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Lowell and Lawrence Textile Mills

The Lowell Offering, No. 1, 1840, Harry Elkins Widener Memorial Library, Harvard College Library
The Lowell Offering, No. 1, 1840, Harry Elkins Widener Memorial Library, Harvard College Library.

During the 19th century, textile production grew from a "cottage industry" based on outwork performed in the home primarily by women to a machine-operated, factory system situated in towns built specifically for this purpose. Eli Whitney's invention of the cotton gin in 1793 facilitated the extension of a slave-based cotton economy that could provide the raw materials to make cloth, and mechanical spinning frames and the development of techniques to harness water power also promoted the growth of spinning mills. Following British models, Francis Lowell, who belonged to a family of Boston merchants, worked with a mechanic to build a power loom. With a group of other merchants, he obtained a charter to establish a cotton factory along the Charles River in Waltham, Massachusetts, in 1814. The coarse, cheap cloth produced in the "Waltham-Lowell system" competed successfully with the British textile industry, led to high profits, and allowed the "Boston associates," which is what Lowell and his other merchant partners from Boston were informally called, to expand to other locations in Massachusetts, including first East Chelmsford (later renamed Lowell), and Lawrence.

In the 1840s, the Lowell and Lawrence mills merged to buy the rights to the waters of the New Hampshire lakes that supplied the Merrimack River, allowing for the construction of dams to hold back water in order to ensure a steady supply of water to power the mills. In 1845, the Essex Company, a company started by the Lowells and Lawrences for constructing mills on the Merrimack, was awarded a charter to construct these waterways, an effort which preceded the incorporation of Lawrence as a town in 1847.

Under the company's aegis, Lawrence was developed as a planned company town that included boarding houses, schools, churches, and other municipal services to support mill workers. The alliance of the Essex Company with a handful of prominent Massachusetts families, including the Lowells, Lawrences, Cabots, Appletons, Jacksons, and others, ensured their preeminence in the New England textile industry. These families also played a large role in the development of railroads in New England, Boston's urban development, and New England's industrial competition with New York on a national level.

The Lowell and Lawrence mills relied on the labor of young women who lived in company boarding houses and who were paid in cash for their labor, a major advance for women in the textile industry, since the young women who worked in the Rhode Island textile mills were only paid only in company store credits. The Lowell and Lawrence boarding houses were run by matrons who enforced company rules such as curfews and behavioral norms. Mill workers often organized educational and religious associations, and they also wrote newspapers such as The Lowell Offering and The Operatives' Magazine.

As the 19th century ended, working conditions in the Lowell and Lawrence mills declined steadily as the speed of factory machines accelerated and as each worker worked at more machines at a faster pace, which jeopardized the health and safety of workers. In the late 19th century, state laws gradually reduced the weekly hours that mill workers were allowed to work. In response to wage cuts due to these reductions in working hours, the mill workers began protesting around the Lawrence mill in 1912, a campaign that eventually culminated in a violent strike that caught the nation's attention and garnered national union support.

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