Lowell, MA Walking Tour: Labor and Industry
This tour of the historic center of Lowell focuses on labor and industry, and the ways they shaped the fabric of everyday life in Lowell.
Founded in 1897 to provide technical training in the textile industry, the Lowell Textile School grew into a much larger technical college before merging with Lowell Training College to form Lowell University, now UMass Lowell. Southwick Hall, where the Textile School moved in 1903, remains part of the Francis College of Engineering, which continues the School's tradition of technical education grounded in practical, hands-on learning and experience in industry. Another important continuity with the past is the limited representation of women and people of color in the institution's student body and faculty. Though the Textile School was formally coeducation from its founding, most women in the early years of the school participated in evening courses that did not lead to degrees.
The Boott Cotton Mills Museum gives a snapshot of what is was like to work in New England cotton mills in the 1800s. The Museum, once Boott Mill #6, was originally owned by Kirk Boott, an industrialist who was responsible for much of the early urban planning that shaped Lowell's industrial and residential landscape. Through a series of interactive exhibits, including a tour of a functional weave room, visitors can experience snippets of factory life and work, from the deafening noise of machinery to the transformation of bales of cotton into bolts of cloth to the labor struggles waged by the women and immigrant workers of Lowell.
The New England Quilt Museum was founded in 1987 and is the only such museum in the northeast. It features 400 traditional and contemporary quilts. It also houses patterns, quilt tops and squares, sewing machines and related items, and educational materials. It is located in the historic Lowell Institute for Savings building, which was built by Josiah Peabody in 1845. While its collections center on quilt making in New England, temporary and traveling exhibits feature the work of quilters and artists from farther afield.
Lowell, Massachusetts is home to the National Streetcar Museum, a satellite of Maine's New England Electric Railway Historical Society's Seashore Trolley Museum. Located in the Mack Building across the street from Lowell National Historical Park, the museum offers both exhibits and trolley ride tours of historic Lowell (3).
In a society suffused with pain, illness, and death—like that of the nineteenth-century United States—people were desperate for medicines that could alleviate suffering, if not offer a cure. The patent medicine industry, which came into its own in the second half of the century, promised relief from every ailment imaginable. While Lowell is best known for its place in the textile industry, it was also a locus of patent medicine companies, like J.C. Ayer & Co.—one of the most successful. Ayer’s business success lay not in the efficaciousness of his medicines, which in most cases were not even effective as palliatives, but more so in his advertising. His company distributed tens of millions of almanacs promoting its medications in more than twenty languages, not to mention colorful trading cards, newspaper advertisements, and shorter pamphlets promoting its wares.
Lowell National Historical Park includes a variety of museums, exhibits, and tours that explore the history of this former factory town. The Visitor Center on Market Street is a good place to start. The Industrial Revolution, though most commonly associated with men and machines, wrought profound changes on the lives of women, as well. In the early 19th century, Francis Cabot Lowell created the Lowell System, which was meant to produce textiles more cheaply than elsewhere in the United States while avoiding the worst abuses of the English factory system. For a time, it appeared that Lowell was successful. Hiring young, single women kept labor costs down (the mills were not obliged to pay them as much as male workers). The system was paternalistic, using its all-encompassing position to both control woman laborers and provide them opportunities for advancement and education. The system began to fall apart as a second generation of mill owners abandoned the paternalism of the early system and pursued every option possible to cut costs and exploit an increasingly immigrant, increasingly impoverished labor force.
One of the leading figures in the Aesthetic Movement, artist James Abbott McNeill Whistler, resided in this house in Lowell, Massachusetts for the first four years of his life. Whistler was part of the Impressionist, Post-Impressionist, Aesthetic, and Modernist art movements, and painter of "Whistler's Mother," the first work by an American artist to be displayed in any museum in Paris. According to The Art Story online, "Whistler helped spearhead a new modern approach to painting in which the medium itself is the subject, not the sitter or landscape pictured," (1). In addition to Whistler, the historic house has been the residence of inventor Paul Moody, author George Brownell, and acclaimed engineers James Bicheno Francis and George Washington Whistler (James' father). Today, the house is an art museum dedicated to 18th and 19th century American representational works by Whistler, Frank Weston Benson, Thomas B. Lawson, William Morris Hunt, William M. Paxton, David D. Neal, Frederick Porter Vinton, William Preston Phelps, Cullen Yates, Arshile Gorky, John Singer Sargent, and Aldro T. Hibbard. The Parker Gallery building next door holds seasonal exhibits and receptions (2; 3).
This sculpture by Mico Kaufman was dedicated in 1984 as a tribute to Lowell's nineteenth century "mill girls" whose labor fueled the Industrial Revolution in this part of New England. At the height of technological innovation, Lowell was responsible for 40% of the United States' cloth production. The factories employed over 8000 girls and women, but paid them only a fraction of male wages. The sculpture reflects the aspirations, dignity, and solidarity of these workers who led a series of protests and strikes during the 1830s and 1840s. These workers not only created the fabrics worn by diverse Americans, they sparked the creation of the first women's labor unions.
The American Textile History Museum, originally named the Merrimack Valley Textile Museum, was founded by Caroline Stevens Rogers in 1960 after she inherited a collection of textile manufacturing equipment from her father. The museum's early collections also included the records of the Stevens family's woolen business. The museum grew for several decades, relocating to a larger space and coming to hold the largest collection of documents and artifacts related to textile manufacturing in the world. However, financial troubles loomed, and in June 2016, after unsuccessful attempts to raise enough money to continue operations, the museum closed its doors for good. The museum's collections were acquired by Cornell University Library in Ithaca, New York, and remain open to researchers there.