The Textile Revolution

Successful power looms were in operation in England by the early 1800s, but those made in America were inadequate. Boston import merchant, realized that for the United States to develop a practical , it would have to borrow British technology.

American Power Loom
During a visit to Great Britain in 1811, Francis Cabot Lowell spied on the new British industry. He was not able able to buy drawings or a model of a power loom, however, he memorized the workings of British power looms.

Upon his return, he recruited master mechanic Paul Moody to help him recreate and develop what he had seen. They succeeded in adapting the British design, and the machine shop established at the Waltham mills in 1814 by Lowell and Moody continued to make improvements in the loom. With the introduction of a dependable power loom, weaving could keep up with spinning, and the American textile industry was underway.

Paul Moody
Carding, drawing, and roving machines were also built and installed in the by Paul Moody’s expert hands. This was the first in the United States, and one of the first in the world, to combine under one roof all the operations necessary to convert raw fiber into cloth, and it proved a success.

Mill Power Drives
Once a wheel or turbine had harnessed the waters power, the mill engineer had to transfer the power throughout the mill to hundreds of machines. British and early American mills ran a vertical shaft off the main drive shaft, then transferred the power by gears to overhead shafts on each floor. Because it was difficult to get precisely machined gears, American mills were rough and noisy and had to be run at slow speeds. A few small mills used belting, but it wasn’t until Paul Moody used belting in the Appleton Mills in 1828 that it was seriously considered as an alternative to shafting. Leather belts transferred power directly to the horizontal shafts on each floor. Belts allowed faster speeds and were quieter and less jarring than shafting. Belting was also much lighter, easier to maintain, and more forgiving of imprecise mill construction. By mid-century, belting had become a distinguishing characteristic of American mills.

Textile Tariffs
After the war of 1812 had ended, Great Britain began heavily exporting textile goods into the United States. Beginning in 1816, the U.S. Congress starting laying duty tariffs of six and a quarter cents a yard on imported cottons; the rate was raised in 1824 and again in 1828. Francis Cabot Lowell was very influential in the decision to impose tariffs.

The Mills of Francis Cabot Lowell
Francis Cabot Lowell died in 1817, at the early age of forty-two, but his work did not die with him. Capitalized at $400,000, the Waltham mill dwarfed its competition. So great were the profits at Waltham that the Boston Associates {the group of Boston investors that joined with Lowell) soon looked for new sites, first at East Chelmsford (renamed Lowell), and then Chicopee, Manchester, and Lawrence. The “Waltham-Lowell system” succeeded beyond their expectations, giving the Boston Associates control of a fifth of America’s cotton production by 1850.

Boston Associates
The first American power loom was constructed in 1813 by a group of Boston merchants headed by Francis Cabot Lowell. Soon textile mills dotted the rivers of New England transforming the landscape, the economy, and the people. Their profits permitted this tight-knit group of families and investment partners: Appletons, Cabots, Lowells, Lawrences, Jacksons – to build an economic, social, and political empire.

The Boston Associates helped develop the Boston and Lowell Railroad and other railroad lines in New England. They owned controlling stock in a host of Boston financial institutions, allowing them to finance and insure ventures through their own companies. As their fortunes grew, the Boston Associates turned to philanthropy, establishing hospitals and schools, and to politics, playing a prominent role in the Whig Party in Massachusetts. Until the Civil War, the Boston Associates were New England’s dominant capitalists.

Charles Dickens visited Francis Cabot Lowell’s mill in the winter of 1842 and recorded his impressions of what he saw there in the fourth chapter of his “American Notes”.

Charles Dickens on Mill Life
Charles Dickens wrote that he went over several of the factories, “examined them in every part; and saw them in their ordinary working aspect, with no preparation of any kind, or departure from their ordinary every-day proceedings”; that the girls “were all well dressed: and that phrase necessarily includes extreme cleanliness. They had serviceable bonnets, good warm cloaks, and shawls. Moreover, there were places in the mill in which they could deposit these things without injury; and there were conveniences for washing. They were healthy in appearance, many of them remarkably so, and had the manners and deportment of young women; not of degraded brutes of burden.”

Charles Dickens continued: “The rooms in which they worked were as well ordered as themselves. In the windows of some there were green plants, which were trained to shade the glass; in all, there was as much fresh air, cleanliness, and comfort as the nature of the occupation would possibly admit of.” Again: “They reside in various boarding-houses near at hand. The owners of the mills are particularly careful to allow no persons to enter upon the possession of these houses, whose characters have not undergone the most searching and thorough enquiry.”

Finally, the author stated three facts which he thought would startle his English readers: “Firstly, there is a joint-stock piano in a great many of the boarding-houses. Secondly, nearly all these young ladies subscribe to circulating libraries. Thirdly, they have got up among themselves a periodical called ‘The Lowell Offering’ whereof I brought away from Lowell four hundred good solid pages, which I have read from beginning to end.” And: “Of the merits of the ‘Lowell Offering’ as a literary production, I will only observe, putting entirely out of sight the fact of the articles having been written by these girls after the arduous labors of the day, that it will compare advantageously with a great many English Annuals.”

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