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Industrial Revolution

August 8, 2019


The Merrimack River formed the northern
boundary of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and the Puritans hoped this would lead them
to the Lake of the Iroquois, or to the south sea. They had great
ambition for this waterway. But unfortunately the
Merrimack is not navigable, lots of rapids, it narrows, so it really just formed a boundary, until the early 19th century,
when the new generation of 1815-1820 realizes the Merrimack River generates
more water power than any other waterway in North America. Here, in what then was the village of Chelmsford it falls 35 feet just in the course of a
mile or two. So, in 1815 and 1816 Boston investors look here, they buy up
the land in North Chelmsford to divert the water into canals to generate power to turn mill wheels, and they name it the city of Lowell. So, the
Merrimack River, which should not benefited the Puritans,
is going to become the industrial hub of North America. So, by the 1810s and 1820s a revolution is taking place here in New England, the Industrial Revolution.
Francis Cabot Lowell had gone to England in 1811, seen the industrial machinery that powered England’s industrial
transformation, and came back here remembering enough
that he was able, with his associates, to recreate mills here, in fact create
bigger mills. In 1820, the city of Lowell is built here on
the banks the Merrimack, named for Francis Cabot Lowell, and the
city of Lowell becomes by the 1830s the largest industrial city in the
United States. And the Merrimack River Valley is the most
industrialized place in the Western Hemisphere, producing
textiles that are sold throughout the world. It’s an industrial transformation, Boston
remains the hub of this industrial enterprise that transforms New
England. Just about every New England household
had a spinning wheel, where the women would take wool or flax and turn that into thread,
spending long winter evenings making thread. Not everyone had a loom. One woman might have a loom and she then would take this
thread from her neighbors, or the yarn from her neighbors and turn it into cloth. Now, on a handloom a really skilled weaver could
perhaps make an inch or so of cloth in three or four hours, if she was good. So it’s a long,
laborious process of taking wool or flax and turning it into a finished textile. But then we have a revolution in New England in the 19th century with the
building of industries. Factories like this one, where the raw
textile, the raw cotton or flax could be brought in and turned into a
finished cloth. The other revolution, of course, is
the development of cotton. By 1820, the United States is the world’s
leading producer of cotton, surpassing India. Henry Adams said
that, “After 1815, Americans were more concerned with the
price of cotton, less with the rights of man.” So you have a
parallel here. Cotton is being produced in the southern
states by slave labor, here in New England cotton is being
turned into finished textiles by the labor of
free women, who come to a place like Lowell where they’ll
spend a few years working in a factory like this one, earning wages, money that they can
then save, they can put aside as a dowry, and then
after a few years they might go home, back to the farm. Now perhaps they can buy a farm or help
their families, or they can use their dowry to find a
husband, or they might stay in the city,
running a boarding house using the money they have earned in the mill to build a different life afterwards. New England in the 19th century
was the only part of the country where women outnumbered the men, it was a small
differential but still a significant one. And it’s also significant here that free women are part of the manufacturing economy,
in fact the central part of the manufacturing economy, as young women will leave the farm, come
to the city to find work. The young women who came into Lowell to
work in the mills would live in boarding houses like this one, with other young
women. And after working hours they went to
lectures, they had musical events, they published
their own journal, The Lowell Offering, with their own original poetry, prose,
short stories. They had an intellectual life here that
would not have been available to them in the rural hinterlands of New
England. In the 1840s, Charles Dickens, the English
novelist, who has exposed the horrors that the
British manufacturing system, visited the United States, and he came to
Lowell. He most wanted to see this American
industrial city, and he contrasted the way the working
women lived in Lowell with the degradation of the British
industrial workers. He saw this as a real difference between
American society and English society, as these young women
weren’t being ground down by the turmoil of industrialization, but
instead were using it for their own benefit.

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