Francis Cabot Lowell invented the first factory system "where people and machines were all under one roof." A series of mills and factories were built along the Merrimack River by the Boston Manufacturing Company, an organization founded in years prior by the man for whom the resulting city was named. Construction began in 1821, and the mills were at their peak roughly twenty years later. For the first time in the United States these mills combined the textile processes of spinning and weaving under one roof, essentially eliminating the "putting-out system" in favor of mass production of high-quality cloth. The workforce at these factories was three-quarters women.
The Waltham-Lowell system, as it was called, was greatly impacted both by economic instability and by immigration. A minor depression in 1834 led to a sharp reduction in wages, which in turn produced organization of the female workers and two of the earliest examples of a successful strike. A feature of such organization was the magazines and newsletters put out by the girls, the most famous of which was the Lowell Offering. Then later, when the Panic of 1837 necessitated a true drop in wages, many Lowell girls were replaced by the lower paid Irish “biddies,” or “Bridges.” By 1850 the majority of workers at Lowell factories were poor immigrants. One result of this large scale laying-off was that now there were many adult, single women in society, who were used to earning their own money. It was only sensible that they seek other positions (teaching, etc.) in which to make money; and by doing so they further contributed to the birth of the working woman.
The Lowell experiment worked well at first. By the early 1830s, young unmarried women from rural New England comprised the majority of workers in Massachusetts textile mills. However, the factory owners soon became more interested in profit than in the welfare of their employees. In 1834 and 1836, they cut wages without reducing working hours.
The women responded by going out on strike and petitioning the Massachusetts state legislature to pass a law limiting the workday to 10 hours. Although this measure failed to pass, it convinced the owners that the female workers were too troublesome for their liking. Factory owners then turned to the impoverished and compliant Irish immigrants who were then pouring into Massachusetts.
This section is empty. You can help by adding to it. (November 2014)