Banner image courtesy Gore Place; Credit: David Bohl
Waltham’s Manufacturing Revolution:
Francis Cabot Lowell and
the Boston Manufacturing Company (1813-1820s)
By Amy Green, Ph.D.
Francis Cabot Lowell (1775-1817), son of John Lowell (distinguished jurist and delegate to the Continental Congress) inherited the mantle of the Lowell-Cabot dynasty, like so many of his siblings and cousins. Born into Boston Brahmin’s elite, he was destined for Phillips Academy and Harvard University. Yet, Francis Cabot Lowell was rather ordinary amongst his peers, a successful overseas merchant, trading in silks and teas from China and hand-made textiles from India (1798-1808). Not until he envisioned and then built a factory that mass produced textiles for a home market did he distinguish himself, and hence make famous the name, Francis Cabot Lowell.
Several factors led him to leave India Wharf, a joint endeavor, built to house his increasingly lucrative trade imports with Asia. Jefferson’s embargo of 1807 hampered trade with Europe and Asia. While hoping to coerce England and France to respect the neutrality of the United States during the Napoleonic wars, his embargo was widely unpopular, bringing trade to a halt. Lowell also saw a future for manufacture in America; only domestic production would truly release America from Britain’s control. The British Empire hoped to suppress our economic growth by continuing to control the production and supply of finished goods.
Lastly, Lowell witnessed the success of early manufacture in New England, especially the mechanized production of cotton thread at the Slater Mill in Rhode Island. Established in 1793, Slater built the first successful cotton-spinning factory in the United States, an important part of the industrial revolution. The Industrial Revolution did not start in any one place or on any specific date; it was an uneven process and the Slater mills were part of the journey towards manufacturing giants like Carnegie and his steel empire in the 1890s.
What makes Francis Cabot Lowell and his Boston Manufacturing Company unique? The invention of the modern factory system. This was his conception alone, something that departed from how business was done here and in Europe. Perhaps because he was an outsider when it came to manufacture and mechanics, he saw beyond the mill as the mainstay of production (mills produced only one part of the production process) and could envision something more multifaceted. It took imagination to think in terms of a fully integrated and centralized process for the making of textiles. While not the start of the Industrial Revolution, Lowell’s Boston Manufacturing Company in Waltham moved the Industrial Revolution significantly forward, as this paper will discuss. To examine this process, I will look at many factors, from modern financing to water power, from protective tariffs to the labor force, that facilitated the growth of the factory system.
Francis Cabot Lowell and his fellow investors of the Boston Associates founded the Boston Manufacturing Company (BMC) in 1813. By 1814, the first factory was operational. He revolutionized how corporations might be financed to fund this endeavor. Individual or partnership ownership, as was the method in the United States and England, was inadequate to the needs of large-scale industry. Lowell “proposed a joint-stock arrangement, and if “a shareholder died or sold his stake, the company could continue to function.” And, when shareholders reaped dividends, they might be motivated to invest even more money in the company. The use of publicly traded stocks (individuals could own a share of the company and their investments would pay of dividends, hopefully) by the BMC contributed to the evolution of modern financing and modern corporations. In accordance with Massachusetts corporate law of the early 19th century, the state allowed for free incorporation with limited liability. In a partnership, individuals reaped the success but also suffered the downfalls. By the 1830s, stockholders didn't bear any liability for the losses of the corporation. While the state dictated certain corporate by-laws, including the choosing of a clerk and treasurer, the BMC had quite a bit of latitude in establishing its own by-laws.
These by-laws (which consisted of eleven articles) set the standard for how modern corporations were run. Smaller outfits, like the Slater Mills, might run with one superintendent overseeing production and a few men dealing with finances and marketing. This lateral organization didn't allow for managerial oversight. The BMC ushered in a new group of business leaders who understood the need for systematically organized management, which included, among other things, a Board of Directors responsible for strategic decision making. The power loom often stands as Lowell's ground-breaking achievement. However, his leadership of a Board of Directors and entrepreneurial innovations in corporate structure and governance might be his greatest contribution to the success of the mills and the growth of modern American business.
The factory itself was powered by the waters of the Charles River. Lowell took advantage of a dam already in place by buying the rights to a local sawmill. A large overshot water wheel, placed in the factory’s basement, powered by the waters of the Charles River and its ten-foot drop over the [now Moody Street] dam, converted the falling water to useable power. The water wheel powered four floors of cotton-producing machinery, including carding, spinning, and weaving (the attic stored finished bolts of cloth), again making the site the first fully integrated factory in both America and Europe. It took in raw goods at one end, and delivered a finished product at the other, centralizing and mechanizing all processes of production. This initiated the shift from farm to factory and set the stage for later industrialization.
And, it furthered the economic revolution, following the fight for political independence (1765-1783), by creating finished goods for a domestic market. That is, Lowell, along with his associates, believed that by making finished goods in the United States for the home market, they would enable a further break from economic dependence on England. Before the American Revolution, the English monarchy tightly controlled the production of finished goods in the Colonies. England regarded the colonies as primarily a source of raw materials, like cotton and lumber. The colonies depended on Britain for most finished products and other goods, and cotton textiles were a particularly expensive imported luxury. In fact, American farmers had to grow flax seed to produce affordable clothing for their family.
The key to the American textile revolution in the early 1800's was the mechanization of the power loom. While there were numerous textile mills throughout New England for carding and spinning, thus making raw cotton into thread, this thread had to be outsourced to hand weavers working at home on manual looms. The English government closely guarded its textile technology to maintain valuable overseas markets for its products. Until Lowell, there were no designs for a mechanically powered loom in the United States, and this crippled the development of textile factories here.
So how did Francis Cabot Lowell accomplish this feat of bringing the modern production methods to America? In 1810, his family went on a two-year tour of England and Scotland. Lowell was not your typical tourist. He focused not on the natural landscape and architectural marvels, but on the factories in the Lancashire area of England. He was especially interested the Cartwright loom, acknowledged as the first successful automatic or power loom. (Craftsmen did not welcome this innovation. Cartwright had to close down his factory in England because men known as Luddites used hammers and other tools to destroy the machinery, refusing to succumb to labor exploitation and hoping to preserve the old methods of craft production.) Lowell was determined to avoid these problems inherent in the worker-management relationship in his own factories.
As previously stated, England protected its secrets and would not release any information about its new technologies. As an international merchant, Lowell and members of the English Aristocracy knew each other well. While, his visits to England’s factories were no secret, he had to be stealthy to conduct what amounted to industrial espionage. Sometimes disguised as a farmer/peasant, he went into the factories and committed to memory every single detail of the power loom and other textile manufacturing machines. When he returned to America during the War of 1812, suspicious British agents stopped his family in Nova Scotia. They went through his baggage several times thinking he may have hidden plans and drawings of English machinery. He had not. Lowell had memorized everything!
Lowell’s mathematical mind made it possible for him to translate his thoughts into a working model. But he did need help making the actual power loom, and received critical assistance from engineer and technical wizard Paul Moody (from Newburyport). Moody took Lowell's model and rough drawings and after a year he built a working power loom that improved on English designs. These spectacular events, propelled by two brilliant individuals, changed the world in a way not so dissimilar from our first ventures to the moon. If Paul Moody was a genius, Lowell was a visionary who saw no limits to his ventures with the first factory system where all production, including labor itself, was performed under one roof.
To ensure the success of his factory, Lowell pushed for the protective tariff of 1816, and was instrumental in its passage. This was a critical time for United States home manufacture. With the defeat of Napoleon, the English wanted to reassert its economic dominance in America and flooded our markets with cheaper textiles from India, and more expensive cotton products from England. The Peace of 1815 was ruinous for textile mills in New England, such as the Slater mills. Lowell and Nathan Appleton toured the nearly defunct mills in the area, and aggressively pushed for the tariff of 1816.
Lowell had the support of the South, where industrialization was in its infancy and needed as much protection as possible. Also, Lowell could promise markets for Southern cotton as well. New England coastal areas that relied heavily on international trade were most opposed to the tariff. Lowell and his political supporters pushed for a reasonable 25% tariff on imported goods. Passed by Congress, this tariff was the first to concern itself with protecting American manufacture; whereas, earlier tariffs raised revenue to directly support the federal government.
Lowell relied on New England farm girls (between 16-24 years of age) for his labor force — young, unmarried, dispensable — not needed as farm labor. These women came from as far away as New Hampshire, Vermont, and outlying parts of Massachusetts. For many girls, the few years working at the mill, while difficult, were a taste of independence and freedom (before getting married) that they otherwise would never have had.
While mill girls often sent wages back home to put a brother through college, one cannot underestimate the impact of working away from home, and earning cash wages. Lowell paid a relatively high wage to induce girls to sign a one-year contract. Some stayed on for four years and some even achieved economic independence, the ability to buy fine clothes or put down money for a small house.
Having witnessed the degradation of labor in England, Francis Cabot Lowell wanted to establish a paternalistic system whereby laborers would not suffer under capitalism but receive a modicum of protection. His recruiters assured parents, for example, that their girls would live under the watchful eye of matrons preserving the decorum and moral uprightness of these young women. In addition, they were given access to libraries, schooling, and on-site dormitories. The curfew was 10 pm. And they forbade men access to the dorms. By modern standards, factory regimes exploited the female workers; but during the early nineteenth century, many girls felt fortunate to earn wages and live independently.
The “harmony” between labor and management and the maintaining of a “respectable” work force did not last long. Lowell, like his contemporaries began to place profits before people. First, during a downturn in the economy, he cut wages by 15%, without notice. Then came the speedups, making the machines run faster, creating more difficult and dangerous working conditions. But the women were not to be deterred. They broke free from the sphere of respectability, and took to the streets and the soapbox, boldly speaking out against these new practices (1821), but without enough worker solidarity to maintain a strike.
Women who threw off the cloak of virtue for a stab at social justice enraged the public, mainly men. Other male workers sympathized, however. Isaac Markham commented on this wage strike in a letter to his brother. He complained that the management had “all the lordly and tyrannical feelings that were ever felt by the greatest despots of the world …” He continued to explain that men’s wages were cut without notice, and that the “same trick [was] played off the girls but they as one revolted and the works stopped 2 days in consequence.”
Hours and the Clock
Women also found arduous the long workday, 12 hours in the winter, and often 14 during spring and summer, as more light filtered into the factory. Women worked in hot, dangerous conditions from 5 am to 7 PM, over 70 hours a week. The bell regulated workers’ lives. If a minute late to the factory, they would be locked out and lose their wages for the day, or perhaps be fired. The company bell rang at 4:30 am, followed by second bell twenty minutes later—work started at 5:00. After two hours, workers rushed back to their boarding house for breakfast, work started again at 7:35. At noon, they had a 45-minute break for lunch, and then they were back on the job until 7 pm. After work, the girls enjoyed a communal supper, and then had time for reading, letter writing, some shopping, and doing wash. At 10 p.m. house mothers imposed curfew.
The bell that disciplined the worker came from Paul Revere’s North End foundry in 1814; after it cracked, his once-apprentice, Henry Hooper, replaced it in 1858. In American society, the bell signified the shift from the natural rhythms of sun-time to the regularity of clock time. In 1813, the nation was predominantly agrarian; goods were primarily produced in small shops, but the ringing of the bell signaled a new era-integration of processes of production under one roof and the rise of a modern labor force. The labor force viewed the bell as tyrannical, as it tightly regulated their movements throughout the day. They decried the insistence of the bell as it took over their lives, evidenced by the two poems below:
The factory bell begins to ring,
And we must all obey,
And to our old employment go,
Or else be turned away.
Hark! Don’t you hear the fact’ry bell
Of wit and learning ‘tis the knell,
It rings them out it rings then in,
Where girls they weave, and men they spin.
The significance of Lowell’s factory cannot be overstated. Taken as a whole, the building, the new technologies such as the loom, waterpower, the on-site labor force, payment in cash wages, and publicly traded stock was the wave of the future. Even Thomas Jefferson, who envisioned America as a bountiful agrarian nation not marred by mechanization, now saw the need for manufacturing to make the country competitive with other world powers. Lowell’s factory was one of the great technological innovations spurring on modernization, and anticipating the world we live in now. And, these changes, whether they stemmed from the power loom or the clock that ticked in rhythm with it, spurred on social movements—the mill girls’ agitation for change included both a fight for justice on the factory floor, and challenges to gender norms.
Perhaps most impressive was the impact that the Boston Manufacturing Company had on the economic fate of this country. In fact, by the late 1830s, the United States produced cloth more cheaply than England. In the History of Cotton Manufacture in Great Britain (1835), Sir Edward Baines declared that “’England had just lost her American Colonies.’” Without Lowell’s efforts in large-scale cotton manufacturing, economic independence from Britain would almost certainly have taken longer, with America suffering at the hands of this still powerful monarchy.
Lowell's factory in Waltham on the Charles River was so successful that its waterpower needs soon outstripped the energy available from the water falling over the Moody Street Dam. By the early 1820's, the BMC had shifted its major operations to the Merrimack River watershed in East Chelmsford. North of Boston, East Chelmsford was renamed Lowell in honor of Francis Cabot Lowell, not long after his premature death at age 42 (1817). The city of Lowell became the first planned factory town in the country. Based on what was known as the Waltham-Lowell system, by the 1840s the town boasted dozens of textile factories.
To quote his contemporary Nathan Appleton: Lowell is “unquestionably entitled to the credit of being the first person who arranged all the processes of the conversion of cotton into cloth, within the walls of same building." As stated in the History of the Manufactures in the United States, 1607-1860 (1916), “’for the first time in America manufacturing in a factory was fully separated from industry done in the household.”’ Without his breakthrough with the mechanized loom, Lowell’s dream of a textile factory would have remained just that.
 National Park Service, The Waltham-Lowell System, https://www.nps.gov/lowe/learn/photosmultimedia/waltham_lowell.htm
 Slater Mill, http://www.slatermill.org/home2/history/thread.
 Chaim M. Rosenberg, The Life and Times of Francis Cabot Lowell, 1775-1817 (New York: Lexington Books, 2011), 236.
 Rosenberg, The Life and Times, 236-237.
 Rosenberg, The Life and Times, 308.
 Rosenberg, The Life and Times, 308.
 Rosenberg, The Life and Times, 250.
 Rosenberg, The Life and Times, 309.
 Rosenberg, The Life and Times, 1
 Rosenberg, The Life and Times, 257.