Series: Lowell, Story of an Industrial City

Lowell, Story of an Industrial City: Boardinghouses

Brick boardinghouse in Lowell. HABS. Library of Congress. Public Domain
A row of brick boardinghouses in Lowell.

From the Historic American Buildings Survey, collections of the Library of Congress. Public Domain (https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/ma0297.photos.080603p)

The rows of long brick boardinghouses adjacent to Lowell's mills distinguished the city from earlier New England mill towns. Lowell's first female workers at the Merrimack Manufacturing Company were put up in wooden boardinghouses. By the mid-1830s, however, firms were adding brick structures near their mills and requiring women without family in the city to live in them. Their behavior came under the watchful eye of boardinghouse keepers, who were required to report any misconduct to mill management.

Typically 30 to 40 young women lived together in a boardinghouse. The first floor usually contained kitchen, dining room, and the keeper's quarters. Upstairs bedrooms accommodated four to eight women, commonly sleeping two in a double bed. In these close quarters, experienced workers helped new hands adapt to their situation.

The boardinghouses began to fade from prominence as Lowell aged, profits fell, and the workforce changed. At first, Lowell firms rarely accommodated immigrants in the boardinghouses. After the Civil War, increasing numbers of immigrants found themselves "on the corporation," as the native-born left the mills. By the turn of the century, however, immigrants were less interested in company housing, and boardinghouse keepers had to take in non-mill workers or offer board alone to make ends meet. The corporations sold off the boardinghouses, most of which were subdivided into tenement apartments for immigrant families or converted to other uses and eventually demolished.

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From: Dublin, Thomas. 1992. Lowell: the story of an industrial city: a guide to Lowell National Historical Park and Lowell Heritage State Park, Lowell, Massachusetts. Washington, D.C.: Division of Publications, National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior.