Sargent's view: In 1823, an experiment in Lowell

Courtesy photo/NATIONAL PARK SERVICEThe tour boat Sarah Bagley in Lowell. 

LOWELL in 1823

All great rivers are known for a particular characteristic. For the Mississippi it is her river boats, the Nile her annual floods which fertilized one of the world’s oldest civilizations, the Amazon its size, the Ganges religious significance.

But the Merrimack stands out because her waters did not just convey commodities they provided the actual power that brought industrialization to the United States along with the first consciousness of women’s rights and equality and fairness in the workplace.

But the story starts in the Blackstone River in Southeastern Massachusetts. In 1790 the British-born Samuel Slater reconstructed a water-powered spinning mill on the river which used seven young boys and two girls ages 7 to 12 to card and spin cotton yarn which was then given to neighboring families to be woven into cotton cloth.

Then, in 1813, Francis Cabot Lowell improved on what became known as this Rhode Island System to build a power loom on the Charles River in Waltham. But his mill combined the carding spinning and weaving into a single factory, which became known as the Lowell Experiment.

The mill was also one of the earliest cases of industrial espionage because Francis had memorized its design after visiting a similar mill in England. Be that as it may, the mill was remarkably successful and by 1821 its owners started to look for a larger source of waterpower.

The found it in nearby Chelmsford where the Pawtucket Canal skirts around Pawtucket Falls by running from where the Concord River runs into the Merrimack River to several miles up the river.

The Boston associates set about quietly purchasing a majority of shares in the canal and the adjacent land on the Merrimack River. At the time, one of the owners enthused, “I expect we shall live to see the place contain twenty thousand people!”

When he wrote, the population of East Chelmsford was 200 but when the town was incorporated and named after Lowell in 1826 its population had reached 2,000, in 1836 it was incorporated as the second largest city in Massachusetts with a population of 16,000, 6,000 of whom worked in the mills of the Boston syndicate’s Merrimack Manufacturing Company.

The success of the Merrimack Company led to the founding of more textile mills up and down the river. They were all owned by the expanding circle of Boston investors who shared officers, set common wages, exchanged information on production costs as well as enforced similar kinds of regulations on their workers.

It was the recruitment, housing and treatment of its workers that distinguished the Lowell mills from those in Southern New England. Eighty-five percent of the workers in the Merrimack River mills were single young women from the surrounding countryside. They lived in company boarding houses and were paid monthly wages. Most employers paid their workers in credit at a company store or paid in cash only four times a year.

The companies acted in loco parentis setting curfews and requiring regular attendance in church. Workers who bridled at such paternalism were blacklisted from getting other jobs in Lowell.

So the young women workers could earn good money, reside in inexpensive housing and enjoy social, cultural and religious opportunities provided by the company. Their earnings gave them economic and social independence not available to earlier generations. For the most part the Lowell Experiment was far better than dependence on the meager income wrested out their families’ hill country farms. But some women did not uncritically accept what the mills offered and the Lowell System inadvertently brought them all together so they could vent grievances and find strength in their numbers.

Finally they organized a strike when the Merrimack Company announced that it planned to reduce workers’ wages. During their lunch break the women in one mill held a meeting, which excluded their male watchman.

Management sent one of their agents to the room and tried to convince the women to return to work. But he failed and fired their ringleader on the spot, which initiated the general strike.

The women marched from mill to mill until they had 800 strikers, which was about a sixth of Lowell’s female workforce. During the strike Sarah Bagley gave what was described as a Wollstonecraftian speech, named for the mother of Mary Shelley author of Frankenstein which not coincidentally also highlighted the dangers of unbridled mechanization.

“We are daughters of Freemen and we demand the rights of women against the iniquities of the monied aristocracy who are but Tories in disguise!”

“Hooray!”

“We will provide stage fare to so those of our ranks who lack funds can return to their homes until the mills meet our demands.”

“Indeed!”

“We will not return to work until our wages have been restored.”

“Huzzah!”

“We insist that none of our leaders be singled out for punishment.”

“Well said Sarah!” rang out one voice to the crowd’s general amusement.

But the mill owners recruited new workers and two days later the “Amizonian” display was quelled.

In 1836, a second strike was larger and more successful. Up to 2,000 workers left their jobs and returned to their parents homes, crippling the company for several months.

It was the ability of the young workers to return to their homes that allowed them to survive without wages that made the strikes so effective. This advantage was not available to the emigrant male workers who replaced the women in the factories after the 1845 potato famine.

So the waters of the river had supplied the power to turn millions of bales of Southern cotton into millions of yards of cloth, which had been conveyed by rail and back down the river to clothe the world. At the same time the river had brought industrialization to the United States it had also helped women use the ideals and inspiration of the American Revolution to create a new consciousness about fairness and equality on the workplace.

Bill Sargent is a North Shore science writer and contributing columnist. His most recent book, Coastal Discoveries 2018 is available in local bookstores and through http://plumislandoutdoors.org, Storm Surge, The Merrimack River Watershed Council and at www.ingramcontent.com.

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