An Industrial Revolution

In Lowell, Massachusetts, one revolution plants the seeds for yet another.

By Heidi Ridgley

It was to become a workers’ utopia. That was one of the hopes of a group of businessmen from Boston, who built a system of canals on the Merrimack River north of the city that came to supply the biggest water-powered textile mills the world had ever known. They christened the town Lowell and began to recruit a workforce—one, they boasted, that would not toil amid the revolting conditions found in the sweatshops of 19th-century Britain.

The cradle of the American Industrial Revolution, Lowell put America on the manufacturing map by the early 1830s. But its rise also marked the beginning of a new day for the women of New England who, up until this time, lived on farms at the mercy of their fathers or husbands, without the ability to earn a wage. They had no property rights, and were even barred from the inheritance that might accompany a husband’s death. In fact, a widow was considered an “encumbrance” to the husband’s estate, a burden to relatives. But the Lowell “mill girls,” as they became known, began to change all that as part of the “Lowell experiment.”

These women formed the workforce that the mill town’s founding fathers sought from the beginning, as they would accept wages that most men would not. But with wages ranging from $1.85 to $3.00 a week, they earned more than most women in America, which prompted farmers’ daughters to flock to the site. By 1840, 90 percent of the 8,000 workers in Lowell’s 32 cotton mills were women. 

But they weren’t exactly footloose and fancy free. To strike out on their own, these women—most of them in their late teens—needed the approval of their parents, who had heard of the horrid sweatshop conditions found overseas. Wrote Lowell mill girl Harriet Robinson in her autobiography: “In England and in France, particularly, great injustice had been done to [a worker’s] real character… In the eyes of her overseer she was but a brute, a slave, to be beaten, pinched and pushed about.”

To allay family fears, the corporations in Lowell created boardinghouses with tightly controlled environments presided over by “respectable” women who enforced strict rules—such as mandatory church attendance and a 10 o’clock bedtime—to protect the virtue of the young women and the reputation of the Lowell factories.  

“In a typical boarding house, one ‘keeper’ watched over 25 to 35 young women,” says Jack Herlihy, museum specialist at Lowell National Historical Park. “But if she could squeeze another one into a trundle bed, that meant more money for her.” The keeper—usually a widow—collected three dollars a month from each resident. With it, she took care of their meals and personal needs, such as beds and linens. 

On a typical day, workers woke to the sound of factory bells at 4:30 a.m., and headed straight to their stations. A 6:30 bell signaled their communal half-hour breakfast. At 11:30, a bell rang for lunch, and a final bell signaled the workday’s end at 7 p.m.

Although the days were long, mill girls were pleased to have a few hours of free time to attend evening lectures and libraries, a luxury not allowed on the farm. 

But some women, like Sarah Bagley, who arrived in Lowell in 1837, realized working conditions were far from ideal. One mill worker described the noise of the machines as “frightful and infernal.” The air in the closed rooms was hot and filled with particles of thread and cloth. “The cotton dust would get in the lungs, trapping bacteria and causing tuberculosis,” says Herlihy. “There were no vacuum cleaners back then so they only cleaned if the looms were impacted. A worker’s comfort was not considered.”

Mill girls twice went on strike for higher wages and better working conditions, but to no avail. A Bagley-led protest in 1845 also led nowhere, despite a petition with 2,000 signatures demanding a 10-hour workday. Still, these women left their mark on history: For the first time, a state legislature investigated labor conditions, 30 years before the 10-hour workday was signed into law.

By then Bagley had disappeared from history. “While she didn’t have the political impact that she wanted at the time,” says park ranger MaryBeth Clark, “Bagley did change the way women thought about their role. She encouraged women to speak up for themselves and to take an active role in their future.”

Today, what’s left of this historic factory town is open to the public. Established as the first urban national park in 1978, it contains a working dam and about a mile of traversable canals along the Merrimack. Boott Cotton Mills, the most complete of these historic mills, sits ready for the loom workers to begin their day. And although the factory bells no longer signal when it’s time to head back to the boardinghouse, one of the original buildings still stands. To get to it, tourists can walk in the footsteps of early labor leaders like Bagley and be thankful for their efforts to bring future Americans some time off from work—so that they might enjoy a day’s stroll through history. 

Heidi Ridgley's last piece for the magazine focused on San Francisco’s national park units.

This article appears in the Spring 2009 issue.

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