The Massachusetts Mill Workers, Lowell National Historical Park

The Massachusetts Mill Workers, Lowell National Historical Park


(guitar strum) – [Voiceover] As Prairie
Public travels around North America, gathering
materials for our documentaries, we often come across
special places that we like to share with you. Once such place was in
Lowell, Massachusetts, where the Industrial
Revolution comes alive. (flowing piano music) – Lowell is one of the
most important cities in the American
Industrial Revolution. It’s really the first
large scale industrial city built solely for the
purpose of producing cloth and producing profit
for the mill owners. Here they were able to
bring together capital, nature in the form of the river, to create a power system and also bring in a new
kind of labor system to create this first
large scale city. Lowell became a model for
other industrial cities and throughout the 19th century, places like Lawrence
and Manchester up and down the
Merrimack River Valley that ultimately all
across New England and up and down the
Eastern seaboard would model themselves
after Lowell. So this is really where
industrial America begins. The whole reason
that Lowell is here is the water power system. The Merrimack River
in the space of about a mile-and-a-half
drops 32 feet. And that drop is what
powers these mills. And the mills would be
sided right alongside. So the water would flow in, flow underneath the
basements of the mills, drop down through big
tunnels called penstocks, flow through the
penstock, drop down about 15 feet onto a waterwheel, spin the waterwheel, spin
pulleys, leather belts, and ultimately run whole
rooms, whole floors, and whole mills
filled with machinery. Originally as they’re
building Lowell, there aren’t any workers around. This is really farm
country in Lowell in 1820, about 200 people
lived in what today is a city of 106,000 people. Not a lot of a labor
force to draw on. And so the mill owners
were forced to send recruiters out into
the countryside, and they recruited the
children of farmers out there. At the time, farms
weren’t doing very well, and may of the
large farm families were looking for things
for their children to do. And particularly,
their daughters, if you were a woman on the
Frontier in New England, very few opportunities
opened to you. Maybe you could work
as a domestic servant, maybe as a school mistress,
but that’s about it. So this is a great opportunity
for women to come in and work for the first time. And they would come
by the thousands, even the tens of
thousands in the 1830s and the 1840s. And first because
this was farm country, and not very many
places for them to live. So the companies
built boarding houses. Specifically to house
these mill girls that would come down
to work in the mills. – People imagine kind of
tenement style dwellings, and pretty cramped
well you’ll see it’s a bit nicer then that. Certainly was a
little bit cramped. 30 or 40 girls would be
living in a fairly small boarding house unit. But you’ll see there,
there’s parlor space, served as a, kind of
living room but also a dining room space,
the place where the girls would play
musical instruments, there’s a piano there. Upstairs in the boarding
house you’ll see a bedroom. In each one there
would be two beds. Two girls to a bed so pretty
close living up there. Further up in the attic
any sort of, leftover girls that didn’t fit in the
bedroom would be living more or less dormitory style. Your living with 30 or
40 other girls in pretty close proximity. But there are
benefits to that too. If you lived on the farm
maybe you wouldn’t see anybody else your own age
for you know, weeks at a time or months at a time. Here you have the
comradery of, sort of like going to college an
living in the dorms. You form some relationships
that are really important to you
through out your life. But there were problems with it. It comes with a, some
very difficult challenging working conditions. This is pretty tough labor
for 11, 12 hours a day. Six days a week, in a hot
sweaty humid environment. Filled with cotton lint. And some of the mill
girls began to think about well, might we ask
for more, more wages better working
conditions and they get together to form
some of the first labor unions in the country. The female labor reform
association was formed here in Lowell, in the 1830s and they begin to stage
walk, outs stage strikes, but by about the 1850s the
mill girls are deciding that this isn’t the
experience that they wanted and they begin to
head back home. The mill owners need to
fill in, and they turn to the Irish labors that
have been here all along. Working, digging the canals, building the mill systems
and begin to bring in the Irish into the mills. That’s really the first
wave of immigrants you see working here. And then through
out the 19th century there would be waves of
immigrants that come to Lowell from really around the world and end up working in the mills. And you see a shift
in the labor force from being really 80% 90%
women in the 1820s 1830s as more of of the immigration
groups being to flow in. There’s much more of a mix and you see men
doing jobs that maybe women had done before. Men has always been part
of the factor process doing some of the work like working with the
carding machines, and they had always
worked as overseers and as mechanics, but now increasingly
throughout the 19th century they’d become machine
operators as well. By the end of the 19th century, you see about an even
mix of men and women working on the floor of
each one of these factories. By the end of the 19th century, Lowell is really changing and
using far more steam power than hydro power. About 1881 or so, it’s
about half and half, and then it tips the
balance the other way in the last couple of
decades of the 19th century. Now that steam
power’s interesting because it really puts
Lowell out of business. You don’t need to place
it along a waterway, you don’t need the
drop in the water, and that’s what Lowell’s unique
competitive advantages was. Well once you can put
a steam engine in there and do it efficiently
and do it fairly cheaply, well now you can put a
factory anywhere you want. So by the 1880s,
places like Fall River are far larger textile
cities than Lowell ever was. What Lowell’s model had created had now just put
it out of business. (gentle guitar strum) – [Voiceover] Prairie
Mosaic is funded by The Minnesota Arts And
Cultural Heritage Fund with money from the vote
of the people of Minnesota on November Fourth 2008, The North Dakota
Council On The Arts, and by the members
of Prairie Public.

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