Ten Things You Might Not Have Known About Lowell, Massachusetts

Lowell Mill Girls in the early 1900's

With the 2019 Early American Industries Association Annual Meeting coming up in a few months, here are some interesting tidbits of information about Lowell, Massachusetts that will hopefully entice you to join us for our Annual Meeting next May. The young mill girls in the title photo above invite you to learn more about them and their interesting lives during the Early American industries Associations’ Annual Meeting May 15th thru May 18th, 2019. So, here are ten things you might not have known about Lowell, Massachusetts.

  1.  Lowell, Massachusetts is named after Francis Cabot Lowell who never actually stepped foot in the town that bears his name. Francis Cabot Lowell spent two years in England between 1810 and 1812.  While he was there, he toured the textile mills of Manchester and some say, engaged in industrial espionage.  He apparently memorized the workings of the power looms that were common in England at that time.[1]  Upon his return to America, Lowell and an inventive mechanic named Paul Moody developed a power weaving loom in 1814 based upon what Lowell had seen in England.  With financial backing from a group of Boston investors he formed the Boston Manufacturing Company and developed the first fully integrated weaving mill on the Charles River in Waltham, Massachusetts that started with cotton from the bale and at the other end produced bolts of cotton cloth. You can learn more at (https://www.charlesrivermuseum.org/francis-cabot-lowell-and-the-boston-manufacturing-company/).[2]  The mill at Waltham was a great success and it soon became apparent that the company needed to expand.  But, the three mills that had been built in Waltham were using all of the available power from the Charles River.  So, the Boston Manufacturing Company sought a new site.
Mill-workers photo

Figure 1. Early Photo Inside One of the Lowell Mills

They settled on East Chelmsford, Massachusetts on the Merrimack River just 30 miles from Boston. Construction began at the site in 1822 and the investors decided to name the new town they built Lowell in honor of Francis Cabot Lowell who had died in 1817.

2. At its peak in 1850, the city of Lowell had 40 mill buildings powering 320,000 spindles on almost 10,000 looms and employed more than 10,000 workers in the textile industry.[3]

Whistler's Mother

Figure 2. Whistler’s Iconic Painting of his Mother. Its Correct Title is “Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1”

3. Lowell is the birthplace of the American painter James McNeill Whistler. He was born on July 11, 1834 and achieved worldwide fame  as a painter.  His most iconic image is the painting of his mother shown in Figure 2. But his father, Major George Washington Whistler, was a fascinating character in his own right.  His life story is at least as interesting as that of his famous son. (https://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/getting-know-whistlers-father-180951439/).

Major George Washington Whistler

Figure 3. A Not Very Famous Portrait of Whistler’s Father, Major George Washington Whistler, Not Painted by His Son!

George Washington Whistler supervised the building of the first locomotive in the Lowell Machine Shop in 1835.  He took apart a locomotive imported from England to learn how it was constructed and then fabricated patterns from which the Lowell Machine Shop built one of the first locomotives manufactured in New England.  Within three years, the Lowell Machine Shop had turned out 32 more locomotive engines. The Lowell Machine Shop was established to meet the machine tool needs of the weaving mills, but expanded to be one of the premier machine shops in the world.  Many of the master mechanics of the American Industrial Revolution got their training at the Lowell Machine Shop.

Locomotive Engine built by the Lowell Machine Shop in 1852

Figure 4. Locomotive Engine built by the Lowell Machine Shop in 1852

The Whistler House Museum of Art (http://www.whistlerhouse.org/) is worth a stop at some point during your visit to Lowell.

4. By 1846, the mills in Lowell where turning out almost a million yards of cloth a week! Until the Civil War, Lowell was the largest concentration of industrial production in America and was New England’s second largest city with a population of 33,000.

5. Lowell, in 1879, was the first town in the United States to get telephone numbers just three years after Alexander Graham Bell had patented his telephone.

Jack Kerouac Book Cover

Figure 5. Jack Kerouac Most Famous Book

6. Lowell is the birthplace of Jack Kerouac (March 12, 1922 – October 21, 1969). For those of us who lived through the 60’s, his name will be a familiar one.  As the author of, On the Road, and several other books, he is considered a literary iconoclast and alongside William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsburg is closely identified as one of the members of the Beat Generation and a progenitor of the “Hippie Movement”. You can learn more about this literary icon at https://www.nps.gov/lowe/learn/historyculture/kerouac.htm.

Moxie ad

Figure 6. An Early Moxie Ad

7. Moxie originated as a patent medicine called “Moxie Nerve Food”, which was created around 1876 by Dr. Augustin Thompson in Lowell, Massachusetts. Thompson claimed that it contained an extract from a rare, unnamed South American plant which is now known to be gentian root. Moxie, he claimed, was especially effective against “paralysis, softening of the brain, nervousness, and insomnia”. Thompson claimed that he named the beverage after a Lieutenant Moxie, a purported friend of his, who he claimed had discovered the plant and used it as a “panacea”.  After a few years, Thompson added soda water to the formula and changed the product’s name to “Beverage Moxie Nerve Food”. By 1884 he was selling Moxie both in bottles and in bulk as a soda fountain syrup. In 1885, he received a trade mark for the name. He marketed it as “a delicious blend of bitter and sweet, a drink to satisfy everyone’s taste”. Thompson died in 1903. Moxie was purchased by the Coca-Cola company in 2018.  The name has become the word “moxie” in American English, meaning courage, daring, or determination. Our Executive Director John Verrill is a big fan of the stuff. You might want to try some while you’re in Lowell.

Lowell Mill Girls

Figure 7. Some Lowell Mill Girls

8. One of the features that distinguished the Lowell mills in the 1830’s was that workers were paid in cash once a month. Most other employers paid workers with credit at a company store or settled their worker’s wages once every 3 months.  In the 1830’s, a woman working at one of the Lowell mills could earn between $12-$14 dollars per month (that’s equivalent to about $320 – $370 in 2017 dollars)[4].  The mill girls paid $5 a month for their room and board in one of the company’s boarding houses.  These young women experienced economic independence that was unknown before the development of the Lowell mills. They likely had more ready cash than their farmer fathers.  It was not unusual for these young women to return home after a year in the mills with $25-$50 in a bank account. But these women worked long hours (as many as 14 hours/day) with only brief breaks for their breakfast and dinner (See Figure 8).  Their hours were shorter during the winter months, but the working conditions were dusty and dangerous throughout the year.

Work Schedule at the Lowell Mills

Figure 8. Work Schedule at the Lowell Mills

9. The women in the Lowell Mills formed the Lowell Female Labor Reform Association in 1844 with Sarah Bagley as its first president. The Lowell mill girls were not hesitant to express their opinions about working conditions and wages in the mills.  The first protest came in 1834 just about a decade after the mills opened. Subsequent protests and strikes followed resulting in the organization of the Lowell Female Labor Reform Association. The LFLRA is noted as being the first organization of working women to come together and bargain collectively for better working conditions and higher pay. You will learn more about these women and their labor reform efforts during out visit to the Boott Mill National Historical Park.

Charles Dickens photo

Figure 9. Charles Dickens

10. English Author Charles Dickens (See Figure 9) visited Lowell in February of 1842.  He specifically wanted to see America’s first industrial city.  He toured the mills, the tenement housing and the city of Lowell. He later wrote a book about his travels in the United States titled, American Notes.    In the book Dickens wrote favorable descriptions of both the Lowell mills and the Lowell mill girls. He said of the mill girls, “They had serviceable bonnets, good warm cloaks, and shawls… They were healthy in appearance, many of them remarkably so, and had the manners and deportment of young women, not of degraded brutes of burden.”

So, come join us for the 2019 Early American Industries Association Annual Meeting, Wednesday, May 15th thru Saturday, May 18th, 2019 in Lowell, Massachusetts for a meeting filled with friends, fun, workshops, lectures, demonstrations and a variety of opportunities to learn. Maybe a glass of  Moxie to avoid “paralysis, softening of the brain, nervousness and insomnia!  The 2019 EAIA Annual Meeting maybe just the “panacea” you need! I guarantee you’ll find out some more interesting things about Lowell! We’ll be based at the Westford Regency Inn & Conference Center in Westford, Massachusetts (https://www.westfordregency.com/).  Registration forms will be mailed to you and will also be available right here on our website in mid-January 2019.

by Paul Van Pernis

Moxie ad

Figure 10. More Moxie!

[1] After the Revolutionary War, England passed laws prohibiting the export of textile machinery or the emigration of those who could operate it.  Samuel Slater an overseer in an English textile factory introduced British cotton technology to America when he left England posing as a farmer. He had committed the details of the Arkwright spinning machine to memory and in 1790, while working for Moses Brown, he started the first American cotton spinning mill in Pawtucket, Rhode Island

[2] Waltham and the Charles River Museum are only 22 miles from Lowell and would make a great side trip before or after the 2019 EAIA meeting.

[3] At Pawtucket Falls just above the junction of the Merrimack and Concord Rivers, the Concord River drops more than 30 feet.  The system of canals and gates built in Lowell harnessed the kinetic energy of this water flow and produced over 10,000 horsepower of energy to turn the turbines that powered the mills.

[4] The average daily wage for a female working in the cotton or wool manufacturing industry in 1830 was 38-40 cents/day! (https://www​.nber.org/chapters/c2486.pdf)

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