We do not often hear of strikes at Lowell. Some men tell us it is because there are not as many foreigners there as at certain manufacturing centres where strikes are frequent. This cannot be the explanation; for out of a population of seventy-one thousand, there are more than twenty thousand foreign-born inhabitants of Lowell, of whom more than ten thousand are natives of Ireland. To answer the question correctly, we must perhaps go back to the founding of the town in 1821, when there were not more than a dozen houses on the site.
At that time the great water-power of the Merrimac River was scarcely used, and there was not one cotton manufactory upon its banks. At an earlier day this river and its tributaries swarmed with beaver and other fur-yielding creatures, which furnished a considerable part of the first capital of the Pilgrim Fathers. The Indians trapped the beaver, and carried the skins to Plymouth and Boston; and this is perhaps the reason why the Merrimac and most of its branches retain their Indian names Merrimac itself is an Indian word meaning sturgeon, and of its ten tributaries all but two appear to have Indian names: Contoocook, Soucook, Suncook, Piscatagoug, Souhegan, Nashua, Concord, Spiggot, Shawshine, and Powow.
Besides these there are the two rivers which unite to form it, the names of which are still more peculiar: Pemigewasset and Winnepiseogee. The most remarkable thing with regard to these names is, that the people who live near see nothing remarkable in them, and pronounce them as naturally as New Yorkers do Bronx and Croton. It is difficult for us to imagine a lover singing, or saying, „Meet me by the Pemigewasset, love,” or asking her to take a row with him on the lovely Winnepiseogee. But lovers do such things up there; and beautiful rivers they are, flowing between mountains, and breaking occasionally into falls and rapids. The Merrimac, also, loses its serenity every few miles, and changes from a tranquil river into a – water-power.
In November, 1821, a light snow already covering the ground, six strangers stood on the banks of the Merrimac upon the site of the present city of Lowell. A canal had been dug around the falls for purposes of navigation, and these gentlemen were there with a view to the purchase of the dam and canal, and erecting upon the site a cotton mill. Their names were Patrick T. Jackson, Kirk Boott, Warren Dutton, Paul Moody, John W. Boott, and Nathan Appleton; all men of capital or skill, and since well known as the founders of a great national industry. They walked about the country, observed the capabilities of the river, and made up their minds that that was the place for their new enterprise.
„Some of us,” said one of the projectors, „may live to see this place contain twenty thousand inhabitants.”
The enterprise was soon begun. In 1826 the town was incorporated and named. It is always difficult to name a new place or a new baby. Mr. Nathan Appleton met one of the other proprietors, who told him that the legislature was ready to incorporate the town, and it only remained for them to fill the blank left in the act for the name.
„The question,” said he, „is narrowed down to two, Lowell or Derby.”
„Then,” said Mr. Appleton, „Lowell, by all means.”
It was so named from Mr. Francis C. Lowell, who originated the idea. He had visited England and Scotland in 1811, and while there had observed and studied the manufacture of cotton fabrics, which in a few years had come to be one of the most important industries of the British Empire. The war of 1812 intervened; but before the return of peace Mr. Lowell took measures for starting the business in New England. A company was formed with a capital of four hundred thousand dollars, and Mr. Lowell himself undertook the construction of the power loom, which was still guarded in Europe as a precious secret. After having obtained all possible information about it, he shut himself up in a Boston store with a man to turn his crank, and experimented for months till he had conquered the difficulties. In the fall of 1814 the machine was ready for inspection.
„I well recollect,” says Mr. Appleton, „the state of admiration and satisfaction with which we sat by the hour watching the beautiful movement of this new and wonderful machine, destined as it evidently was to change the character of all textile industry.”
In a few months the first manufactory was established in Waltham, with the most wonderful success. Henry Clay visited it, and gave a glowing account of it in one of his speeches, using its success as an argument against free trade. It is difficult to see what protection the new manufacture required. The company sold its cotton cloth at thirty cents a yard, and they afterwards found that they could sell it without loss at less than seven cents. The success of the Waltham establishment led to the founding of Lowell, Lawrence, Nashua, and Manchester. There are now at Lowell eighty mills and factories, in which are employed sixteen thousand men and women, who produce more than three million yards of fabric every week. The city has a solid inviting appearance, and there are in the outskirts many beautiful and commanding sites for residences, which are occupied by men of wealth.
But now as to the question above proposed. Why are the operatives at Lowell less discontented than elsewhere? It is in part because the able men who founded the place bestowed some thought upon the welfare of the human beings whom they were about to summon to the spot. They did not, it is true, bestow thought enough; but they thought of it, and they made some provision for proper and pleasant life in their proposed town. Mr. Appleton, who many years ago took the trouble to record these circumstances, mentions that the probable effect of this new kind of industry upon the character of the people was most attentively considered by the founders. In Europe, as most of them had personally seen, the operatives were unintelligent and immoral, made so by fifteen or sixteen hours’ labor a day, and a beer-shop on every corner. They caused suitable boarding-houses to be built, which were placed under the charge of women known to be competent and respectable. Land was assigned and money subscribed for schools, for churches, for a hospital. Systematic care was taken to keep away immoral persons, and rules were established, some of which carried the supervision of morals and manners perhaps too far. The consequence was that the daughters of farmers, young women well educated and well-bred, came from all quarters, and found the factory life something more than endurable.
But for one thing they would have found it salutary and agreeable. The plague of factory life is the extreme monotony of the employment, and this is aggravated in some mills by high temperature and imperfect ventilation. At that time the laws of health were so little understood that few persons saw any hardship in young girls standing on their feet thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, and even sixteen hours a day! It was considered a triumph when the working-day was reduced to thirteen hours. Thirty years ago, after prodigious agitation, the day was fixed at eleven hours. That was too much. It has now been reduced to ten hours; but it is yet to be shown that a woman of average strength and stamina can work in a cotton mill ten hours a day for years at a stretch, without deteriorating in body, in mind, or in character.
During the first years the girls would come from the country, work in the mill a few months, or two or three years, and then return to their country homes. Thus the injury was less ruinous than it might have been. The high character of the Lowell operatives was much spoken of in the early day. Some of the boarding-houses contained pianos upon which the boarders played in the evening, and there was a magazine called the „Lowell Offering,” to which they contributed all the articles. These things seemed so astonishing that Charles Dickens, when he was first in the United States, in 1842, visited Lowell to behold the marvels for himself. How changed the world in forty years! Few persons now living can remember even the cars of forty years ago, when there were but a few hundred miles of railroad in the United States.
The train which conveyed the great novelist from Boston to Lowell consisted of three cars, a gentlemen’s car in which smoking was allowed, a ladies’ car in which no one smoked, and „a negro car,” which the author describes as a „great, blundering, clumsy chest, such as Gulliver put to sea in from the kingdom of Brobdingnag.” Where is now the negro car? It is gone to rejoin its elder brother, the negro pew. The white people’s cars he describes as „large, shabby omnibuses,” with a red-hot stove in the middle, and the air insufferably close.
He happened to arrive at his first factory in Lowell just as the dinner hour was over, and the girls were trooping up the stairs as he himself ascended. How strange his comments now appear to us! If we read them by the light of to-day, we find them patronizing and snobbish; but at that day they were far in advance of the feelings and opinions of the comfortable class. He observed that the girls were all well-dressed, extremely clean, with serviceable bonnets, good warm cloaks and shawls, and their feet well protected both against wet and cold. He felt it necessary, as he was writing for English readers, to apologize for their pleasant appearance.
„To my thinking,” he remarks, „they were not dressed above their condition; for I like to see the humbler classes of society careful of their dress and appearance, and even, if they please, decorated with such little trinkets as come within the compass of their means.”
He alluded to the „Lowell Offering,” a monthly magazine, „written, edited, and published,” as its cover informed the public, „by female operatives employed in the mills.” Mr. Dickens praised this magazine in an extremely ingenious manner. He could not claim that the literature of the work was of a very high order, because that would not have been true. He said: –
„Its merits will compare advantageously with a great many English Annuals.”
That is really an exquisite touch of satire. He went on to say: –
„Many of its tales inculcate habits of self-denial and contentment, and teach good doctrines of enlarged benevolence. A strong feeling for the beauties of nature, as displayed in the solitudes the writers have left at home, breathes through its pages like wholesome village air…. It has very scant allusion to fine clothes, fine marriages, fine houses, or fine life.”
I am so happy as to possess a number of the „Lowell Offering,” for August, 1844. It begins with a pretty little story called „A Flower Dream,” which confirms Mr. Dickens’s remarks. There are two or three amiable pieces of poetry, a very moral article upon „Napoleon at St. Helena,” one upon the tyranny of fashion, in which young ladies are advised to „lay aside all glittering ornaments, all expensive trappings,” and to present instead the charms of a cultivated mind and good disposition. There is one article in the number which Mr. Dickens would have enjoyed for its own sake. It is „A Letter from Susan;” Susan being a „mill girl,” as she honestly calls herself. She describes the life of the girls in the mill and in the boarding-house. She gives an excellent character both to her companions and to the overseers, one of whom had lately given her a bouquet from his own garden; and the mills themselves, she remarks, were surrounded with green lawns kept fresh all the summer by irrigation, with beds of flowers to relieve their monotony.
According to Susan, the mills themselves were pleasant places, the rooms being „high, very light, kept nicely whitewashed, and extremely neat, with many plants in the window-seats, and white cotton curtains to the windows.”
„Then,” says Susan, „the girls dress so neatly, and are so pretty. The mill girls are the prettiest in the city. You wonder how they can keep so neat. Why not? There are no restrictions as to the number of pieces to be washed in the boarding-houses. You say you do not see how we can have so many conveniences and comforts at the price we pay for board. You must remember that the boarding-houses belong to the company, and are let to the tenants far below the usual city rents.”
Much has changed in Lowell since that day, and it is probable that few mill girls would now describe their life as favorably as Susan did in 1844. Nevertheless, the present generation of operatives derive much good from the thoughtful and patriotic care of the founders. More requires to be done. A large public park should be laid out in each of those great centres of industry. The abodes of the operatives in many instances are greatly in need of improvement. There is need of half-day schools for children who are obliged to assist their parents. Wherever it is possible, there should be attached to every house a piece of ground for a garden. The saying of the old philosopher is as true now as it was in the simple old times when it was uttered: „The way to have good servants is to be a good master.”