Waltham-Lowell system was a labor and production model employed in
the United States, particularly in New England, during the early years
of the American textile industry in the early 19th century.
Made possible by inventions such as the spinning jenny, spinning mule,
and water frame around the time of the American Revolution, the
textile industry was among the earliest mechanized industries, and
models of production and labor sources were first explored here.
The system used domestic labor, often referred to as mill girls, who
came to the new textile centers from rural towns to earn more money
than they could at home, and to live a cultured life in "the city".
Their life was very regimented - they lived in company boardinghouses
and were held to strict hours and a moral code.
As competition grew in the domestic textile industry and wages
declined, strikes began to occur, and with the introduction of cheaper
imported foreign workers by mid-century, the system proved
unprofitable and collapsed.
Rhode Island System
2 Characteristics of the System
6 See also
9 External links
Rhode Island System
The precursor to the
Waltham-Lowell system was seen in Rhode Island,
where British immigrant
Samuel Slater set up his first spinning mills
in the 1790s.
Slater drew on his British village experience to create a factory
system called the "
Rhode Island System," based on the customary
patterns of family life in
New England villages. Children aged 7 to 12
were the first employees of the mill; Slater personally supervised
them closely. The first child workers were hired in 1790. It is highly
unlikely that Slater resorted to physical punishment, relying on a
system of fines. Slater first tried to staff his mill with women and
children from afar, but that fell through due to the close-knit
framework of the
New England family. He then brought in whole
families, creating entire towns. He provided company-owned housing
nearby, along with company stores; he sponsored a Sunday School where
college students taught the children reading and writing.
Characteristics of the System
Waltham-Lowell system pioneered the use of a vertically integrated
system. Here there was complete control over all aspects of
production. Spinning, weaving, dying, and cutting were now completed
in a single plant. This large amount of control made it so that no
other company could interfere with production. The Waltham mill also
pioneered the process of mass production. This greatly increased the
scale of manufacturing. Water powered line shafts and belts now
connected hundreds of power lines. The increase in manufacturing
occurred so rapidly that there was no localized labor supply in the
early 19th century that could have sufficed. Lowell solved this
problem by hiring young women.
After the successes of Samuel Slater, a group of investors now called
The Boston Associates
The Boston Associates and led by
Newburyport, Massachusetts merchant
Francis Cabot Lowell devised a new textile operation on the Charles
River in Waltham, Massachusetts, west of Boston. This new firm, the
first in the nation to place cotton-to-cloth production under one
roof, was incorporated as the
Boston Manufacturing Company in 1814.
The Boston Associates
The Boston Associates tried to create a controlled system of labor
unlike the harsh conditions they observed while in Lancashire,
England. The owners recruited young
New England farm girls from the
surrounding area to work the machines at Waltham. The mill girls lived
in company boarding houses and were subject to strict codes of conduct
and supervised by older women. They worked about 80 hours per week.
Six days per week, they woke to the factory bell at 4:40am and
reported to work at 5am and had a half-hour breakfast break at 7am
They worked until a lunch break of 30 to 45 minutes around noon. The
workers returned to their company houses at 7pm when the factory
closed. This system became known as the Waltham System.
One of the last remaining textile mill boarding houses in Lowell,
Massachusetts on right. Part of the Lowell National Historical Park
Tintype of two young women in Lowell, Massachusetts
Boston Manufacturing Company proved immensely profitable,
Charles River had very little potential as a power source. Francis
Cabot Lowell died prematurely in 1817, and soon his partners traveled
Boston to East Chelmsford, Massachusetts, where the large
Merrimack River could provide far more power. The first mills, the
Merrimack Manufacturing Company, were running by 1823. The
settlement was incorporated as the town of Lowell in 1826, and became
the city of Lowell ten years later. Boasting ten textile corporations,
all running on the Waltham System and each considerably larger than
Boston Manufacturing Company, Lowell became one of the largest
New England and the model, now known as the Lowell System,
was copied elsewhere in New England, often in other mill towns
developed by the
Boston Associates. Examples include Manchester, New
Hampshire; Lewiston, Maine; Lawrence, Massachusetts; and Holyoke,
Eventually, cheaper and less organized foreign labor replaced the mill
girls. Even by the time of the founding of Lawrence in 1845, there
were questions being raised about its viability. One of the leading
causes of this transition to foreign labor and the demise of the
system was the coming of the Civil War. Girls went to be nurses, back
to their farms, or into positions that men had left when they went to
the army. These girls were out of the mills for the duration of the
war and when the mills reopened after the war, the girls were gone
because they no longer needed the mills. They had rooted into their
new occupations or moved on in life to the point where the mill was no
longer suitable for them. The lack of mill girls created a movement
towards Irish immigrants.
The Irish community that was building in
Lowell, Massachusetts was not
exclusively female unlike the grouping of mill girls in the
dormitories. The proportion of male employment at the mill
increased which rapidly changed the demographics of the people that
work there. The Lowell plant became heavily dependent on the
foreign lower-class, especially the Irish immigrants that flocked to
Massachusetts. This reliance on foreign workers forced the mills to
become what they had been trying to avoid with the mill girls. Poverty
snuck up on them and they were forced to deal with slums and a poor
lower-class. These immigrants tended to have families and they did not
live in the dormitory style of the mill girls. While in many cases the
boardinghouses outlived the system, families of immigrant workers
typically lived in tenement neighborhoods, and off company property.
Mills and Factories in the Industrial United States
Lowell Mill Girls
Dublin, Thomas (1989). "Review:
Lowell, Massachusetts and the
Reinterpretation of American Industrial Capitalism". The Public
Historian. National Council on Public History. 11 (4): 159–64.
doi:10.2307/3378079. ISSN 1533-8576. JSTOR 3378079.
(Registration required (help)).
MacDonald, Allan (1937). "Lowell: A Commercial Utopia". The New
England Quarterly. 10 (1): 37–62. doi:10.2307/360145.
ISSN 0028-4866. JSTOR 360145. (Registration required
^ No. 384: Samuel Slater
^ a b Dublin 1989, p. 160
^ Walton 2010, p. 168
^ Vance 1966, p. 316
^ Alan Alelrod and Charles Phillips (2008). What Every American Should
Know About American History: 225 Events that Shaped the Nation. Avon,
MA: Adams Media; 3rd edition. p. 86.
^ http://www.historycooperative.org/journals/mhr/2/ford.html Peter A.
Ford - "Father of the whole enterprise" Charles S. Storrow and the
Making of Lawrence, Massachusetts, 1845–1860
^ a b MacDonald 1937, p. 61
^ a b Dublin 1975, p. 34
Fire map of the
Merrimack Manufacturing Company
Merrimack Manufacturing Company and Dutton and Worthen
Street boardinghouses, 1924
Boardinghouses and their demolition, 1960s