Front Page Titles (by Subject) LETTER XII.: THE FACTORY GIRLS OF LOWELL. - Society, Manners and Politics in the United States
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LETTER XII.: THE FACTORY GIRLS OF LOWELL. - Michel Chevalier, Society, Manners and Politics in the United States 
Society, Manners and Politics in the United States: Being a Series of Letters on North America, translated from the third Paris edition (Boston: Weeks, Jordan & Co., 1839).
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THE FACTORY GIRLS OF LOWELL.
Boston, June 22, 1834.
War, the last argument of kings and people, war, in which they put forth their strength with pride, is not, however, the greatest exhibition of human power. A field of battle may excite terror or a feverish enthusiasm, pity or horror; but human strength applied to create is more imposing, than human strength employed in slaughter and destruction. The pyramids or the colossal temples of Thebes, the Colyseum or Saint Peter’s of Rome, reveal a higher grandeur than a field of battle covered with desolation and death, were it strown with three hundred thousand bodies, as in those two great fights in which our fathers, under Meroveus and Charles Martel, presented a barrier to the career of the barbarians, and saved the Western world from the encroachments of the East. The power of man, like that of God, is not less visible in small things than in great. There is nothing in the physical order of things of which our race has a better right to boast, than of the mechanical inventions, by means of which man holds in check the irregular vigour, or brings forth the hidden energies, of nature. By the aid of mechanical contrivances, this poor weak creature, reaching out his hands over the immensity of nature, takes possession of the rivers, of the winds of heaven, of the tides of the ocean. By them, he drags forth from the secret bowels of the earth their hidden stores of fuel and of metals, and masters the subterranean waters, which there dispute his dominion. By them, he turns each drop of water into a reservoir of steam,* that is, into a magazine of power, and thus he changes the globe, in comparison with which he seems an atom, into a labourious, untiring, submissive slave, performing the heaviest tasks under the eye of its master. Is there any thing which gives a higher idea of the power of man, than the steam-engine under the form in which it is applied to produce motion on railroads? It is more than a machine, it is almost a living being; it moves, it runs like a courser at the top of his speed; more than this, it breathes; the steam which issues at regular periods from the pipes, and is condensed into a white cloud, resembles the quick breathing of a race-horse. A steam-engine has a complete respiratory apparatus, which acts like our own by expansion and compression; it wants only a system of circulation to live.
One evening, while in Virginia, I was looking at a distant locomotive engine, approaching along the Petersburg and Roanoke railroad, one of the fine works of which Mr Robinson, the engineer, yet a young man, has executed so many in Virginia and Pennsylvania. The engine came on at its usual rate of speed, through a narrow clearing cut for the road in one of the primitive forests, formerly the domain of the great king Powhatan and his copper-coloured warriors.* The chimney threw out thousands of sparks from its wide, funnel-shaped top; although yet at a distance, the noise of the quick breathing of the pipes was distinctly heard. In the darkness, in so wild a place, in the bosom of a vast wilderness and the midst of a profound silence, it was necessary either to be acquainted with mechanics, or to be imbued with the incredulity of the age, not to believe this flying, panting, flaming machine, a winged dragon vomiting forth fire. A short time since some Bramins, the fathers of ancient science, seeing a steam-boat stem the current of the sacred Ganges, really believed that it was some strange animal, recently discovered by the English in some distant region.
In our modern societies the improvements of machinery have given us manufactures, which promise to be a source of inexhaustible prosperity and well-being to mankind. The English manufactories alone yield about eight hundred million yards of cotton stuffs annually, or about one yard for each inhabitant of the globe. If it were required to produce this amount of cloth without machinery, by the fingers alone, it is probable that each of us would hardly be able to card, spin, and weave his yard a year, so that the whole time of the whole human race would be occupied by a task, which, by the aid of machinery, is accomplished by five hundred thousand arms in Great Britain. From this fact we may conclude, that when the manufacturing system shall be well regulated and completely organised, a moderate amount of labour by a small part of the human race, will be sufficient to produce all the physical comforts for the whole. There can be no doubt, that it will be so, some day or another; but this beautiful order of things is yet remote. The manufacturing system is a novelty, it is expanding and maturing itself, (see Note 15 ), and as it ripens, it certainly will improve; the staunchest pessimists cannot deny this, yet we should expose ourselves to the most cruel disappointments, if we imagined that the progress of improvement can be otherwise than slow, step by step. There are seven-leagued boots in fairy-tales, but none in history. Meanwhile the manufacturing system temporarily involves the most disastrous consequences, which it would be useless to enumerate here. Who has not sounded its depths with terror? Who has not wept over it? It is the canker of England, a canker so inveterate, that one is sometimes tempted to think, that all the ability displayed of late years by the British statesmen in attempts at domestic reform, will prove a dead loss.
The introduction of the manufacturing system into a new country, under the empire of very different circumstances, is an event worthy of the closest attention. No sooner was I recovered from the sort of giddiness with which I was seized at the sight of this extemporaneous town, hardly had I taken time to touch it, to make sure that it was not a pasteboard town, like those which Potemkin erected for Catherine along the road to Byzantium, when I set myself to inquire, how far the creation of manufactures in this country, had given rise to the same dangers in regard to the welfare and morals of the working class, and in regard to the security of the rich and of public order, as in Europe; and through the polite attention of the agents of the two principal companies (the Merrimack and the Lawrence), I was able to satisfy my curiosity. The cotton manufacture alone employs six thousand persons in Lowell; of this number nearly five thousand are young women from 17 to 24 years of age, the daughters of farmers from the different New England States, and particularly from Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Vermont; they are here remote from their families, and under their own control. On seeing them pass through the streets in the morning and evening and at their meal-hours, neatly dressed; on finding their scarfs, and shawls, and green silk hoods which they wear as a shelter from the sun and dust (for Lowell is not yet paved), hanging up in the factories amidst the flowers and shrubs, which they cultivate, I said to myself, this, then, is not like Manchester; and when I was informed of the rate of their wages, I understood that it was not at all like Manchester. The following are the average weekly wages paid by the Merrimack corporation last May.
These numbers are averages; the wages of the more skilful hands amounting to five, and sometimes nearly six dollars. Note that last March, in consequence of the crisis occasioned by the President’s quarrel with the Bank, there was a general reduction of from 30 to 40 cents a week. You know how much smaller are the wages of women than of men;* there are few women in Europe, out of a few great cities, who can earn more than 20 cents a day or one dollar a week. It must also be remembered, that, in the United States the necessaries of life are not only much cheaper than in England, but even than in France, so that a great many of these girls can save a dollar or a dollar and a half a week. After spending four years in the factories, they may have a little fortune of 250 or 300 dollars, when they often quit work and marry.†
In France, it would be difficult to conceive of a state of things, in which young girls, generally pretty, should be separated from their families, and thrown together, at a distance of 50 or 100 miles from home, in a town in which their parents could have no person to advise and watch over them. It is a fact, however, with the exception of a very small number of cases, which only prove the rule, that this state of things has yet had no bad effects in Lowell. The manners of the English race are totally different from those of us French; all their habits and all their notions wholly unlike ours. The Protestant education, much more than our Catholic discipline, draws round each individual a line over which it is difficult to step. The consequence is more coldness in the domestic relations, a more or less complete absence of a full and free expression of the stronger feelings of the soul, but, in turn, every one is obliged and accustomed to show more respect for the feelings of others. What amongst us would pass for a youthful imprudence or a pretty trick, is severely frowned upon by the English and Americans, and particularly by the Americans of New England, who are, as has been said, double-distilled English. Nobody in this country, then, is surprised to see the daughters of rural proprietors, after having received a tolerable education, quit their native village and their parents, take up their residence 50 or 100 miles off, in a town where they have no acquaintance, and pass two or three years in this state of isolation and independence; they are under the safeguard of the public faith. All this presupposes an extreme reserve of manners, a vigilant, inexorable, and rigid public opinion, and it must be acknowledged, that, under this rigorous system, there is a sombre hue, an air of listlessness, thrown over society; but, when one reflects on the dangers to which the opposite system exposes the daughters of the poor, who have no guardian to warn and protect them, when one counts its victims, however slight may be his sympathies with the people, it is difficult to deny, that the Anglo-American prudery, all things considered, is fully worth our ease and freedom of manners, whatever may be their attractions.*
The manufacturing companies exercise the most careful supervision over these girls. I have already said, that, twelve years ago, Lowell did not exist; when, therefore, the manufactories were set up, it also became necessary to provide lodgings for the operatives, and each company has built for this purpose a number of houses within its own limits, to be used exclusively as boarding-houses for them. Here they are under the care of the mistress of the house, who is paid by the company at the rate of one dollar and a quarter a week for each boarder, that sum being stopped out of the weekly wages of the girls. These housekeepers, who are generally widows, are each responsible for the conduct of her boarders, and they are themselves subject to the control and supervision of the company, in the management of their little communities. Each company has its rules and regulations, which are not merely paper-laws, but which are carried into execution with all that spirit of vigilant perseverance that characterises the Yankee. I will give you a short summary of one of these codes, for they seem to me to throw great light on some of the most striking peculiarities of this country. I will take those of the Lawrence company, which is the most recently formed; they are a revised and corrected edition of the rules and regulations, of the other companies. They bear date May 21, 1833. Article first of the general rules is as follows: “All persons employed by the Company must devote themselves assiduously to their duty during working-hours. They must be capable of doing the work which they undertake, or use all their efforts to this effect. They must on all occasions, both in their words and in their actions, show that they are penetrated by a laudable love of temperance and virtue, and animated by a sense of their moral and social obligations. The Agent of the Company shall endeavour to set to all a good example in this respect. Every individual who shall be notoriously dissolute, idle, dishonest, or intemperate, who shall be in the practice of absenting himself from divine service, or shall violate the Sabbath, or shall be addicted to gaming, shall be dismissed from the service of the Company. Art. 2. “All ardent spirits are banished from the Company’s grounds, except when prescribed by a physician. All games of hazard and cards are prohibited within their limits and in the boarding-houses. The articles following from 3 to 13, determine the duties of the agent, assistant agent, foremen, watch and firemen. Article thirteenth directs, that every female employed by the Company shall live in one of the Company’s boarding-houses, attend regularly at divine service, and rigidly observe the rules of the Sabbath. Article fourteenth and last, contains an appeal to the operatives, on the necessity of subordination, and on the compatibility of obedience with civil and religious liberty. There is, besides, a special rule relative to boarding-houses; it recounts, that the Company has built those houses and lets them at a low price, wholly for the good of the hands,* and that the Company, therefore, imposes certain duties on the persons who hire them. It makes them responsible for the neatness and comfortable condition of the houses, the punctuality and good quality of the meals, good order and harmony among the boarders; it requires that the keepers of the houses shall receive no persons as boarders, who are not employed in the Company’s works, and it obliges them to give an account of the behaviour of the girls. It also prescribes that the doors shall be shut at ten, and repeats the injunction of attendance at divine worship.
These regulations, which amongst us would excite a thousand objections and would be in fact impracticable, are here regarded as the most simple and natural thing in the world; they are enforced without opposition or difficulty. Thus in regard to Sunday, for instance, which with us is a holiday, a day of amusement and gaiety, it is here a day of retirement, meditation, silence, and prayer.* This is one of the features in which the French type most strongly contrasts with the Anglo-American. In a moral and religious point of view, there prevail among us a laxity and a toleration, which form a counterpart to the American let-alone principle in political matters; whilst the principle of political authority, which has always been established in great vigour among us, under all forms of government, monarchy, empire, or republic, corresponds to the austere reserve of American manners, to their rigid habits of life, and to the religious severity which exists here by the side of the great multiplicity of sects. So true is it, that both order and liberty are essential to human nature, and that it is impossible to establish a society on one of these principles alone! If you abandon a portion of the social institutions exclusively to the spirit of liberty, be assured that the principle of order will take no less exclusive possession of some other portion. Yield up to liberty the whole field of politics, and you are compelled to give religion and manners wholly up to order. Leave manners and religion to liberty, and you find yourself obliged to strengthen the principle of order in politics, under pain of suffering society itself to fall into ruins. Such are the general laws of equilibrium which govern the nations and the universe of worlds.
Up to this time, then, the rules of the companies have been observed. Lowell, with its steeple-crowned factories, resembles a Spanish town with its convents; but with this difference, that in Lowell, you meet no rags nor Madonnas, and that the nuns of Lowell, instead of working sacred hearts, spin and weave cotton. Lowell is not amusing, but it is neat, decent, peaceable, and sage. Will it always be so? Will it be so long? It would be rash to affirm it; hitherto the life of manufacturing operatives has proved little favorable to the preservation of severe morals. So it has been in France, as well as in England; in Germany and Switzerland, as well as in France. But as there is a close connexion between morality and competence, it may be considered very probable, that while the wages shall continue to be high at Lowell, the influences of a good education, a sense of duty, and the fear of public opinion, will be sufficient to maintain good morals. Will wages, then, continue to be what they are? There are some causes which must tend to reduce them; the rates of the duties which protect American industry are progressively decreasing; on the 1st of July, 1842, they will be reduced to a maximum of 20 per cent. But, on the other hand, the processes become more perfect, the labourers grow more skilful, the capitalists are realising their outlays, and consequently will no longer expect to divide 10 or 12 per cent. A certain diminution of wages is very possible, even after that of last March, because labour is paid in the Lowell factories, better than it is in the surrounding country; but there must be limits to this diminution. In Europe, work is often wanting for the hands; here, on the other side, hands are wanting for the work. While the Americans have the vast domain in the West, a common fund, from which, by industry, each may draw for himself and by himself, an ample heritage, an extreme fall of wages is not to be apprehended.
In America as in Europe, competition among the head-workmen tends to reduce their wages; but the tendency is not increased in America, as in Europe, by the competition among the labourers, that is by an excess of hands wanting employ, for the West stands open as a refuge to all who are unemployed. In Europe, a coalition of workmen can only signify one of these two things; raise our wages or we shall die of hunger with our wives and children, which is an absurdity; or raise our wages, if you do not, we shall take up arms, which is a civil war; in Europe, there is no other possible construction to be put upon it. But in America, on the contrary, such a coalition means, raise our wages, or we go to the West. Every coalition which does not amount to this in the minds of the associates, is merely the whim of the moment, an affair of little importance. This is the reason why coalitions, which in Europe are often able to shake the firmest fabric, present no real danger to the public peace in this country, where authority is disarmed. This is the reason why European countries, burdened with an excess of population, need for their safety and welfare a West, into which each may overflow after its own manner. This also is the reason why France is right in keeping Algiers.
[* ] In passing into steam, water expands to one thousand seven hundred times its volume.
[* ] This railroad was constructed for 60 miles through a vast forest of oak and pine, the few houses now found along the line having been erected since the execution of the work.
[* ] The wages of a mere labourer in the factories at Lowell are from 5 to 6 dollars a week; of a man who has a trade, as a smith, dyer, 8 to 10 dollars, of the engravers of patterns on the printing cylinders, 17 or 18 dollars.
[† ] Out of one thousand females in the Lawrence mills, only eleven are married women, and nineteen widows.
[* ] Mr H. C. Carey, in his Essay on Wages (p. 89), quotes the following letter from the director of one of the factories in Lowell. “There have been in our establishment only three cases of illicit connexions, and in all three instances the parties were married immediately, several months before the birth of the child, so that in fact we have had no case of actual bastardy.” Mr Carey adds, that he was informed that there had been no such case at Dover, where there is a very large manufactory. Although I do not believe that such an exemplary degree of purity prevails in all the manufacturing districts, yet I am convinced that the morals of the manufacturing operatives are in harmony with those of the rest of the population.
[* ] The company gets only 4 per cent. on the capital invested in the boarding-houses, while the average rate of dividends on the manufacturing stock is from 5 to 6 per cent semi-annually.
[* ] In the United States, the theatres are generally closed on Sunday, out of respect for the rules of the Sabbath; the only exception to this custom is among the French population of Louisiana. In New England, religious scruples on this point are carried farther than elsewhere; thus in Boston, a by-law of the city prescribes the shutting up of the theatres on Saturday evening, because, according to some precisians, the Sabbath begins at sunset on that day.
[Note 15—page 186.]Production and Consumption of Cotton.
In 1834, one of our most able manufacturers, M. Kœkhlin, made the following estimate of the production and consumption of cotton throughout the world.
Several other countries not enumerated above yield cotton. China produces some which she consumes, or exports under the form of nankeens; Mexico produces nearly enough for her own consumption; Mr Koekhlin has meant to speak only of what belongs to the general commerce. He has somewhat overstated the consumption of England, and underrates that of the United States.