Into the 1920s, the city’s largest employers were the cotton manufacturing corporations. As extensively documented, during the early years of Lowell’s mills the workforce was composed largely of single, young Yankee women.  After the Civil War and until the early 1880s the majority was Irish and native-born New Englanders. Increasingly, French Canadians were settling in Lowell and working in the mills and by the late 1880s they constituted the major part of this workforce. But beginning in the 1880s Lowell became home to many different immigrant populations. By 1910 this included Greeks, Poles, and Portuguese who comprised the fastest growing immigrant communities in the city. The majority of wage-earning immigrants from all nations found work in the cotton factories. This was clearly the case for Portuguese men and women in Back Central. Table 1 below shows the number of immigrants working in the city’s cotton mills in 1920, at which time employment in this industry peaked in Lowell. 
Table 1: Employment in Lowell’s Cotton Mills among Select Immigrant Populations, 1920
County of Birth
French Canada
EnglandPolandPortugal and Atlantic Islands
Total Population10,1717,4973,7273,6582,2251,943
Total employed in cotton mills1,972 (19.4%)969
Females employed in cotton mills


Males employed in cotton mills1,264

Note:  This data was obtained through a query of the digitized federal census for 1920.
By 1920, of all the major immigrant groups in Lowell, the Portuguese, comprising the sixth largest foreign-born population, worked in the city cotton mills at the highest rate, over 50 percent. Only the Greeks (48%) and the Poles (43%) rivaled the Portuguese. One of the most remarkable findings from the 1920 federal census concerns the gender composition of cotton mill workers. Unlike earlier generations, when women dominated the workforce (as late as 1885, females constituted 65 percent of all of Lowell’s cotton mill workers ), immigrant men outnumbered women in the factories. Despite this significant change, some of the gendered divisions of labor within the mills remained in place: Women continued to be employed in large numbers in spinning and drawing-in yarns for warp beams. And men continued to constitute the entire workforce in picking, dying, and in performing general labor as well as the highly skilled trades of carpentry, machining, and loom fixing. But men were increasingly dominant in carding and their numbers had substantially increased in weaving, which had been largely a female occupation until the early 1900s.
Family of Portuguese immigrants c. 1915 Image by PADA/Camara Family Collection
Although the photographer of record remains unknown, this image of Portuguese immigrants was likely taken in the vicinity of Charles Street, around 1915, when this part of Back Central was the heart of the “Portuguese Colony’ in Lowell.
A closer examination of Portuguese cotton mill workers in 1920 confirms these changing occupational patterns but also reveals some unique characteristics within the Portuguese community. Focusing on Back Central, on Charles Street, which was the heart of the so-called “Portuguese colony,” a total of 98 Portuguese men and women, born overseas (almost entirely in the Azores), resided in tenements and multiple-family dwellings that lined the street. Of these 98, a total of 70, an astounding 71.4 percent, were employed in cotton factories. With the possible exception of a few locales in “Little Canada,” such as Hall Street, or Suffolk Street in a section of the “Acre” known as the “Greek Triangle,” this percentage of cotton mill operatives on Charles Street was the highest of any neighborhood in Lowell. 
As shown in Table 2, of these 70 Portuguese mill workers who resided on Charles Street, 37 were men and 33 were women. Contrasting sharply with earlier generations when the overwhelming majority of female workers were single, all but nine were married (see Table 3). There was also one widow, Rose Correia, age 50, who worked as weaver and lived with her four adult children (including a son who was also a cotton mill weaver and a daughter who operated a knitting machine in a hosiery mill). A majority (17 of the 23) of the married women were mothers with children under the age of 14. It appears that most received child care help from relatives or parents, although a few young couples lived on their own without other relatives in their household. 
Of the nine unmarried cotton mill workers, seven were daughters living with their families. All of these daughters were between the ages of 17 and 36, a majority being in their twenties. Only two of these single women lived on their own, although one of them, Adeline Bettencourt, age 18, was likely residing with relatives. The other woman living on her own, Rose Maia, age 38, resided with the Dias family and three other boarders, who were all young Portuguese males. The demographics of these Portuguese women on Charles Street are similar to the unmarried female Greek cotton mill workers living on Suffolk Street. Only three of 15 Greek women were single and all three lived with relatives. Clearly the era of the young, single “mill girl” residing with other women in a corporation-owned boardinghouse in Lowell had come to an end.
Table 2: Portuguese Employment in Lowell’s Cotton Mills of Those Living on Charles Street, 1920
  • Total Portuguese Population on Charles Street: 98
  • Number of Portuguese Males and Females Employed in Cotton Mills: 70 (71.4%)
  • Number of Portuguese Males Employed in Cotton Mills: 37 (52.8%)
  • Number of Portuguese Females Employed in Cotton Mills: 33 (47.2%)
  • Average Age of Portuguese Males Working in Cotton Mills Average: 32
  • Age of Portuguese Females Working in Cotton Mills: 30
Although the male cotton mill workers on Charles Street ranged in age from 16 to 60, about three-quarters were between the ages of 25 and 45. All of them, except for seven, were married. Only three had become U.S. citizens; all others retained their Portuguese citizenship. And just two of this group of male factory workers held highly skilled, relatively well-paying positions; one was a machinist, the other a loom fixer. 
Table 3: Marital Status of Portuguese Employment in Lowell’s Cotton Mills, 1920
  • Number of Married Portuguese Males Employed in Cotton Mills: 30 (81%)
  • Number of Single Portuguese Males Employed in Cotton Mills: 7 (19%) 
  • Number of Married Portuguese Females Employed in Cotton Mills: 23 (70%) 
  • Number of Single Portuguese Females Employed in Cotton Mills: 9 (30%) 
  • Number of Portuguese Daughters  Working in Cotton Mills, Marital Status, and Average Age: 9 (2 married, 7 single), 25.22 years old  
  • Number of Portuguese Sons  Working in Cotton Mills Marital Status, and Average Age: 3 (0 married, 3 single), 18.76 years old 
Passport photo of Manual and Marianna Cotta, 1921
Passport photo of Manuel and Marianna Cotta, 1921.
Moving beyond the numbers, the loom fixer, Manuel Nunes Cotta, is an interesting figure for his life reflects the experiences of many of  his Azorean compatriots in Back Central.  Born in 1872 in the village of Biscoitos on the Island of Terceira, Cotta likely had little formal education.  (Although the 1920 census taker recorded that Manuel was literate, he signed a 1921 passport application with an “x,” indicating he could not write.)   In 1893, at the age of 21, he departed Terceira for the United States and settled for a few years in Taunton, Massachusetts. He probably worked in the Whittenton Mills, one of the largest cotton mills in this area. In 1897 he married Marianna de Jesus Fagundes, who was 23 years old, a cotton mill worker (probably in the Whittenton), and had also immigrated from Terceira in 1893. Soon after their marriage, however, they moved to Lowell, where a cousin from Biscoitos, Manuel Martins Cotta, lived. They rented a flat in a tenement in Church Street Court, fully occupied by Azoreans and one block north of Charles Street. Manuel and Marianna quickly found jobs in one of Lowell’s large cotton factories, possibly joining Manuel Martins Cotta in the Prescott Mills. 
In 1900, while living in this tenement, they had a son, Manuel Nunes Cotta, Jr. He would be their only child. As with many immigrants who rented their residence, the Cotta family moved a number of times during their years in Lowell. But like many other of the city’s Azoreans of their generation, they remained in the Back Central neighborhood. By about 1903 they relocated to another over-crowded tenement, this one in Proctor’s Court, a small, almost exclusively Azorean enclave, only a block from their first apartment in Lowell. That year both Manuel and Marianna received their U.S. citizenship. They continued to live in Proctor’s Court through 1911, with Manuel working in carding room in a cotton factory (quite possibly at the Prescott Mills where his cousin, Manuel Martins Cotta worked). It appears that Marianna had stopped working outside the home, at least temporarily. 
A few years later the Cottas moved to Charles Street, renting a flat in a multiple-family dwelling that, although built prior to the Civil War, was very likely in far better condition than the tenements in which they had lived for over a decade. One other change in the Cotta family occurred after their move to Charles Street: Marianna rejoined the workforce finding a job as a weaver in a cotton mill. Over the next several years, their financial status likely improved. Manuel had worked his way up to become a loom fixer, while Marianna continued working as a weaver. Their son, Manuel Jr., contributed to the family income, having obtained a job at the age of 18 at the U.S. Cartridge Company’s factory near Back Central.
In the summer of 1921, Manuel and Marinna Cotta departed on a steamship at Providence, Rhode Island, bound for Terceira. They would never again live in Lowell. Instead, when Manuel and his wife returned to the United States they settled in California, a migration pattern they shared with many of Lowell’s Portuguese. It is not clear where they lived during their first years on the West Coast. His cousin Manuel Martins Cotta had moved with his wife from Lowell to California and he had another Terceira relative, Manuel Domingos Cotta, who had first immigrated to New Bedford, Massachusetts, in the 1886 before settling on a ranch by 1910 in Hanford, California, in the Central Valley, north of Bakersfield. By the 1940s Manuel Nunes Cotta had a house in nearby Tulare and the federal census recorded in 1950 that he was a widower in Tulare, “unable to work.” Residing with him was his son, Manuel Jr., who had married in Lowell and remained in the Spindle City into the 1940s, working as a machinist. He too followed this familiar path to California, with his wife and son. Manuel, Sr. remained in Tulare until his death in 1961 at the age of 88. 
That Manuel and Marianna Cotta departed Lowell in 1921 is not surprising. During the 1920s many cities in the United States experienced economic growth and a population surge. By contrast, few in Lowell shared in the nation’s urban prosperity. The short-lived but severe recession of 1921, followed by massive wage cuts imposed by the city’s cotton manufacturers sparked a disastrous strike of textile workers in 1922. The large number of Portuguese and other immigrants employed in Lowell’s factories faced not only financial hardship but joblessness as a number of the major textile corporations closed the mills and moved production to the South. For the first time since the Civil War, Lowell began to lose population. 
Further altering the social, economic, and cultural landscape in Lowell, as well as in other urban centers, was a rising tide of anti-immigrant sentiment. One result was series of federal immigration laws culminating in the most restrictive bill in the nation’s history, which Congress passed in 1924. Portuguese, primarily Azorean, immigration to the United States that had peaked in 1921, was essentially halted. As shown in Table 4, the Portuguese population in Lowell, similar to other immigrants from other nations, continued to grow through the 1910s, before declining in the 1920s. 
Table 4: Population of Select Immigrant Groups in Lowell, 1905-1940
Census Year/Country of Origin1905 (MA Census)1910 (US Census)1915 (MA Census)1920 (US Census)1930 (US Census)1940 (US Census)
Portugal and Atlantic Islands
not includednot included3,1082,2981,6081,398
not includednot included438787475438

Notes: The published federal census is used for 1910 and 1920, with the exception of the number stated for those from Portugal in 1920. The published figure for the federal census of 1920, which is given as 1,666, is erroneous and likely resulted from local census takers being inconsistent in recording country of origin of the city’s Portuguese. Most commonly the country noted was “Portugal” but In some cases “Azores” was written while others recorded the country as “Madeira.” It appears that the tabulation for the published census for Lowell in 1920 counted only those recorded as being from “Portugal.” The figure of 1,943 for the year 1920 was obtained through a search of the fully digitized federal manuscript census available via Similarly for the years 1930 and 1940, in which the figures in the published federal census for all immigrants in Lowell were not noted, a search revealed the numbers shown in this table. Immigrants from Italy and Lithuania are included in this table because Back Central was home to the largest number of Italians and Lithuanians in Lowell. Between 1915 and 1940 Greeks, Poles, and Portuguese were, respectively, the fourth, fifth, and sixth largest immigrant groups in the city. French Canadians constituted the largest of the city’s immigrant populations, but they represented a relatively small percentage of Back Central residents.
Despite the faltering fortunes of Lowell and the diminishing number of new immigrants settling in the city, the Portuguese in Back Central, joined by Lithuanians, Armenians, Poles, Italians, Russian Jews, and even some Turks and Syrians, remained a significant presence in the neighborhood. A small but growing number of Portuguese purchased properties, notably along Tyler, Charles, North, Union, and Lawrence streets. The overwhelming majority, however, continued to rent rooms in multiple-family homes most of which were wood-frame structures built prior to the Civil War. Some lived, at least for a short time, in decrepit tenements in Bent’s Court, between Charles and Central streets, or in the run-down buildings in the adjacent Reis Court (formerly Proctor’s Court), owned by Manuel P. Reis, one of the city’s early Portuguese real estate speculators.