Textile manufacturing was one of the great industries in New England at that time, and it grew rapidly to fill the need for clothing to cover the country’s burgeoning population, the waves of new immigrants coming to our shores, and the slaves who picked the cotton that the mills turned into cloth.
The textile industry was based on four things:
- Theft—Samuel Slater’sindustrial espionage that memorized the workings of British textile technology and carried it back to America. He helped set up the first water-powered mill in Slatersville, RI in 1790.
- Lies—When the owners bought the prime land in what was then Chelmsford, near the 30-foot waterfall that would power the Lowell mill, they told the farmers they were buying it for a hunting preserve, a place to shoot waterfowl.No big, ugly, noisy, stinky mill here, no sir!
- Greed—The fortunes remained with the proprietors of the mills.The workers were paid but a dollar or two a week.Well, they were just women after all, and of no great consequence.
- Good Intentions—These early capitalists wanted nothing to do with the semi-slavery that characterized mills in Manchester and Birmingham, England. They wanted to prove that factory work could be decent work that could also turn a profit. It was a revolutionary idea for its time.
Despite the owners’ best intentions, the reality or working in the mills was not quite the utopian vision they had created; one in which, “No girl need fear to go there; no father need fear that his virgin would come home deflowered, spoiled for the prospect of marriage.” But, like the spendthrift trusts that would later shackle young Beacon Hill gentlemen, it had unintended consequences. The unusual combination of greed and good intentions produced something totally unpredictable.
Ms. Zaroulis explains that the Industrial Revolution in America was also a short-lived revolution in the lives of women. The “Lowell Experiment” allowed them, for the first time to earn their own money while living independently of fathers, brothers and husbands, with “perfect propriety.”
More on the consequences of working conditions and wage cuts in the textile mills of Massachusetts tomorrow. In the meantime, I recommend reading Call the Darkness Light. You’ll enjoy it.