow descent.
The mills lost money during the Civil War, and the genteel boarding houses for the mill girls were replaced by tenements.
While the first protests were conducted by the mill girls, in 1912, a wage reduction led to a massive union strike. Continuing financial strain prevented investing in the latest technology, too. After World War I, “Spindle City” couldn’t compete with the mills in the South. Some moved, others were abandoned, many torn down. Some became artist lofts.
After the river was cleaned up. Lowell had grade D water according to the 1972 Clean Air and Water Act. The canal water would turn bright yellow or hot red, depending on the dyes dumped in it. Now, the water is a B. Technically, you can fish and swim. Hmmm.
By 1960, it was basically over. Some who volunteer in the museum mill, worked for the real deal in the 1980s. But that was a last and dying breath. For a town that prided itself on a motto like “Art is the Handmaid of Human Good,” Lowell “sacrificed its workers for dividends” and its fresh, clean environment for expediency. “Sounds familiar,” Alice mused, referring to today’s repetition of history.
James McNeil Whistler may have hailed from Lowell, but he saw fit to lie about it, claiming Baltimore or England as his birthplace. But the house is in Lowell, and the Art Association is working very hard to restore it. We were given a private, detailed tour by the director, before looking around at its small, nice art collection on our own. After all, where else could you see Whistler’s father?