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Determining the Facts


Reading 2: The Mill as a System

The typical Lowell textile mill consisted of an integrated sequence of mechanized processes which transformed raw cotton into finished cloth. The system drew on diverse people and skills to make it work. Factory owners, workers, agents, overseers, machinists, millwrights, checkers, and boardinghouse keepers together with machine belts, shafting, water wheels, turbines, lighting and fire safety equipment, even the building itself were all parts of an immense and complex process of interrelated functions. Viewed in its broadest perspective, the Lowell factory system reached far beyond the city limits. Vital raw material was shipped from the American South, and finished textile products could be found in all sections of the United States, Europe, Central America, Canada, and even China. Included in this system, broadly conceived, were railroad workers, seamen, plantation owners, slaves, sales agents, retail merchants, and cotton factors. From a more limited perspective, the factory system encompassed every aspect of activity confined within the walls of a given mill.

Two central components of the Boott Mills, and others like the Boott, were the power system and the production system. There were several other subsystems such as communications, lighting, heat and humidity, sanitation and safety, fire prevention, transportation, maintenance and repair, machine building, architecture and construction, management, and labor which were vital parts of the whole. Changes in these subsystems affected both power and production; in turn, innovations in either the power system or the production system affected the subsystems. As a result, many of the innovations and changes inherent in the founding and development of the factory system brought unanticipated consequences. The factory system was a process where change was the order of the day and in which the whole was greater than the sum of its parts.

Questions for Reading 2

1. What was the end product of the mill system? How do you think this product was made before mills were built?

2. In the broadest sense, the mill system stretched far beyond a single factory or factory complex. What outside forces had an impact on the functioning of the mill?

3. In addition to the power and production systems, what other subsystems were vital parts of the mill?

Reading 2 was adapted from the "Mill As A System: Developing the Interpretive Program and Three Historical Essays on 19th Century Lowell," unpublished exhibit planning report for the Boott Mills Area, Lowell National Historical Park, by the Center for History Now, Williamsburg, Virginia, September 1983.

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