Lowell National Historical Park
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. Visitors can see today the working components of this early manufacturing center---the dam and nearly six miles of canals that harnessed the energy of the Merrimack River; the mills where the cloth was produced; a boardinghouse representing the dozens of like buildings that housed the workers; the churches where they practiced their faiths; the ethnic neighborhoods. These are the roots of American industry and of American w
orking people. 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. Overall, they averaged about three years of employment before leaving the mills for marriage, migration to the west, other employment, or return to their hometowns.
Dissatisfaction with the work environment was a major reason for leaving the mills. In the 1830s and 40s women operatives protested against mill conditions. Their labor movement was not a narrow lobbying effort, but a broad reform campaign embracing a wide range of issues and underpinned by firm ideals. Writing in the Voice of Industry, Huldah J. Stone described the attitude of Lowell Female Labor Reform Association members toward reduction of the hours of labor: They do not regard this measure as an end, but only as one step toward the end to be attained. They deeply feel that their work will never be accomplished until slavery and oppression, mental, physical, and religious, shall have been done away with and Christianity in its original simplicity..shall be reestablished and practiced among men. In return for monthly cash wages, female workers in Lowell agreed to regulations that varied little from company to company: work for at least a year, live in a company boardinghouse, attend church. Many worked for a year and went back to the farm, some repeating this pattern two or three times.
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 buildings 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. In the early 1970s a few people with vision, political know-how, and business sense stepped forward with plans to revitalize Lowell. Educator Patrick J. Mogan insisted that any revitalization of the city should be based on its industrial and ethnic heritage. This was the soul of the city-and not incidentally, a key to its economic salvation. Through the efforts of Mogan and others, the city undertook its rehabilitation. The Human Services Corporation and other community organizations worked with the Lowell Plan, the Lowell Development and Finance Corporation, and business and banking groups in a partnership to guide the city's revival. After years of study and debate on Mogan's proposal to make Lowell a new kind of national park based on labor and industrial history, Congress established Lowell National Historical Park and the Lowell Historic Preservation Commission in 1978. Lowell has once again become a place that is visited by planners from other cities, and even from other countries, who want to follow Lowell's example of using public-private partnerships to bring new life to their communities.
For more information on Lowell National Historic Park & Tsongas Industrial Center visit their website.
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