the first mill in the united states -- 7/12/21

Today's selection -- from An Illustrated Business History of the United States by Richard Vague.

"Because it disrupted trade, the War of 1812 stimulated local manufacturing as Americans came to realize the importance of supplying their own manufacturing needs. 

"Before that war, American manufacturing had also grown as it supplied combatants in the Napoleonic Wars. The end of all those wars by 1815 created severe hits to textile mills in New England, including the Slater Mill, because of reduced demand from the military. To add to U.S. textile manufacturers’ woes, postwar England intended to regain its business dominance by flooding the American market with its own cotton products and cheap textiles from India. 

"In this context Massachusetts businessman Francis Cabot Lowell, a former trader, founded the Boston Manufacturing Company in 1813. 

"Lowell’s major contribution to the U.S. textile industry was the power loom, which mechanized the weaving process and revolutionized American manufacturing. Textile mills in New England were already carding and spinning raw cotton into thread but outsourced the weaving to laborers who worked at home, by hand, on manual looms. 

"Britain had pioneered automated steam- and water-powered textile technology and used it to dominate global trade. It fiercely guarded the secrets of that technology. Lowell had eagerly studied this technology -- especially the Cartwright loom -- during a two-year tour of England and Scotland that began in 1810. He would disguise himself as a farmer or peasant to sneak inside the factories and memorize the details of the loom and other textile manufacturing secrets. When the start of the War of 1812 hastened his return to the United States, British agents who suspected that he was hiding plans and drawings of English technology stopped and searched him in Nova Scotia. Finding none, they released him. 

"Lowell also took notice of the success of mechanized production at the Slater Mill and other manufacturing innovations in New England. Backed by financing from Nathan Appleton, Israel Thorndike (who became wealthy in privateering and the China trade), and others, he adapted all that he had learned to establish the Boston Manufacturing Company in Waltham, Massachusetts. 

"By 1814, the company’s first mill was in operation, powered by the Charles River. For the first time in the United States, the mill consolidated all the necessary steps to produce finished cloth under one factory roof. Lowell employed the talented Paul Moody to help design and build his new machines, and even though much had been copied from British technology, in 1815, he and Moody were granted U.S. patents for their loom in 1815. 

Tintype, five women, University of Massachusetts Lowell

"Lowell determined that this larger scale of industry needed a new financial structure as well, and so he formed a 'joint-stock arrangement' instead of a more conventional partnership or individual ownership. This arrangement ensured that the company could continue functioning if a shareholder died or sold his stake. Lowell also pioneered the use of a board of directors to guide strategic decision making. 

"Lowell employed women between the ages of sixteen and twenty-four, unmarried and superfluous to New England’s farm labor. Having witnessed harsh labor practices in England, Lowell intended to forge harmonious relations between employees and supervisors and protect his workers from the drudgery experienced by others in manufacturing. But he could not maintain the balance between productivity and rapport, and his staff found it painfully taxing to work twelve to fourteen hours a day in hot, dangerous conditions -- their lives regimented by a ringing bell that many viewed as oppressive. So the Boston Manufacturing Company would soon opt to recruit a labor force from a pool of poorer immigrants, and by the 1830s the company was producing cloth more cheaply than English manufacturers. 

"As British manufacturers assaulted the American market, Lowell also advocated for the Tariff of 1816. Whereas earlier tariffs had been primarily for revenue to fund the government, the purpose of this tariff was to buffer American manufacturers from overseas competition. 

"Many of the women and young girls who worked in the booming textile factories of Lowell, Massachusetts, came to be known as the 'Lowell Girls,' or 'female operatives.' They usually ranged in age from fifteen to thirty, and many were the daughters of farmers who were seeking economic independence or looking to bring in extra income for their families. The first workers in the mills were from the region, but as cotton mill work increased, many immigrant women joined the workforce. These years saw some friction: labor protests erupted in which these young women asserted that they were the 'daughters of freemen' with rights that could not be 'trampled upon with impunity.' Although the work was arduous and the hours long, women remained the backbone of this workforce throughout much of the nineteenth century. In 1844 the Lowell Girls formed one of the first female labor organizations in the country, the Lowell Female Labor Reform Association, whose president, Sarah Bagley, was a vocal proponent of workers’ and women’s rights."



Richard Vague


An Illustrated Business History of the United States


University of Pennsylvania Press


Copyright 2021, University of Pennsylvania Press


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