Lowell System
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Cover of the Lowell Offering illustrating the paternalistic atmosphere.

The Lowell system or Waltham-Lowell system, named after Francis Cabot Lowell, was a paternalistic textile factory system of the early 19th century that relied almost exclusively on young, unmarried women laborers. Because many in New England considered the employment of women to be somewhat immoral, factory owners emphasized the maintenance of a proper environment: they enforced strict curfews, mandated church attendance, provided their workers with a healthy diet, and maintained a high degree of cleanliness. Unlike many of the factories of the day, Lowell factories were clean, and the workers lived in well-kept dormitories and boardinghouses. Wages were good compared to the standards of the day.

The innovative system and the enthusiasm it incited in its employees drew international acclaim. The women wrote a newsletter, the Lowell Offering, that was widely read. Charles Dickens, who visited Lowell during part of his four-month tour of the United States, said of the place, "I cannot recall or separate one young face that gave me a painful impression; not one young girl whom, assuming it to be matter of necessity that she should gain her daily bread by the labour of her hands, I would have removed from those works if I had had the power." [1] (http://www.learner.org/channel/workshops/primarysources/lowell/docs/dickens.html) The system's success was one of the factors that propelled Lowell and his fellow entreprenuers (later the Boston Associates) to great success.

The Lowell system almost immediately ran into trouble, however. The women, most of whom were recruited from the surrounding countryside, found transition to factory life and the tediousness of repetitive tasks difficult. And the competitiveness of the textile industry made the high standards of living and working conditions difficult to maintain. An economic downturn in 1834 led to a 25% wage cut, and the mill workers responded by organizing a union (the Factory Girls Association) and immediately going on strike. The strike failed, but the depression of 1837 three years later virtually destroyed the system entirely. Despite the agitation of the militant Sarah Bagley and her Female Labor Reform Assiciation, conditions continued to worsen throughout the 1840s, and the mill owners began to seek cheaper labor in Irish immigrants. By the 1850s, the Lowell system had been abandoned.