Article Series

Series: Lowell, Story of an Industrial City

America's self-image is founded in part on the nation's rapid rise to industrial preeminence by World War I. While there is no single birthplace of industry, Lowell's planned textile mill city, in scale, technological innovation, and development of an urban working class, marked the beginning of the industrial transformation of America.

  • Lowell National Historical Park

    Chapter 1: Lowell: The Story of an Industrial City Prologue

    View of Pawtucket Falls at Lowell in golden light

    America's self-image is founded in part on the nation's rapid rise to industrial preeminence by World War I. While there is no single birthplace of industry, Lowell's planned textile mill city, in scale, technological innovation, and development of an urban working class, marked the beginning of the industrial transformation of America. Read more

  • Lowell National Historical Park

    Chapter 2: Lowell, Story of an Industrial City: Seeds of Industry

    Detail of Lowell Mills from the Sidney and Neff map 1850, public domain

    The rise of Lowell in the second quarter of the 19th century prompted flights of rhetoric from poets and politicians. The city was an obligatory stop for Europeans touring the United States. Most visitors were impressed by the sheer scale of mid-19th century Lowell, something best appreciated from across the Merrimack River. Massive five- and six-story brick mills lined the river for nearly a mile, standing out dramatically amid the area's scattered farms. Read more

  • Lowell National Historical Park

    Chapter 3: Lowell, Story of an Industrial City: Lowell's Southern Connection

    Senator Charles Sumner, Library of Congress Collections. Public Domain

    When an anti-slavery speaker came to Lowell in 1834, he drew an angry stone-throwing mob. Mill owners and workers depended on Southern cotton, and anyone who threatened the system was unwelcome. Ever since Slater's cotton mill was established in 1790 and the cotton gin invented three years later, Southern cotton and Northern textiles had had a reciprocal relationship. Read more

  • Lowell National Historical Park

    Chapter 4: Lowell, Story of an Industrial City: The Industrial Revolution in England

    Drawing of a Spinning Jenny in 1861. Public Domain.

    British historian Eric Hobsbawm sharply characterized English industrial history: "Whoever says Industrial Revolution says cotton." Rapid industrialization transformed the lives of English men and women after 1750, and changes in cotton textiles were at the heart of this process. Read more

  • Chapter 5: Lowell, Story of an Industrial City: Early American Manufacturing

    Slater Mill by Elliot. HAER Photo, Library of Congress Collections

    The mounting conflict between the colonies and England in the 1760s and 1770s reinforced a growing conviction that Americans should be less dependent on their mother country for manufactures. Spinning bees and bounties encouraged the manufacture of homespun cloth as a substitute for English imports. Read more

  • Lowell National Historical Park

    Chapter 6: Lowell, Story of an Industrial City: Pawtucket and Middlesex Canals

    Evolution, canal system at Lowell, Historic American Engineering Record, Library of Congress.

    Between 1790 and 1860 America underwent a transportation revolution. Canals, turnpikes, and railroads crisscrossed the nation, dramatically improving inland transportation. Eastern Massachusetts was an early participant in this revolution. Read more

  • Lowell National Historical Park

    Chapter 7: Lowell, Story of an Industrial City: Making Textiles

    Spinning Jenny, 1861. Public Domain.

    Making textiles: Picking, carding, spinning, warping, and weaving. Read more

  • Lowell National Historical Park

    Chapter 8: Lowell, Story of an Industrial City: The Waltham-Lowell System

    Silhouette of Francis Cabot Lowell. NPS.

    The success of the early spinning mills of southern New England in the years before 1810 and the uncertainties of shipping led the son of a leading Boston merchant family, Francis Cabot Lowell, to seek a haven for his fortune in manufacturing. Having developed the country's first working power loom, Lowell, with fellow Bostonians Patrick Tracy Jackson and Nathan Appleton, established the Boston Manufacturing Company along the Charles River in Waltham in 1814. Read more

  • Lowell National Historical Park

    Chapter 9: Lowell, Story of an Industrial City: Lowell Machine Shop

    Lowell National Historical Park

    Lowell's machine shop complex was second in importance only to the textile mills among the city's industries. Incorporated as an independent company in 1845, the Lowell Machine Shop had its origins as the machine shop of the Boston Manufacturing Company in Waltham from 1814 to 1824. The Merrimack Company in Lowell then housed the machine shop, which was taken over by the Proprietors of Locks and Canals in 1825. Read more

  • Lowell National Historical Park

    Chapter 10: Lowell, Story of an Industrial City: Lowell's Canal System

    Development of the canal system in Lowell, MA. HAER, Library of Congress, Public Domain.

    The Lowell Canal system evolved steadily from 1821, when the Boston Associates purchased the old Pawtucket transportation canal in East Chelmsford (which later became Lowell). They initially used the Pawtucket as a feeder canal to channel water into new power canals. Just above Swamp Locks, the Merrimack, Western, and Hamilton canals branched off, taking water to the Merrimack, Lowell, Tremont, Suffolk, Lawrence, Hamilton, and Appleton mills. Read more

  • Lowell National Historical Park

    Chapter 11: Lowell, Story of an Industrial City: Water Power

    Transmitting water power

    In colonial America, waterwheels commonly provided power for sawing timber, fulling cloth, grinding grains, and making iron products. Until the second half of the 19th century, water power was the major mechanical power source in the United States. Read more

  • Lowell National Historical Park

    Chapter 12: Lowell, Story of an Industrial City: Mill Power Drives

    Belt-powered loom. NPS.

    Once a wheel or turbine had harnessed the waters power, the mill engineer had to transfer the power throughout the mill to hundreds of machines. British and early American mills ran a vertical shaft off the main drive shaft, then transferred the power by gears to overhead shafts on each floor. Because it was difficult to get precisely machined gears, American mills were rough and noisy and had to be run at slow speeds. Read more

  • Lowell National Historical Park

    Chapter 13: Lowell, Story of an Industrial City: The Mill Girls

    Portuguese mill girls at Lowell. Collection of Library of Congress. Public Domain.

    As much as the massive brick mills along the Merrimack, "mill girls" were an innovation of the early industrial revolution in New England. Lowell's mill workforce in the antebellum decades consisted largely of young single women from the farming communities of northern New England. Most were between 15 and 25, signing on for short stints that rarely exceeded a year at a time. Read more

  • Lowell National Historical Park

    Chapter 14: Lowell, Story of an Industrial City: Boardinghouses

    Brick boardinghouses in Lowell. HABS, Library of Congress, Public domain

    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. Read more

  • Lowell National Historical Park

    Chapter 15: Lowell, Story of an Industrial City: Immigrant Communities

    Cover of the Lowell Handbook

    The failure of mill owners in early Lowell to accommodate the Irish in company housing set a precedent that significantly influenced community life in the city. Immigrant groups resided away from the mills in their own neighborhoods, where old-world cultures came to terms with the demands of American urban-industrial life. By the turn of the century, Lowell was a microcosm of the broader society an uneasy blend of many ethnic groups living in distinct neighborhoods. Read more

  • Lowell National Historical Park

    Chapter 16: Lowell, Story of an Industrial City: Working Conditions

    Militia point their bayonets at strikers in Lawrence, 1912. Public Domain.

    By 1900 competitive pressures and technological developments had dramatically changed the working conditions of Lowell millhands. In every department of the mills, fewer workers tended more machinery in 1900 than in 1840. Not only did Lowell operatives tend more machines, but the machinery operated at considerably greater speeds. Read more

  • Lowell National Historical Park

    Chapter 17: Lowell, Story of an Industrial City: Products of the Mills

    Sample of calico printed textile from 1878. Public Domain.

    Lowell's cotton textiles ranged from pattern weaves to printed cloths. The Merrimack Company specialized in calico prints and pioneered in the development of cloth printing technology. Skilled printers were recruited from England in the early years. The head printer hired by the company in 1825 commanded a salary higher than the treasurer's. Other companies specialized in coarse drillings, sheetings, twilled goods, and shirtings. Read more

  • Lowell National Historical Park

    Chapter 18: Lowell, Story of an Industrial City: Lowell's Other Industry

    Father John's Medicine. Photo by Joe Mabel CC by SA 3.0.

    Lowell was dominated by the textile mills in its early years. But throughout the 19th century other important industries grew up in the city. Foremost were textile machinery firms established to meet the demands of textile manufacturers throughout New England. The Lowell Machine Shop and the Kitson Machine Company were the largest of these companies, but there were many others. Read more

  • Lowell National Historical Park

    Chapter 19: Lowell, Story of an Industrial City: Decline and Recovery

    President Carter signs the creation of Lowell National Historical Park in 1978. NPS

    World War I gave a short-lived boost to Lowell's textile and munitions industries as both profited from large military contracts. As more jobs were created, few could see that the end of Lowell's prosperity was near, or that by 1930 the city's once vital economy would grind to a virtual halt. Read more

  • Lowell National Historical Park

    Chapter 20: Lowell, Story of an Industrial City: Rebirth of Lowell

    President Carter signs the creation of Lowell National Historical Park in 1978. NPS.

    By the 1960s Lowell’s glory days were far in the past. The city was hard pressed economically, and promising young people were leaving their hometown. Those who stayed were ambivalent about their history, recalling the hard conditions under which their parents had worked. With little sense of a worthwhile heritage, many were ready to erase the past and start over. Read more

  • Lowell National Historical Park

    Chapter 21: Lowell, Story of an Industrial City: Jack Kerouac

    In the late 1950s American readers heard an exuberant new voice. Jack Kerouac (1922-1969) wrote a spontaneous, sometimes raw prose that captured the immediacy of experience. Born of French-Canadian parents in the Centralville area of Lowell, Jean-Louis Kerouac grew up immersed in the city's ethnic, working-class culture. Read more