Updated date:

Labour Organising in the Lowell Cotton Mills

I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

Lowell, Massachusetts was a planned industrial town on the Merrimack River. It was modelled after similar communities in Europe, which were touted as great successes. However, the success was limited to those that owned the factories, for the workers life was close to hellish.

A weaver amid the clatter of machinery and cotton dust that damaged the lungs.

A weaver amid the clatter of machinery and cotton dust that damaged the lungs.

Founding of Lowell

Home for centuries to the Pawtucket and Wamesit Indians, the land that was to become Lowell was situated where the Concord River joined the Merrimack. After defeat in a war English militias, the native people sold their land to settlers in 1686 and moved away.

At the start of the 19th century, a man named Moses Hale was using the power of the Merrimack River to operate a carding machine that disentangled and cleaned cotton fibres. This was followed by the opening, in 1814, of a cotton mill owned by Francis Cabot Lowell. Other mills were to follow and soon the town of Lowell became a major cotton processing community.

Francis Cabot Lowell.

Francis Cabot Lowell.

The Lowell System

Francis Lowell invented an industrial processing system. It was all built around the goal of increasing efficiency by bringing every stage of production under one roof. In his mill, cotton was spun and woven.

Before Lowell, the standard practice had been for factories to spin the cotton and farm it out to women operating hand looms in their own homes.

His biographer, Chaim M. Rosenberg, describes Lowell as being “wealthy from birth and sheltered from the roughness of life, [believing] that success comes to those who work hard and failure is a personal weakness.”

A poster recruiting mill girls.

A poster recruiting mill girls.

On the surface, the Lowell System looked benign in that it employed young women rather than children to run machinery. He offered his employees (they were universally known as mill girls) access to a good education and many were able to find better jobs in nursing and teaching. However, one mill girl said “After one has worked from ten to fourteen hours at manual labor, it is impossible to study History, Philosophy, or Science.”

The women were recruited from area farms and they lived in company boarding houses under the watchful eye of chaperones. They had to follow a strict code of morality laid down by Lowell. Attendance at religious services was mandatory.

Lowell hired women because he could pay them less than men, and they had to work 80 hours a week. Working for Lowell was not quite as beneficent as it sounded, but there was worse to come; far worse.

Harsh Working Conditions

Lowell died in 1817 and a different style of mill management took hold. Rebecca Brooks, writing for The History of Massachusetts quotes one manager as saying, “I regard my work people just as I regard my machinery. So long as they can do my work for what I choose to pay them I keep them, getting out of them all I can.”

More mills were being built, cotton production went up, the market became flooded with cotton cloth, so its price went down. It couldn’t be expected that the owners or shareholders should take a hit; that’s not how capitalism works.

The workers were told they had to accept longer hours and lower wages. But, that was too much for some of the mill girls.

Spun cotton at the Boott Cotton Mill, Lowell.

Spun cotton at the Boott Cotton Mill, Lowell.

Cotton Mill Labour Unrest

Harriet Hanson Robinson was a mill girl in Lowell who later wrote about a strike in which she took part in October 1836. The mills shut down and “as many as twelve or fifteen hundred girls turned out, and walked in procession through the streets. They had neither flags nor music, but sang songs, a favorite (but rather inappropriate) one being a parody on “I won’t be a nun.”

"Oh! isn’t it a pity, such a pretty girl as I-

Should be sent to the factory to pine away and die?

Oh ! I cannot be a slave,

I will not be a slave,

For I’m so fond of liberty

That I cannot be a slave.”

The corporations refused to budge on wages and working conditions and the mill girls were forced to submit to the employers’ demands. But, the resentment did not go away.

Organizing Labour

In the 1840s, the mill girls turned to political action and set up the Lowell Female Labor Reform Association. They started campaigning for legislation to be passed limiting the work day to 10 hours.

The American Federation of Labour (AFL-CIO) notes that “They organized chapters in other mill towns in Massachusetts and New Hampshire. They published ‘Factory Tracts’ to expose the wretched conditions in the mills. They testified before a state legislative committee.”

But, again they were blocked by the employers and their legislative supporters. The 10-hour work day law was passed by it wasn’t enforceable. Here’s how the AFL-CIO describes the result: “So what did the Lowell mill girls really win? In the short term, not much.”

However, the U.S. union umbrella group looks on the bright side by saying the Lowell mill girls showed how collective action can achieve positive results. Other union organizers followed the Lowell example and eventually corporations were forced to deal more fairly with their employees.

But, in Lowell, as elsewhere, it was a long time coming. The textile trade in Lowell went into decline and mill owners fell back on the tactic of cutting wages and increasing workloads.

Victory for the Lowell Workers

During the 1920s and ‘30s Yvonne Hoar worked at the Merrimack Mill in Lowell. She recalled what it was like to be employed in the weaving room.

“It was the noisiest room you could ever be in. There’s machines going and shuttles going back and forth, and sometimes they’d fly off and they were pointed things and if they ever hit you, boy, you’d know it . . . The whole place vibrates. When I come out of there at night I was shaking . . . then they put me up in the finishing room . . . They were doubling up all the machines so it made that much more work . . . There we got 13 dollars a week . . . Wouldn’t do you any good to complain . . they were so petrified for their jobs in them days, it was pitiful.”

In 1938, a union was formed at the Merrimack Mill and the women working there went on strike and, as usual, the company refused to bargain. But, there was a war brewing and the government knew it was going to need massive quantities of fabric for uniforms, parachutes, and other items.

Washington leaned on the mill owners to be more flexible. After seven weeks, the workers returned with concessions on wages and working conditions.

The AFL-CIO sums up by saying “Today, millions of women in unions who teach our kids, fight our fires, build our homes, and nurse us back to health owe a debt to the Lowell mill girls. They taught America a powerful lesson about ordinary women doing extraordinary things.”

A weaving room in Lowell.

A weaving room in Lowell.

Bonus Factoids

  • Some of the coarse fabric produced in Lowell returned to the cotton-growing regions in the South where it was used to clothe the slaves who worked the cotton plantations. Among the slaves, the rough material was known as “Lowell,” as it completed the circle of exploitation.
  • In the first half of the 19th century, Lowell was the biggest manufacturing centre in America, with more cotton spindles in 1860 than the other 11 states of the union combined.
  • During the 1920s, businesses began moving their cotton production to the South where labour could be had more cheaply. The Great Depression dealt another crushing blow and the last mills closed in the 1950s.
  • The Boott Cotton Mill Museum in Lowell is open to the public daily.

Sources

  • “Timeline.” Lowell Historical Society, undated.
  • “What Was the Lowell System?” Rebecca Beatrice Brooks, historyofmassachusetts.org, January 25, 2017.
  • “Loom and Spindle or Life Among the Early Mill Girls.” Harriet Hanson Robinson, T. Y. Crowell, 1898.
  • “Lowell Mill Women Create the First Union of Working Women.” AFL-CIO,
  • “Decline and Recovery.” National Park Service, February 26, 2015.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Rupert Taylor

Comments

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on February 27, 2021:

Thanks for sharing this piece of history with us. We have come a long way since those days, but we still can make improvements in the lives of everyday workers.

Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on February 27, 2021:

It's not fair that Lowell employed majority as girls in the factory. Did they man the machines? We're not told. And it seems a cheat at the pay level. That strike remind me of a saying in a part of my country that no matter how you pay me some wages, less or more, I'm still not your slave. Thanks Rupert for sharing another great story.

Ann Carr from SW England on February 27, 2021:

Happens the world over it seems! Great history, in an interesting format.

Ann

Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on February 26, 2021:

Damn right DW, but of course they'd be labelled Communists and mercilessly vilified by the right-wing politicians and media.

DW Davis from Eastern NC on February 26, 2021:

Thank you for an excellent post and history lesson. With corporate greed worse now than at any time since those pre-WWII days, labor needs a new group of Lowell Mill Girls to stand up to the corporate oligarchs who make 300 times a year what their average employee earns.

Related Articles