Lowell: The Fabric of Our Lives

Lowell, Massachusetts, on the Merrimack River, (1) is the fourth largest city in state, (2) was founded as a planned community and (3) was the largest industrial complex in the US in the 19th century. (4) It made textiles from the cotton produced by all those plantations in the south. Those are all things I didn’t know about Lowell before I went for a visit in October.

Oct in NH 010a

What I did know was that it was all about mills and industrial history. And what did I know about industrial history? Zippo. So off I went, to learn something.

New England Quilt Museum

While I was in Lowell to learn about industrial history, Kathie’s priority was the New England Quilt Museum. She’s an avid and accomplished quilter. The museum had very innovative, avant guarde modern pieces, as well as traditional ones.  This being a history blog, I’ll show you a traditional one.

Oct in NH 025a

This circa 1875 hand pieced, hand quilted cotton bed cover has a bandanna from Ulysses S. Grant’s presidential campaign as a centerpiece.

This was another place that had me sign a waiver saying that none of my photos would be used commercially.  I’d never had to do that before, anywhere, and now I’d done it twice in one trip.

American Textile History Museum

I go to hundreds — not an exaggeration — of museums a year, so I get very excited when I find one that shows me something I’ve never seen before. The American Textile History Museum managed that, so it now has a place as one of my top favorites.  According to its website, it documents “the woolen, cotton, flax and silk industries in New England and beyond through its collections of pre-industrial tools, powered industrial era machinery, flat textiles” and books.


I see many dresses in museums, but I’ve rarely — actually, not at all in recent memory — seen a man’s suit. And definitely not one as well preserved as this circa 1770 silk, linen and cotton three-piece (jacket, waistcoat, pants) ensemble from Europe.

I was fascinated by the 1854 daguerreotype  of weaver Mary D. Warner because of the short sleeves on her dress.  I guess they didn’t want sleeves getting caught in machinery.

I’m showing the corset because — ouch.

Boote Cotton Mill and Museum

I have an abandoned industrial building fetish. Not as strong as my staircase fetish, but close. So I was very excited by this:

Oct in NH 108a

The Lowell National Historical Park operates several sites around Lowell, all related to the textile industry, and we visited this one: a large cotton mill complex and its adjoining workers’ dormitory. It’s actually not abandoned anymore — most of it has been turned into apartments.

Boote Mill was built in 1835 and ran for about 100  years.  They gave us ear plugs as we went into the area with the machines, which were in operation. I bet no one gave the workers ear plugs. They sell the fabric they make on the looms in their gift shop, as dish towels. They’re lovely and $4.95 each. The link’s photo shows a beige on but they have lots of colors. I got a load of aqua ones.

Oct in NH 114a

Lowell Mills made various fabrics from southern cotton not only for general sale, but also one specifically for the southern market: “Negro cloth” AKA “Lowell.”  It was a coarse material used to make clothes for slaves.

After our self-guided tour through the factory, we went next door to the women’s dormitory. Starting in the early 18th century, the Lowell mills employed thousands of young women (starting at age 13 but average age was 24). In 1840, at the height of the Lowell glory days, there were about 8000 women employed in its mills —  75% of its workforce. Originally, they were New England farm girls, who saw the opportunity to get off the farm and have some independence in the big city. Later, they attracted Irish and other European immigrants.  For mills, the advantage was clear: they paid women half of what they paid men doing the same job.  On average, the women worked 12 to 14 hour days, five days a week, with a half day on Saturday.


Mill owners also owned the boarding houses where many of their workers lived. “A typical boardinghouse,” says the Lowell NPS website, “consisted of eight units, with 20 to 40 women living in each unit….Usually they shared a room with three other women, sleeping two to a bed….The keeper prepared three meals a day, and the women dined together in a common room….The Lowell girls were expected to attend church and demonstrate morals befitting proper society.” The use of the term “keeper” (a woman or couple who managed the house and the girls) makes it all seem rather grim, and the docent at the house said that the exhibits makes the rooms look much cheerier and less crowded than conditions had actually been.

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10 Responses to Lowell: The Fabric of Our Lives

  1. mjtierney1 says:

    I grew up outside Boston and never knew that Lowell was a planned city until I visited the Charles River Museum of Industry in Waltham a couple of years ago (a great museum housed in an old mill building). I’ll definitely try to plan a visit to Lowell next time I’m in the area. My French-Canadian ancestors worked in the mills in Manchester, NH, so it’d be very interesting to experience (somewhat) how they lived and worked.

    • And I’ll have to put the Charles River Museum on my to-do list. When was in Manchester to see the Currier a few months ago, I had lunch at an Italian restaurant in an old mill building. I love all the old mill buildings, and the way that most towns have repurposed them into retail space or condos.

      Thanks for dropping by and commenting.

  2. Pingback: Lowell: The Fabric of Our Lives | Practically Historical

  3. Kathie says:

    I would love to see some of the condos or apartments created in these old mill buildings. All those huge windows and wonderful brick! Must be really interesting living spaces.

    • Me too. I’d love to live in a condo in an old mill next to a river. How gorgeous would that be!

      • Dixie Lee says:

        Indeed, there are apartments and condos in old mills in Lowell – the old Bigelow Carpet factory comes to mind. A friend lives there. It’s rather a trendy place to live esp. for downsizers who have been priced out of downtown Boston and want to live where there’s access to parks, restaurants, culture. The Merrimack Repertory Theatre presents good plays at low prices, there’s a great auditorium, an annual Folk Festival. If you go, take a boat trip down the river with the National Park rangers.

      • I’ll definitely keep the boat trip in mind. I have a very close friend living in Merrimack, so I’m there quite a bit.

  4. Susan Barsy says:

    The textile companies were the fruit of industrial espionage–New Englanders copied the British mills. They were the salvation of the old merchantile class, who wanted a way to invest and maximize wealth that was less risky and demanding than sea-going. The mills spawned an interesting literature, ranging from the writings of mill girls themselves, to Melville’s famous short sketch, ‘The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids.’
    You’re right–I’ve never seen an antebellum girl wearing short sleeves either. Great pix.

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