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Primary Sources - Workshop in American History The Lowell Systemhomesitemap
Introduction -Link Before You Watch - link Lectures and Activities Classroom and Applications - Link

Workshop 3:  Lectures & Activities

Lecture Transcript One:
The Lowell Experiment

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They also—and this is really interesting—they tended to marry non-farmers. They tended to marry mechanics and tradesmen and artisans or shopkeepers. It's as if the experience of being in Lowell—and here we're extrapolating from this demographic fact, you know, by linking what these women did and who they married, to suggest that, well, maybe, you know, they didn't want to return to that farm life and the nature of their life on the farms; that the experience of being in Lowell had somehow helped accommodate them to this urban, industrial world, a very new world, a very different kind of place which had rhythms all its own, rhythms that were unlike the rhythms of farm life, the life from which they came. Or perhaps that experience at Lowell made them feel comfortable with that, and indeed, rather than leaving Lowell and returning to the farms, many of them married and went to the cities.

Now, this experiment in manufacturing on a grand scale, the transition to industrial capitalism in America, did not come without its anxieties, did not come smoothly and easily. It wasn't celebrated by everyone. And it's important to keep that in mind. It's important to keep it in mind because it will also help us understand better exactly the nature of Lowell as an experience for these women, with its boardinghouses, with its paternalistic structure. But first let's look at some of these anxieties.

It goes back to the founding of the republic, because some people believed that industrialization would destroy the republic; that America shouldn't industrialize. This is the old debate going back to Jefferson versus Hamilton, the founding fathers. Jefferson dreaded the idea of mass manufacturing. He thought that America should remain an independent agricultural nation. Hamilton, of course, is famous for his report on manufacturers, for proposing exactly the kind of investment, development, banking that Lowell and the associates, certainly, basically took and ran with. What was the problem? What was the tension? What was the anxiety of the Jefferson side about manufacturing? About mills?

Well, it was very simple. They thought that it would corrupt individuals. It would make them less virtuous. And it would make them less virtuous because it would make them dependent. And here is the important word: dependent economically, dependent upon wages. We live in a world where we think about hourly wage, and how much do you make per hour? And we're so comfortable with the idea of wage labor. Wage labor is something entirely new, and it's hard sometimes to sort of think back and recapture that, to realize a moment when people didn't work for wages. They worked on farms; they worked as independent artisans, as producers; they owned shops. But the idea of working for somebody else for money puts you in the position of being the dependent, and that creates anxiety, because if you're in the position of being the dependent, then perhaps you can be corrupted. You can sell out your freedom and the freedom of the nation. I mean, this is the depths to which some Americans worried about people working for wages and going to the mills.

There is tension over the machine. Some people celebrated the machine, marveled over its wonders—the beauty of it, the gleam of it, but not everyone. At the very moment that there are people who are celebrating the machine, we also have the emergence of total anxiety about the machine, the machine as both a real and metaphorical device that cuts people off, amputates them. Thoreau, another New Englander, roughly at the time writes in an essay, "Let your life be a counter-friction to stop the machine." So there is some tension here about the investment in machinery, the movement toward machinery.

And finally, and as significantly, maybe most significantly, people are nervous about these women, these women workers going to Lowell and the extent to which it violates some dominant ideology that was emerging about what the proper place of a woman in society was and should be—the so-called domestic sphere or this cult of true womanhood, the idea that women's place was in the home, not in the workplace, and that by sending women out into this public sphere—And that's how Americans talked; they talked about the public sphere and the private sphere. And the public sphere was increasingly becoming corrupting, disordering. The private sphere was where one upheld virtue. Well, what happens? What happens suddenly when women, who are supposed to be wives and mothers and raise the virtuous next generation of Americans, what happens when they leave the home and they go to have the experience of work?

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