Lowell and the American Industrial Revolution

The first half of the 19th century was a time of great change. Industrialization brought new opportunities for employment, changing ideas of work, and economic cycles of boom and bust. During this period, women's roles changed dramatically. Industrialization redefined the role of women in the home, at the same time opening new opportunities for them as industrial wage earners.

Pre-Industrial America and Women's Worth

In pre-industrial America, the household was the center of production. Most families lived on farms where everyone worked to produce goods in order to survive. Within this context, the status of men and women was relatively equal. Men were the heads of households, but the role of women as caretakers and producers of goods, such as food and clothing, was equally important. With the first stages of industrialization, these patterns changed.

Increasingly, men began working outside of the home. Rather than selling goods they had produced, these workers sold their time to factory owners, who, in turn, sold the mass-produced goods. Men dominated this new realm of work. They made money - not goods - to provide for the family. Material success – how much money one could make and what they could buy with it – became a measure of a person's worth.

Industrial Capitalism and the Changing Role of Women

Women were not paid for work in the home. With the availability of manufactured goods, a woman’s role as producer within the home was reduced. The household, and the women who made it a home, took on new meaning. The new role of women was to transform the home into a haven for the men who faced daily pressures and dangers in the work place.

At the same time, women were morally responsible for raising dutiful children, preferably sons. By the mid-19th century, popular media depicted the “True Woman” as one who could competently manage a household, tend to the needs of husband and children, and create a pleasant and morally pure environment.

Farming in the Age of Factories

As the popularity of factory work grew, many questioned the wisdom of moving away from the land. Those who remained in agriculture were forced to concentrate on livestock or cash crops that could be sold to national markets. By the 1840s, cash crops from farms west of Albany dominated the market. Small New England farms were devastated. Large families, failed crops, and little cash income threatened family stability. Such factors may have influenced many women’s decisions to go to Lowell. Their departure meant one fewer mouth to feed, and the potential of supporting the family with cash wages.

Lowell, Massachusetts: The Experiment on the Merrimack

The idea of a city like Lowell began with a wealthy Boston merchant, Francis Cabot Lowell. In 1812, Lowell returned from England with the design for a power loom firmly etched in his mind. A year later, he and mechanic Paul Moody built a working power loom.  These looms wove cotton threads into cloth, creating a marketplace of machine-produced goods and offering consumers the ease of purchasing something that had previously been a time-consuming, by-hand process.

Lowell envisioned an entire community involved in textile production. With the help of a group of investors, he built a textile mill on the Charles River in Waltham, Massachusetts. By 1817, the factory was an economic success, and the investors began looking to expand beyond the limited power of the Charles River. Lowell died that year, but his colleagues forged ahead. They found the ideal site at the Pawtucket Falls, where the Merrimack River drops more than 30 feet.

In 1821, the investors purchased farmland around the falls, and the first mills opened in 1823. During the next 25 years, they built additional mills and an intricate system of canals that supplied water power to the mills. By 1843, Lowell was the largest industrial center in the United States.

Women at Work: Lowell's Early Labor

The city’s investors hired corporate recruiters to enlist young women from rural New England to work in the mills. Their reasoning was two-fold:

  1. women were apt to stay in the city only a few years before leaving to become wives and mothers, thus preventing the establishment of a permanent working class; and
  2. women were less expensive and more easily controlled than men.

Every woman had her own reasons for seeking factory work. Life was very difficult on a subsistence farm in New England – large families resulting in minimal (if any) inheritances, failing crops from unpredictable weather, and young men leaving in search of a better life (reducing marriage prospects).

One can only imagine how these “country girls” felt as they made their way into the city. In that instant, they saw what the majority of people in their hometown had never seen: massive brick factories; rows of streets lined with shops, taverns, and boardinghouses; crowds of well-dressed young people; and a mind-altering noise of the mills.

Life in the City of Spindles

By 1843, nearly 30,000 women had left farms to work in the city's ten major textile companies. In Lowell, women could earn money, and take advantage of the city's cultural offerings. Many women lived in boardinghouses owned and managed by the corporations. Though crowded, these quarters created an atmosphere in which women could share experiences and forge bonds of solidarity.

Despite the new opportunities offered in Lowell, women's lives were carefully controlled. The ringing of bells replaced the sun and seasons as signals for daily tasks. Company rules regulated workers' lives, both at work and afterhours: curfew was at 10 PM, church attendance was mandatory, and any sign of improper behavior was grounds for dismissal.

In addition to long hours of factory work, women faced societal expectations to maintain a standard of behavior dictated by popular literature, religion, and the lifestyles of urban middle-class women. The peer pressure must have been tremendous. The income from their jobs gave women economic power they never had before. Stores around the city catered to the women’s desires, selling pre-made clothing, cloth by the yard, hats, shoes, jewelry, and more.

The End of the Golden Experiment

Though Lowell remained attractive to young women in 1843, the city's "golden era" was all but over. Lowell's early success spawned competition: investors saw the potential for huge profits, and new industrial cities sprang up along the country's waterways. Textile prices fell. To keep their earnings high, mill owners cut labor costs: workers were required to tend more machines, and the speed of the machines was increased.

Worker went deaf due to the noise of machinery. Whirring gears and rapidly spinning belts went uncovered by protective devices. Accidents were frequent. Worst of all, mills were unventilated. Many workers were stricken with brown lung disease, a life threatening illness caused by breathing in cotton dust.

Women's Response to Deteriorating Working Conditions

Exhausted by rigorous work schedules and disenchanted with the indifference of corporations toward their well-being, many operatives organized to improve working conditions. In 1844, ten years after the first strike in Lowell, hundreds of women united to form the Lowell Female Labor Reform Association. Thousands of workers signed petitions urging the state legislature to pass a law limiting the length of the workday to ten hours.

Obstacles to Successful Protest

Though they protested working conditions in the 1840s, women lacked the rights, recognition, and experience they needed to organize effectively. They could not vote, own or inherit property, keep any wages they earned, or hold any but the lowest paying jobs. More importantly, women were socialized to believe that their proper place was in the home. It was not their place to question men’s decisions in public.

For those who were interested in organizing for better working conditions, the inconsistent workforce weakened worker solidarity and stalled their attempts. In addition, women's lack of political voice limited their ability to influence politicians. In fact, not until 1874 did Massachusetts legislators move to restrict the length of the workday.

Following the Industrial Experience

Many of Lowell’s female works saw their jobs in the mills as a temporarily experience that would broaden their horizons and allow them to save money for marriage and motherhood. Those who achieved this ideal faced marriage and divorce laws that gave all rights to men. Married women had no legal existence.

Many women, discouraged by the failure of managers to improve working conditions and increase wages, left the factories for new occupations, returned to the farm, moved west, or married. Other women remained in factories where, in time, they became a recognized force of workers.

It appears that those who left the factories used their urban experiences to enhance their quality of life. According to Thomas Dublin, a female operative typically married later in life than her non-wage-earning counterpart, had fewer children, and married a man closer to her age. Women who remained single often used skills acquired through factory life to start their own businesses. Those who moved west often did so in search of a better life than either farm or factory offered.

A Legacy of Enduring Relevance

Even as industrialization opened new opportunities for some women, it worked to confine others to a more narrowly defined role within the home. In cities such as Lowell, women were in a unique environment in which to recognize both life's possibilities, and the social, economic, and political forces that defined and shaped their existence. Women's visibility as wage earners during the early Industrial Revolution was precedent setting, and has enduring relevance to our lives today.

1Dublin, Thomas. Women at Work: The Transformation of Work and Life in Lowell, 1826-1860. New York: Columbia University Press, 1979.