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common ground

Industrial Archeology
Summer 1994, vol. 7(2)

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*  Living on the Boott

(photo) Mill worker filling a shuttle, ca. 1917.

"Standing in the cold, numbing rain, I was surrounded by a sea of brick rubble [and] rusting car bodies. It was a challenging place to do archeology. The site was both foreboding as a focus of study and contaminated with cadmium."

Joel W. Grossman

by Stephen A. Mrozowski, Grace H. Ziesing, and Mary C. Beaudry

"Living on the Boott," a phrase coined by the workers at the Boott Cotton Mills, came to symbolize a way life in Lowell, Massachusetts, during the 19th century. For those who labored in the mills and made the short walk home to the company boardinghouses, "the Boott" was both workplace and living quarters. Skilled and unskilled alike toiled 12 hours a day, six days a week, seldom straying beyond the confines of the town.

Before the mill corporations moved in, the site where Lowell would be built was an isolated farming community. The setting was peaceful, with farmhouses, fields, and pastures along the shores of the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. The landscape would be dramatically altered to make it suitable for large-scale textile manufacture. Since a good deal of the land was part of the flood plain, and therefore wet and unstable, much earth had to be brought in to level the ground and make it solid enough to support large buildings.

Archeological investigations confirmed this fact. Deep features such as privy shafts or foundations were not dug into glacial subsoil, as would normally be the case, but into artifact-rich soil brought in as fill.

After filling in the land, canals had to be built. The canals brought water inland from the rivers to the mill machinery through the use of water wheels. In addition to all this filling and earth moving, the mills themselves and the buildings that would house the workers had to be constructed.

Finally, trees and grass had to be planted, fences put up, and streets and paths laid out. The result was a new city that completely transformed the rural landscape.

The primary focus of our research was the unskilled mill workers who lived in the company boardinghouses and the skilled laborers who lived in the adjoining tenements. We also excavated the rear yard of the Kirk Street Agent's House, constructed around 1845. The agent, much like a chief executive officer today, was hired by the owners to run the operation.

We know the layout of the boardinghouses by examining old floor plans and the one remaining structure in Lowell as well as similar buildings in other communities. The first floor housed a dining room, a sitting room, a washing and storage area, and rooms for the boardinghouse keeper. The second and third floors contained bedrooms shared by the boarders, heated by fireplaces. Unlike the Kirk Street Agent's House, there were no modem conveniences; throughout the 1800s residents used an outdoor privy in the shed at the back of the yard.

There was no sense of privacy either. According to an early resident, as many as six people had to share a room measuring 14 feet by 16 feet, "with all the trunks, and boxes necessary to their convenience." Even though privacy was not commonplace in the 1800s under any circumstances, mill workers were probably not accustomed to sharing their space with strangers.

A more intimate view of the boardinghouses is offered by the memories of Blanche Graham. She lived in the boardinghouse as a child with her parents, who worked in the mills during the early years of the 20th century. She remembers entering the building into a long hallway that led to a reception room with wooden tables and chairs where men sat and talked and played cards. She remembers the dining room with its three long wooden tables and the kitchen with a sink and a black stove along one wall.

Her description reveals a stark existence: "Wasn't much furniture, cause them days they didn't have much furniture . . . Mattress was like straw or some darn thing . . . or maybe feathers . . . and wooden chairs, everything was wood . . . there was no fanciness. Maybe a plain wooden bureau with a few drawers to put your clothes in . . . and a mirror to stick up on the wall. That was the furniture."

As Blanche remembers, the lighting was kerosene and there was just one water closet containing a toilet and a sink with cold running water. This one bathroom was for the entire house, and everyone had chamber pots in their bedrooms. This was, however, an improvement on the outdoor privy that was used by boardinghouse residents during the 1800s.

Preferred by Rats

Privies were not a very pleasant solution for the problem of human waste. With the number of people using them, they would had to have been cleaned out fairly frequently to keep them from becoming offensive. In Lowell this was accomplished through what was called the "night-cart"system. Farmers from outlying areas were given licenses to clean privies and cart off the city's sewerage and rubbish during the evening (hence, "night-workers").. This system proved unsatisfactory as problems with leaking night-carts and the farmers' demands for higher wages exceeded the benefits of maintaining the privies.

By 1890 the Board of Health of the City of Lowell ordered that all privies be abandoned and replaced by water closets hooked up to sewer lines. Archeological investigations showed that the corporations were slow to comply with the law. Over 700 machine-made bottle fragments were excavated from two privies in the boardinghouse backyards. The process for making this kind of bottle was not put into use until 1910, which meant that the privies were not abandoned and filled in until at least 1910, 20 years after the city demanded it be done.

Because of the privies, drinking water was unsanitary for the boardinghouse residents. Most water was obtained from wells in the backyard or from the canals. The wells were easily subject to contamination because they were shallow and were placed too close to the privies--a look at the layout of the backyards confirms this. The canals were no better.

Stepped tower privies were used in all the mills along the canals, and the human waste was released directly into the water. The city began to provide piped water as early as the 1870s, but many boardinghouses continued to rely on their primitive sources well into the 1890s.

One unpleasant side effect of these unsanitary conditions was that the boardinghouse residents had to put up with rats. Blanche Graham remembered rats at her boardinghouse, and we found plenty of evidence of them in the archeological record.

Not only did we find rat bones, but we also found evidence of their eating habits. Many of the animal bones and plant remains in the boardinghouse backyard had rodent teeth marks on them. At the Kirk Street Agent's House, no rat bones were found and only one piece of bone showed signs of having been gnawed.

This, perhaps, was one of the most glaring differences between life at the boardinghouse and life at the Agent's House. The rats probably preferred the boardinghouse not only because of its more unsanitary conditions, but also because food was stored in bulk in the basement.

The Luxury of Hygiene

Working in the mills was a dirty business. The various processes involved in making cloth released clouds of lint that stuck to bodies covered with sweat and machine grease. Washing facilities at the boardinghouses were not equal to the task of keeping the residents clean.

Consider the facilities. There was no running water as we know it. Water was brought in from a backyard well. A lead pipe found in the one of the wells may have carried water to a cistern in the basement or to the kitchen, but this late addition appeared to have been constructed by the residents and not the company since similar pipes were not found in other boardinghouses. Just when water hookups were installed is unclear, but even in the early 20th century bathing facilities were nonexistent.

Doing laundry was a hardship. Clothing was scrubbed in a tub of water and hung on a line to dry, which took a considerable amount of time. One of the privileges of boarding was that your bed linens were washed for you by the boardinghouse keeper. Personal clothing, however, would have either been sent out for a price or done during precious leisure time.

Several artifacts related to personal grooming were found in the boardinghouse excavations. We recovered two kinds of combs that were used in grooming. One was the regular kind of straight comb used to get tangles out, but the other was a fine-toothed comb. Fine-toothed combs were used in the 1800s to comb dirt and lice out of the hair.

Another piece of evidence for "remedial grooming" came in the form of glass cosmetic and cologne containers, several of which were excavated from the backyards. These "little luxuries" were probably prized possessions that helped with personal hygiene. They would have helped disguise the odors and irregularities of complexion that might result from infrequent bathing.

"Kiss Me I'm Sterilized"

Our current understanding of germs as the agents of disease was not fully accepted until the very end of the 1800s. For most of defense against disease borne by these threatening vapors was plenty of sunlight, ventilation, and dryness, all of which the corporations recommended but did not provide.

The very sources of these miasmas--the accumulated refuse in the backyards, the uncapped privy vaults, and the contaminated wells--were not attended to. Even considering the disease theory of the day, workers did not live in very healthful conditions and the real culprits, viruses and bacteria that spread through human contact and in contaminated drinking water-were allowed to run rampant.

Sickness was a frightening reality of life in Lowell in the 1800s and early 1900s. Diseases that are seldom a threat today could kill hundreds of people in the prime of life a hundred years ago.

A case in point is the influenza epidemic of 1918, which spread through the world before it was over. This disease, called Spanish Influenza, was a particularly virulent strain of the flu virus that circulates throughout the population every year. It attacked the lungs and brought on pneumonia, most frequently in young people between the ages of 21 and 29.

The epidemic hit Lowell in the fall of 1918, with 141 deaths reported during the week of October 6-12. There were no antibiotics to fight the disease, but vaccines were developed to try to prevent it.

That the outbreak was on the workers' minds was apparent by an artifact excavated from the fill of a privy vault: a plastic pin-back button depicting a man and a woman kissing surrounded by the words "KISS ME [illegible] I'M STERILIZED."

The drawing is cartoonish, rendered with very simple lines. The costumes and hair styles suggest the early 1900s, and a curious object protruding from the woman's right shoulder looks like a hypodermic needle. It seems that the button was meant to advertise the fact that the wearer had been vaccinated against a disease (probably the Spanish Influenza) and was safe for kissing!

Excerpted by permission from "Living on the Boott": Historical Archaeology at the Boott Mills Boardinghouses, Lowell, Massachusetts, by Stephen A. Mrozowski, Grace H. Ziesing, and Mary C. Beaudry, to be published by the University of Massachusetts Press. The manuscript was prepared under a grant from the Lowell Historic Preservation Commission. For further information, contact Stephen A. Mrozowski, Department of Anthropology, University of Massachusetts, Boston, 1000 Morrissey Blvd., Boston, MA 02125-3393, (617) 287-6850.

MJB/EJL