The Hard and Soft History of Lowell, Massachusetts

Crazy Quilt with embroidery

A small New England town rises to be the first industrial city in America. Located next to Merrimack River and Pawtucket Falls, entrepreneurs capitalized on this location to make this city thrive as a textile industry giant. Lowell, Massachusetts is only a quick half-hour drive from Boston which makes this town a perfect day or road trip around New England.

At its heyday, Lowell, a.k.a. Spindle City, had ten mill complexes filled with immigrants and the textile workers producing almost a million yards of cloth a week working on over 10,000 looms and over 300,000 spindles. All that is left from this industrial time is the legacy of how Lowell became the center of the textile industry, the ramifications that came from that, and the future creative gifts that were created from these textiles.

The Mills – History of LowellMarket Mills in Lowell, Massachusetts

With the boom of urban manufacturing cities popping up in American in the early 1800s, people living in rural areas flocked to them to work in the factories. And Lowell, Massachusetts, was the first of them. Entrepreneurs ingeniously used the falls nearby to power the mills. This allowed them to build all the parts of textile production – carding, spinning, and weaving. At the same time, Francis Cabot Lowell and Paul Moody produced a power loom for weaving textiles after observing British techniques in Manchester, which was the center of the Britsih textile revolution.1855 Patent Model for a Loom

With the rapid growth of the factories, boarding houses were built to house the workers. Many immigrants found their way to Lowell to work in the factories, along with numerous young single women. The enticement was the high wages for working in the textile mills. Unfortunately, the work was hard, long hours, and working conditions were unhealthy. Over the years, as progress happened, waterwheels were replaced with more efficient turbines and steam-power, and operating conditions within the factories declined as companies decided not to invest in the mill’s future. It wasn’t until the 1920s when the mills stopped being profitable and started to close. By the end of the 1950s, the last of the mills shut down for good.

New England Quilt MuseumNew England Quilt Museum

The reason I visited the town of Lowell was that I was on vacation with my mom through New England. This particular tour was with Country Heritage Tours, and it was a quilting tour. So, naturally, one of the first stops we made was to the New England Quilt Museum. As the second-oldest quilt museum in the country, it is the only place in the Northeast solely dedicated to the art and craft of quilting. It is fascinating to see the by-product of the cloth produced from the mills from that timeframe.New England Native Leaves Quilt

One of the main exhibits on display showcased applique collection quilts from the 1800s. My mom, as an avid quilter, was the perfect person to go through this museum as she was quite knowledgeable about quilt history. My favorites were the crazy quilts. If you want to learn more about the history of quilts or be inspired by women who have made amazing, creative, and decorative quilts from hundreds of years ago, check out the NEQM museum. The entrance fee is $9/adult. Open hours are from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Closed on Mondays. Star Quilt

Cleveland-Hendrickson Crazy Quilt c. 1884

Railroad ExhibitBoston & Maine Railroad steam locomotive No. 410

Right across from the New England Quilt Museum is the Railroad exhibit showcasing “The History of Railroads in Lowell.” The Boston & Maine Railroad steam locomotive No. 410, built in June 1911, has made its home in Lowell since 1993. Originally this locomotive was made for switching duty. Switching duty consists of delivering train cars full of raw materials from the railroad yard to the local industries, pickup loaded & empty cars, and help break down intercity trains that will be moved to destinations further away that need a more substantial engine.

When steam-powered engines went away, No. 410 was retired in 1952 and eventually moved here to be preserved and restored. The exhibit also includes Coach Baggage Combine No. 1244, which showcases hardware and items from when the train was in operation. This is a great exhibit to see a steam-powered train up-close. Boston & Maine Railroad steam locomotive No. 410 coach-baggage carBoston & Maine Railroad steam locomotive No. 410 bellClose-up of the Boston & Maine Railroad steam locomotive No. 410 engine

Lowell National Historical ParkLowell National Historical Park

Lowell National Historical Park is a fantastic national park to experience the awe of the American textile industry that began here in Lowell. There are several tours available for visitors, such as tours on the canals or trolley rides through the city. Also, the Visitors Center has exhibits showcasing the workers, entrepreneurs, the power canal system, and the machines that were used to make this city the textile giant it was.1920 Draper Model E Spring Top Loom

There are numerous things for you to see and experience in the Lowell NHP. You can watch a movie at the Visitors Center, “Lowell: The Continuing Revolution,” which tells how the city got its start, all about the mills, the mill girls, and the industrial revolution of textiles. You can also explore the Boott Cotton Mills Museum, the Mill Girls and Immigrants Exhibit, the River Transformed Exhibit, the Boarding House Park, several locks and gatehouses around the city, and more. Check the Lowell NHP website for opening hours and more information. Downtown Lowell, Massachusetts

The Mill GirlsGirls are Strong - 2014 Quilt

In the early 1800s, young single women left their farms and rural areas for the promise of monthly cash wages, economic independence, cultural activities, and room and board in boarding houses. These promises were too good to be true. In reality, these girls had their lives regulated. Boardinghouse keepers controlled their social behavior, enforced curfews, and made sure the girls followed strict codes of conduct. The girls were required to go to church, and they were forced to maintain 12-14 hour workdays in the mills.

With all these restrictions, hard, unhealthy work conditions, and the added insult of cutting wages and increasing rent, the mill girls were the first group of workers to organize a walkout in America. In the 1830s, these strong women went on strike twice to protest wage cuts and then again in the 1840s to demand a reduced working day to 10-hours. Unfortunately, the strike didn’t produce the desired results that these strong women wanted. But, what it did do is to answer the question that the women’s place was not just in the kitchen. During the strike of 1834, this poem was created by the women (quoted in “‘Liberty Rhetoric’ and Nineteenth-Century American Women”).

Let oppression shrug her shoulders,
And a haughty tyrant frown,
And little upstart Ignorance,
In mockery look down.
Yet I value not the feeble threats
Of Tories in disguise,
While the flag of Independence
O’er our noble nation flies.

This community of strong women put together and created the first union of women workers. The Lowell Female Labor Reform Association put pressure on the local government for better working conditions during the strikes and for years after them. Their constant pressure made way for reform in neighboring towns, and eventually, in Lowell in 1853, the corporations running the mills reduced the work hour day to eleven hours. You never know what you can do when you get a bunch of strong women together with the same mission and what the ripple effect will be years later.

SummaryCourtyard of Lowell Mills

Taking a road trip to visit Lowell, Massachusetts, is a wonderful way to learn about the American Industrial Revolution. Being the first industrial city and leading America in the textile industry, you can experience the history of the mills and the creative aftermath of the quilt generation. Visiting Lowell is definitely an educational trip, but fun and creative as well, well worth the visit.

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Further Reading

If you are coming to Massachusetts or New England for a visit, check out these posts for further travel inspiration:

4 Comments

  • Sarah Camp 6June2020 at 1:35 PM Reply

    Wow! What a cool place full of history – looks like a neat place to visit! I’d love to visit the National Historical Park!

    • Heather 6June2020 at 6:30 PM Reply

      Sarah, you will really enjoy it. I hope you make it there someday!

  • Delores Livengood 6June2020 at 10:21 AM Reply

    Loved my visit to Lowell 2 yrs ago!!!

    • Heather 6June2020 at 10:54 AM Reply

      Isn’t it a wonderful little town to visit?!

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