Monday, November 11, 2013

Another Look at the Industrial Revolution: Visiting Lowell

A thread spool sculpture marks the entrance to the Boott Cotton
Mills Museum in Lowell.
One of the great things about researching the Industrial Revolution from a home in the Boston area is that it's hard not to simply drive smack into the Revolution on a regular basis.  My posts to this blog have included local sites like the Ames Shovel collection at Stonehill College in Easton, the Yankee Steam-Up in East Greenwich, Rhode Island (at the New England Wireless and Steam Museum, located not far from historic Slater Mill), the steampunk exhibit at the old Waltham Watch Company (now the Charles River Museum of Industry and Innovation), the Mount Hope Company in North Dighton, and Haverhill's very cool mural and painted boot markers.  The other day, too, I finally drove all 22 miles to the City of Lowell, in some ways the most important site of all.

I referenced Lowell's 19th-century labor issues in my 2012 post on Apple called "Lowell on the Yangtze" here, and have visited the city for dinner and concerts from time to time, but I've been sorely remiss until now in actually walking its history.

Founded in 1826, Lowell went from a quiet village of 2,500 to the single greatest concentration of American industrial capital before the Civil War--the first large-scale planned industrial community in America.  To contemporary observers it seemed a kind of miracle.  One Scottish visitor returned to his country with two indelible images etched in his mind: Niagara Falls and Lowell.  The governor of Massachusetts said that Lowell seemed "more the work of enchantment than the regular process of human agency."

This map, prepared by the National Park Service, illustrates the 6-mile canal system flowing from the Merrimack River.  After the building of the Pawtucket Falls, water on the Merrimack fell some 30 feet in a mile, generating 10,000 horsepower.  
The National Park Service has done its usual exquisite job in preserving and interpreting the site, with the heart of the exhibits at the Boott Cotton Mills Museum.  Kirk Boott was the former British army officer who, beginning in 1822, oversaw everything from the building of the mills and canals to placing the first church.
The heart of the National Park exhibit is Boott Mill, four interconnected buildings still standing from the 1830s.  Below is a similar perspective from 1870.  Boott Mill manufactured textiles until 1956.

The front entrance to the Boott Museum.
One floor of the Boott is filled with industrial grade looms (circa 1920) running at high speed.  But it was this see-through mill that caught my eye--an opportunity to understand how the whole, integrated process came together.

Lowell was famous for both its technological innovation and its employment of young Yankee farm women.  By the mid-1830s, some three-quarters of Lowell's female workers lived in boarding houses.  A young woman might earn $14 per month, paid in cash, and return to her home after a year with more money in hand than her family had ever seen. 

By 1850, Lowell's industrial capacity featured six miles of canals, 40 mill buildings stretching nearly a mile, 320,000 spindles, 10,000 looms and 10,000 workers.  (By comparison, Slater Mill, the first permanent cotton spinning mill in America, had employed 100 workers in 1800.)  Lowell's tentacles stretched far into New Hampshire, where mill owners aggressively acquired water rights to keep the looms running 12 hours a day, 300 days a year.

Modern Lowell is seeking to reinvent itself against the long-term deindustrialization of the Northeast in general,
and textiles in particular.  Last year's winning 15-second video promotion for Lowell is here.

You say "trash in an old canal."  I say: "Urban Art."
We've had a very dry fall in New England which helps explain "low-tide" in the Eastern Canal.

Some of the more interesting images in Lowell are the art and sculpture contained within the bounds of the old mills.

This bronze sculpture, "The Worker," was designed by Eliott Schwartz to commemorate the men who built the canals.

The text is from a poem by Lucy Larcom, whose father died leaving her mother to raise ten children.  Lucy started in the Lowell mills at age 11 and worked for a decade.  Her story is here.
In 1889 Larcom published "A New England Girlhood," still in print today.

Finally, the silhouette of Francis Cabot Lowell, the genius behind the integrated mill at Waltham
who would never live to see his namesake city.
Poet John Greenleaf Whittier may have said it best when, after visiting Lowell, he wrote that it was like being "thrust forward into a new century."