Francis Cabot Lowell and the Beginnings of American Industrial Manufacturing
The Industrialization of manufacturing in England
During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, artisans—skilled, experienced craft workers—produced goods by hand. The production of shoes supplies a good example. In colonial times, people bought their shoes from master shoemakers, who achieved their status by living and working as apprentices under the rule of an older master artisan. An apprenticeship would be followed by work as a journeyman (a skilled worker without his own shop). After sufficient time as a journeyman, a shoemaker could at last set up his own shop as a master artisan. People came to the shop, usually attached to the back of the master artisan’s house, and there the shoemaker measured their feet to cut and stitch together an individualized product for each customer.
Thanks in part to its damp climate, ideal for raising sheep, Britain had a long history of producing textiles like wool, linen, and cotton. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, however, the British textile business was a true “cottage industry,” with the work performed in small workshops or even homes by individual spinners, weavers, and dyers. Starting in the mid-18th century, innovations like the spinning jenny (a wooden frame with multiple spindles), the flying shuttle, the water frame and the power loom made weaving cloth and spinning yarn and thread much easier. Producing cloth became faster and needed less time and far less human labor.
More efficient, mechanized production meant Britain’s new textile factories could meet the growing demand for cloth both at home and abroad, where the British Empire’s many overseas colonies supplied a captive market for its goods. In the late 1790s and early 1800s, Great Britain boasted the most advanced textile mills and machines in the world, and the United States continued to rely on Great Britain for finished goods. Great Britain wanted to keep its economic advantage over its former colonies in North America, so, to prevent the knowledge of advanced manufacturing from leaving the Empire, the British banned the emigration of mechanics, skilled workers who knew how to build and repair the latest textile machines.
The Beginnings of Industrialization in the United States
The beginning of industrialization in the United States is usually pegged to the opening of a textile mill in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, in 1793 by the recent English immigrant Samuel Slater. Slater had worked at one of the mills opened by Richard Arkwright (inventor of the water frame) and despite laws prohibiting the emigration of textile workers, he brought Arkwright’s designs across the Atlantic.
Slater understood the workings of the latest water-powered textile mills, and he convinced several American merchants, including the wealthy Providence industrialist Moses Brown, to finance and build a water-powered cotton mill based on the British models. Slater’s knowledge of both technology and mill organization made him the founder of the first financially successful cotton mill in the United States. The success of Slater and his partners Smith Brown and William Almy, relatives of Moses Brown, inspired others to build more mills in Rhode Island and Massachusetts. By 1807, thirteen more mills had been built.
Slater’s mills and those built in imitation of his were small, employing only seventy people on average. Workers were organized the way that they had been in English factories, in family units. Under the “Rhode Island system,” families were hired. The father was placed in charge of the family unit, and he directed the labor of his wife and children. Instead of being paid in cash, the father was given “credit” equal to the extent of his family’s labor that could be redeemed in the form of rent (of company-owned housing) or goods from the company-owned store.
President Jefferson’s embargo on British manufactured goods from late 1807 to early 1809 spurred more New England merchants to invest in industrial enterprises. By 1812, seventy-eight new textile mills had been built in rural New England towns. More than half turned out woolen goods, while the rest produced cotton cloth.
The Embargo of 1807 and the War of 1812 played a decisive role in encouraging industrial development in the United States. Jefferson’s embargo prevented American merchants from engaging in the Atlantic trade, severely cutting into their profits. The War of 1812 further compounded the financial woes of American merchants. The acute economic problems led some New England merchants, including Francis Cabot Lowell, to cast their gaze on manufacturing. Lowell had toured English mills during a stay in Great Britain. He returned to Massachusetts having memorized the designs for the advanced textile machines he had seen on his travels, especially the power loom, which replaced individual hand weavers. Lowell convinced other wealthy merchant families to invest in the creation of new mill towns. In 1813, Lowell and these wealthy investors, known as the Boston Associates, created the Boston Manufacturing Company. Together they raised $400,000 and, in 1814, set up a textile mill in Waltham with a second one in the same town following shortly thereafter.
Francis Cabot Lowell
Francis Cabot Lowell was born in the city of Newburyport, Massachusetts on April 17, 1775. Lowell’s father, John, was a successful lawyer, politician, and colleague of John Adams, who named him chief judge of the First Circuit Court of Appeals. His mother, Susannah, was the daughter of Salem shipping magnate Francis Cabot. Both families shaped the boy’s name and career. In 1786, Lowell graduated from Phillips Academy and entered Harvard at 14, he distinguished himself in mathematics, but as a senior lit a bonfire in the Yard, an uncharacteristic episode of mischief. For this he was “rusticated” for several months and tutored in math and morals before being allowed to return to Cambridge. He graduated from Harvard College in 1793 with highest honors.
After graduation, he showed a “bland unconcern” with politics. Instead, he pursued a career as an international merchant. Signing on as supercargo of an uncle’s ship, he quickly learned the trading business. In July 1795, Lowell set out on a merchant ship carrying cargo to various places including Basque Country in Spain and Bordeaux, France. He went to learn about shipping and being a merchant but used the trip to learn about France. He spent a year touring France, gripped in revolution. In July 1796, he returned to Boston and set up as a merchant on Long Wharf.
From 1798 to 1808 Lowell was engaged in overseas trade, importing silks and tea from China and hand-spun and hand-woven cotton textiles from India. In 1802, when his father died, Lowell used his inheritance to invest in eight merchant ships. Starting in 1802, in conjunction with others, Francis Cabot Lowell developed India Wharf and its warehouses on Boston Harbor, which became the center of the trade with Asia. Later, the same group of investors developed the Broad Street area for retail trade. To enlarge his fortune, Lowell bought a rum distillery, importing molasses from the Caribbean sugar-producing islands. Lowell spent months improving on the machinery of his rum distilling process.
By 1810 hostilities between France and Great Britain threatened his prosperity. With gunships patrolling the Atlantic, international shipping became an impossibly risky livelihood. The stresses took their toll. Lowell was described as a “high-strung, delicate [man], prone to overwork and periods of nervous exhaustion.” His remedy was to settle accounts and embark on a two-year trip to Britain, to regain his health and contemplate his prospects.
Carrying significant wealth in the form of Spanish doubloons, as well as letters of introduction from important friends such as former U.S. Secretary of State Timothy Pickering, Lowell enjoyed access to the highest levels of British society. These connections also gained him entry to the flourishing textile mills of Lancashire, where water-powered looms rolled out miles of cloth and created fabulous wealth for their owners. Lowell toured the factories and realized that his fortune and future lay with cotton manufacturing. After that, Lowell visited the mills “for the purpose of obtaining all possible information on the subject, with a view to introduction of the improved manufacture in the United States.”
One obstacle to his plan, however, was Britain’s tight control of its advanced textile industry. To protect trade secrets, the technologies were not for sale, and British textile workers were prohibited from leaving the country. The fact that Lowell was allowed through the factory gates is testimony to the caliber of his references and his standing as a trader, not yet a competing manufacturer. He secretly studied the water and steam powered spinning and weaving machines, memorizing all he could about how they functioned. When the War of 1812 began, Lowell left Britain to return to America. The boat, and all his personal belongings were searched by the authorities to ensure no technology was being smuggled out of England. Nothing was found, however, since while Lowell had memorized the workings of the textile machines, he had not written anything down.
Immediately upon his return to Boston, he set to work on a plan that many in the conservative Lowell clan considered “visionary and dangerous.” Nevertheless, he raised the unheard-of amount of $400,000 from family and friends, who became known as the Boston Associates, through the novel idea of selling shares in his enterprise, which became known as the Boston Manufacturing Company. He bought a dam and property on the Charles River in the country town of Waltham, ten miles from Boston, then built a four-story brick mill with a handsome cupola and Paul Revere bell.
Most importantly, he hired a skilled engineer, Paul Moody, who, with Lowell making the complex calculations, created the country’s earliest operable power loom and linked it to other previously mechanized weaving processes to create the first fully integrated mill in the world. Cotton entered as a bale and exited as a bolt, a revolutionary idea that made the “Waltham system of manufacture” emulated across the globe and the basis for modern industry. At Waltham, cotton was carded and drawn into coarse strands of cotton fibers called rovings. The rovings were then spun into yarn, and the yarn woven into cotton cloth.
Yarn no longer had to be put out to farm families for further processing. All the work was now performed at a central location—the factory. The work in Lowell’s mills was both mechanized and specialized. Specialization meant the work was broken down into specific tasks, and workers repeatedly did the one task assigned to them in during the day. The Boston Associates’ mills, which each employed hundreds of workers, were in company towns, where a single company owned the factories and worker housing. This gave the owners, and their agents, control over their workers.
By 1815, cloth from the factory sold as fast as the company could make it, fulfilling the high demand for American textiles after war stemmed the flow of imported goods. The operation soon returned 20 percent annual dividends to its lucky backers, who talked excitedly about creating great industrial cities throughout New England on the "Waltham model".
The most famous of these company towns was Lowell, Massachusetts. The new town was built on land the Boston Associates bought in 1821 from the village of East Chelmsford at the falls of the Merrimack River, north of Boston. The mill buildings themselves were constructed of red brick with large windows to let in light. Company-owned boarding houses to shelter employees were constructed near the mills. The mill owners planted flowers and trees to keep the appearance of a rural New England town and to forestall arguments made by many that factory work was unnatural and unwholesome.
In contrast to many smaller mills, the Boston Associates’ enterprises avoided the “Rhode Island system,” preferring individual workers to families. These employees were not difficult to find. The competition New England farmers faced from farmers now settling in the West, and the growing scarcity of land in population-dense New England, had important implications for farmers’ children. Realizing their chances of inheriting a large farm or receiving a large dowry were remote, these teenagers sought other employment opportunities, often at the urging of their parents. While young men could work at a variety of occupations, young women had more limited options. The textile mills supplied suitable employment for the daughters of Yankee farm families.
Needing to reassure anxious parents that their daughters’ virtue would be protected and hoping to avoid what they viewed as the problems of industrialization—filth and vice—the Boston Associates set up strict rules governing the lives of these young workers. The women lived in company-owned boarding houses to which they paid a part of their wages. They woke early at the sound of a bell and worked a twelve-hour day during which talking was forbidden. They could not swear or drink alcohol, and they had to attend church on Sunday. Overseers at the mills and boarding-house keepers kept a close eye on the young women’s behavior; workers who associated with people of questionable reputation or acted in ways that called their virtue into question lost their jobs and were evicted.
Unfortunately, Lowell was barely able to enjoy the fruit of his triumph. A frenetic pace coupled with his “delicate nature” proved a tragic combination. He died at 42, just three years after the birth of his industrial vision. Despite his frail constitution, Lowell had a combination of ability, ambition, wealth, connections, and risk-taking that would come to define later generations of American entrepreneurs. Lowell not only created products, but he also created a market where none existed. In doing this he created much more than a textile mill in Waltham, Massachusetts. He helped inaugurate a culture of innovation that has driven the American, and to a significant extent the world economy ever since.
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Guelzo, A. P. (2020, December 31). The Industrial Revolution: Its influence in America. Retrieved from Wondrium Daily: https://www.wondriumdaily.com/the-industrial-revolution-its-influence-in-america/
Mailloux, K. F. (1957). The Boston Manufacturing Company of Waltham, Massachusetts, 1813-1848 The First Modern Factory in America. Boston, MA: Boston University.
Nur, N. (2022, August 11). History of the American Textile Industry. Retrieved from Textile Focus: https://textilefocus.com/history-of-the-american-textile-industry/