Yesterday we took a step back in time when we visited the old textile mills at the Lowell National Historical Park. We live only about 15 to 20 minutes from this National Park, but have never visited it before. I am so glad that we did.
For most of the 19th century, Lowell was a prosperous and thriving mill town. But by the 1930’s, many of the mills had either failed or moved their operations to more modern facilities in the South. Since moving to the Boston area over 15 years ago, I have always thought of Lowell as a poorer city that is trying to revitalize with new urban development, etc. The Lowell National Historical Park is actually part of that re-development. I knew that Lowell had been a successful mill town in its heyday, but I did not know what the mills produced or who worked there or anything about its history.
When I realized that Lowell produced textiles, I was very excited with the prospect of maybe seeing vintage looms in action. The museum totally exceeded my expectations. We visited the old Boott Cotton Mills, where the museum has a working Weave Room. This room has 99 working looms set up as they would have been when the mill was operational. The only difference is that the actual mill would have had 200 looms on the floor, and all of the looms would have been operating. When we were visiting, there were only about 10 of the looms actually weaving. The operating looms were weaving heavy cotton for dishcloths and each loom was weaving a different pattern – some of which were pretty elaborate.
The first thing that struck all of us as we walked into the Weave Room (even before we walked in actually!) was how loud the looms are. The noise actually scared both of my boys a little bit. They were speechless as we walked through. It was hard to imagine how loud the room would be if all 99 looms were operating.
Each of the 99 looms was powered by its own pulley that was connected to a line shaft on the ceiling that ran the length of the entire room. This line shaft is now powered by an electric motor mounted to the ceiling, but would have originally been connected to a water turbine in the basement and powered by the canal water. All of the pulleys were spinning even if the looms were not operating.
The sights and sounds of the Weave Room left me really awestruck. Just the sheer power of those looms – the speed at which they were running was kind of scary – and the number of machines was impressive. And as I looked around I noticed that the looms were manufactured in Massachusetts by the Draper Company. I wondered if that company was still in business and what they manufactured now. As I looked around I also thought about the women who had worked there. They worked 14 hour days during the week and 8 hours on Saturdays. With all of looms running the room would have been at least 85 degrees. In addition, there were tiny water sprayers close to the ceiling to keep the room humid so that the cotton threads wouldn’t break. But 14 hours of hot and humid was really the least of their problems because the air was also filled with cotton dust (read: respiratory problems). Also, the shuttles that were weaving the thread by being hammered back and forth in the loom at 40 mph were known to sometimes come off of their track (read: high speed projectile in the workplace). And of course there was the noise (read: deafness).
The working conditions must have been awful. But as I read more about the women who worked at the mills and the circumstances that brought them there, I wondered what they thought of it. Most of the women were still single and came to the mills because they provided the best wages. The ranger told us that a lot of the women came to the mills to earned their dowries! And because Lowell was so prosperous, they had a good library and schools so most of the women were well educated. So I left thinking maybe the women were provided more independence and opportunity at the mills than they would have gotten had they stayed home (??)
The trip to the Mills really left me with mixed emotions. I felt very proud at what previous generations had accomplished: the mechanics who had built the looms, the engineers who had designed the turbines, and the mill workers would took the raw cotton and turned it into cloth. So much American ingenuity and hard work went into all of that. But it also made me very sad for the working conditions that the mill workers lived through and just how hard people had to work back then. Most people can’t even fathom this kind of hard physical work for such long hours – I know I can’t. And it also made me sad that this tradition of manufacturing is gone in the US.
We will definitely go back to this park again. Hopefully next time I will have some cool pictures to share!