The history of Lowell, Massachusetts is a rich one with its roots entangled strongly in America’s Industrial Revolution. The city today is filled with attractive entertainment opportunities as well as fine dining. Back in the Nineteenth Century those opportunities might not have been so accessible for the city’s working population. During the nineteenth century, the city of Lowell was home to an immensely successful cotton textile known as the Boott Cotton Mill. This textile factory was one of the most prominent in its time and area as other textiles began to spring up after the Boott Mill in cities to the south closer to trade routes. Today, in the building that used to be the center of a city’s economy, is a museum dedicated to the history and story of the Boott Cotton Mills. One look into this aesthetically pleasing exhibit today can bring to light the tragedy of labor practices during the Industrial Revolution.
The entire first floor exhibit is quite literally a blast from the past. Seeing a gigantic room filled with 200 antique, blaring, dangerous machines blasting along at a volume that seems unbearable is not a common sight today, but to the workers in the mill it was the sight and sound of another day at the office. These mills were in the cotton textile business and this “Weave Room” is where the magic happened, where the final product was produced. With that many machines working at once, production of cotton cloth was very rapid and uniform because machines were less inclined to make mistakes than their human counterparts. This idea that machines were better workers than people paved the way for the mistreatment of workers for years and years to come.
A textile mill during the Industrial Revolution is the perfect place to investigate unfair labor practices, and thankfully the museum did not disappoint. The upstairs portion of the museum offered immense insight on the types of mistreatment that laborers endured during this time. In order to understand the mistreatment of laborers, one must understand the laborer. For the most part, workers in the mills at this time were women, they could be paid less and do the same work on the machines as men could and so naturally those in charge of the mills looked to women as their main source of labor. That is not to say that men were absent from work in the textiles, rather they held the position of manager or supervisor on the floor. Even children could be found about the factory during working hours, while they did not have the same grueling jobs to do as adults (children would generally work 15 minutes out of the hour doing menial tasks such as replacing empty spools on machines), the hustle and bustle of the factory system was a dangerous place for a child. There are countless mentions of injury due to countless reasons scattered throughout the museum, needless to say textile work was not exactly safe. Children had to be careful moving about the machines as any of the large amount of small moving parts which comprised a machine could do terrible damage to them. As if the machines themselves were dangerous enough, the cotton actually gave off a very potent dust as it was being worked by the machines which, when inhaled in large concentrations can lead to respiratory problems and eventually death. While working in the textiles was a way to keep financial safety intact, it was detrimental to physical safety.
On top of the horrible conditions and danger of textile work during this time, was the uncertainty in pay that came with it. While work on the textiles was seen as a respectable way to make a living at this time, payment of workers was always a hot issue for those in charge of the mills and created yet another issue in textile work. Without set and strong unions as we see today, the textile worker of the time was at the mercy of the owner of the mill. Pay was based on how much the textiles were producing and the price of cotton cloth on the market compared to competitors from other mills. This practice led to fluctuations in wage often which often angered the workers. In time as the resentment of the management by the workers grew, the textile workers went on numerous strikes involving pay, working hours, and eventually conditions.
We have all heard the Industrial Revolution horror stories from nineteenth century of workers getting their hair stuck in a weaving machine, or a finger being cut off by the shuttle racing from side to side, but to actually step foot in a room where it happened really lends perspective to how amazingly lucky we are in today’s society. Vast reforms on labor and education have created the world we live in today and if it was not for the brave souls who toiled away in a life-threatening work environment, we may not have the advancement we have today in the realm of labor.
If this article piques your interest the website and address of the museum appear below:
Boott Cotton Mills Museum
115 John Street