Last breath, first pulse: an experiment in modernization, Lowell, Massachusetts, 1823 - 1857




Brennan, Robert Daniel

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On September 1, 1823, the Merrimack Manufacturing Company commenced operations, the first of many textile mills constructed and operated by the Boston Company (colloquially referred to as the Boston Associates). The burgeoning mill complex, the first large-scale industrial development in the United States was incorporated as the town of Lowell in 1826. While the Boston Associates realized monetary profit from the mills, the Associate’s primary motivation for building and operating the textile mills was a desire to perpetuate their vision of the Puritan’s Social Covenant. The Associates achieved their goal in the short term. However, over the long-term, the sheer scale and new management style of the Lowell mills catalyzed the modernization of New England and sublimated the very social and economic conventions the Social Covenant sought to reinforce. In the 19th century the Puritan Social Covenant, part of the American narrative from its earliest years, validated the virtues of community and industry. Already wealthy and spurning other potentially more lucrative investment opportunities Francis C. Lowell and other members of the Boston Associates used the textile mills to inculcate and strengthen the Social Covenant’s precepts among their mill operatives. In the 1840s, the Lowell mills, needing to fill empty mill positions, began to hire Irish immigrants. The introduction of the Irish to the mills immediately created an atmosphere of friction among the predominantly Yankee work force. The later introduction of French-Canadians to the Lowell mills only served to create additional tension. Mill owners found themselves refereeing interminable arguments regarding different and divergent interpretations of social values and personal responsibilities. In the late 1850s, mill owners and mill workers came to the same conclusion: social obligations mattered less than solid financial resources and a wide range of freedom. Mill owners jettisoned their self-imposed responsibilities; employees “turned out” for higher wages and, when unsuccessful, migrated westward. The Lowell mill complex, originally conceived as a means to preserve a traditional, tight-knit social order and an ethic of personal responsibility among a demographically homogeneous population, found itself a large, demographically heterogeneous city embracing and encouraging change.



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