In the Midst of Factories

The Baltimore Sun

Jan 17, 1835

Jonathan Beckerman

Factories have moved from a small part of lives in the United States, to a huge part of our changing country. They are no longer interesting innovative ways of life, but a large part of our economy. As a nation, at first we were not all too accepting of this new, intruding system. However, it started to catch on and build enough momentum to force itself to the forefront of the American economy. We have now been forced to conform to these new ways of manufacturing or face the loss of our jobs.

One of the very first large scale factory owners was Francis Cabot Lowell. He was influenced heavily by the many factories in Manchester England, and he had a vision of  the United States following in England’s footsteps. Francis Cabot Lowell saw an opportunity to greatly prosper if he was to institute  the factory system in his work places. He was an entrepreneur with a vision, and we would do anything to complete his goal, despite many setbacks he faced.

A depiction of a typical power mill in the mid- 1830s

Lowell was moving into a country that had many things against his new idea. In the 1800’s there was a lot of people still working in the domestic system, the domestic system being a work style that had most workers working small jobs at home and reporting to a manager. Though Lowell was not the first person to bring the factory system, he was around the same time as he Waltham factors, but he did bring in whole new tactics that made his factories different. Originally Lowell tried to use young boys for his work force, but found them too unruly and hard to control. This meant he decided to switch to young women and girls instead (3). At the time having women in legitimate jobs was seen as immoral (1). So it was surprising that he decided to make his work force make his workforce primarily young farmers daughters. To make sure his establishments were seen as good places to send young girls, he made sure the workers followed strict rules, vigorous cleaning requirements, constant religious practice (in the form of attending church), and a good diet (1). All of these rules were applied to the town like communities the sprung up around the factories due to the long hours and rigorous routine. After he had established himself, the his factories became more and more popular. This propelled Francis Lowell and other entrepreneurs to great success, and led them to founding the Boston Associates, which was a group of wealthy merchants (2). The factory system became extremely popular and even brought attention for across oceans and borders.

A Lowell factory girl hard at work in a textile mill.

Notable people from across America and many other countries were intrigued by this new British-American work style and visited both countries. The most notable of which was recently, when the author Charles Dickens cam for a tour of North America. He was kind enough to speak with reports, such as myself, and let me read the notes he took on the duration of his trip, the “American Notes for General Circulation”. He visited Canada as well, but while in the United States he visited many companies, factories and even the president. Upon arriving he described to me his relative contentment with the amount of popularity he had, but quickly that changed. He sent a letter to his friend containing his complaints, he told me, “I can do nothing that I want to do, go nowhere where I want to go, and see nothing that I want to see. If I turn into the street, I am followed by a multitude (4)”. Despite his frustrations he contributed his trip and soon after arriving he visited one of the Lowell factories. He had seen the factories and the women working there and he was surprised with the standard and quality. In England the quality of living in factories in places like Manchester was terrible and it had ruined the whole city. He wrote in his notes about the style he saw, “I cannot recall or separate one young face that gave me a painful impression; not one young girl whom, assuming it to be matter of necessity that she should gain her daily bread by the labour of her hands, I would have removed from those works if I had had the power (5)”.  This was in the time when the Lowell factories were at their very best for workers and managers. Mr. Dickens spoke highly of the Lowell style of work and it was apparent from my encounters with him. However, though many saw the positives of this system, all good things must come to an end.

Photograph by Herbert Watkins of Charles Dickens.

Unfortunately for Mr. Lowell soon after his “perfect” system was designed its flaws became revealed and fail. Most of the women working in the factories were farm girls who were not used to the style of work. It was very boring and repetitive work and this coupled with the strict lifestyle, had girls leaving after short periods of time (1). Also at the time there was more and more competition in the textile industry ramping up, so the high wages and standard of living given to the girls was found to be unsustainable. This struggle became reality when in 1834 there was an economic downturn causing a 25% wage cut for all the employees at the plants (1). This then triggered a strike and the organizing of a union, “The Factory Girls Association”, in the same year. However, the union and the strike did not yield result for the workers (6). At this point it is clear that the Lowell factory system was failing, quite severely.  As Mr. Lowells empire of factories began to crumble, I asked him for his words on the matter, but he was emphatic that he would not talk to the press about the “perceived failings” of his “functional system”. However in recent months his factories have become all but obsolete in light of the refinement of our new cutting- edge  technology that of steam power. This surge of steam power through America coincides with the influx of immigrants coming over from Europe (1). This means cheaper workers and more efficient machinery that is now forcing owners of factories and plants to adapt or die.

I do believe that this is the end of the factory system as we know it, but not the end of factories. The momentum of our country is too great to be stopped and these new complications to our modern system will only add to its success in the long run.

  1. http://faculty.cbhs.org/clewis/lowell_system.htm

  2. http://www.itc.csmd.edu/fin/ronb/fldtrip/manufac.htm

  3. Brinkley, Alan. Unfinished Nation. 6th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2010. Print, ch. 10

  4. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/American_Notes

  5. http://www.learner.org/channel/workshops/primarysources/lowell/docs/dickens.html

  6. http://invention.smithsonian.org/centerpieces/whole_cloth/u2ei/u2materials/dublin.html

  7. Image 3: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2011/oct/02/charles-dickens-life-tomalin-review

  8. Image 2: http://www.clemson.edu/caah/history/FacultyPages/PamMack/lec122/amir.htm

  9. Image 1: http://www.trentonhistory.org/Documents/EagleFactory.html

Featured Image: http://syracusethenandnow.org/Architects/WWWard/WWWard.htm

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