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Boott Cotton Mills Museum January 29, 2010

Posted by flashbuzzer in History.
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I recently visited the Boott Cotton Mills Museum in Lowell. The museum features a variety of exhibits that reveal the nuts and bolts of the textile industry to the general public.

Here are ten nuggets that I gleaned from my time at the museum.

1. The Embargo Act of 1807 played a critical role in the rise of the American textile industry. In particular, trade with England (which, at that time, was the center of the global textile industry) was curtailed. This forced American textile entrepreneurs to become less reliant on the British in terms of satisfying their “cotton hungry” consumer base.

2. Another development that spurred the growth of the American textile industry was the creation of an American version of the power loom. Lowell’s namesake, Francis Cabot Lowell, teamed up with the expert mechanic Paul Moody for this groundbreaking achievement. Power looms allowed for the centralization of the previously fragmented cloth-making process, and the “integrated textile mill” was born.

3. The great American statesman Daniel Webster, who was friendly with Francis Cabot Lowell and many of his entrepreneurial colleagues, also played a key role in the rise of the Massachusetts textile industry. A skilled lawyer, Webster represented his friends’ interests before the Spanish Claims Commission, which had been established to determine appropriate reparations for American businessmen who had suffered losses at the hands of Spanish raiding ships from 1795 until 1815. Somehow Webster was able to secure $1 million (all of the reparations added up to $5 million) for Lowell and his business partners, which proved to be invaluable seed money for their future joint ventures involving cotton mills.

4. The Boston Manufacturing Company financed and built the first cotton mill in Massachusetts at Waltham. This mill yielded a solid return, but Lowell and his colleagues had visions of incorporating calico printing into their operations. Since the Charles River was too “sluggish” for this endeavor, the Merrimack Manufacturing Company was established to build a new cotton mill on the faster-flowing Merrimack River.

5. Initially, New England women between the ages of 15 and 30 were the primary source of labor for enterprising cotton mill owners. As time passed and labor costs increased, the mill owners assiduously recruited immigrants to replace their native-born workers. Interestingly, some of the New Englanders stayed on at the mills to work in the relatively safe confines of the “drawing-in room,” where drawing frames were intricately woven with slivers in preparation for “processing” by power looms.

6. Work in a cotton mill was fraught with dangers and perils. The heat and humidity inside a mill needed to be maintained at high levels in order to prevent yarn from snapping. Also, it was common for the air inside a mill to be filled with cotton dust, causing many mill workers to develop byssinosis, or “brown lung.” In addition, the operation of even a single power loom could be quite deafening, causing many mill workers to suffer (at least partial) hearing loss.

7. As expected, relations between cotton mill workers and mill management were not always rosy. The Boott Cotton Mills endured strikes in 1834 and 1836. While these two labor stoppages were relatively unsuccessful, a more notable strike occurred in 1912 in Lawrence. In that strike, several groups of immigrant workers banded together to protest harsh working conditions; the strikers seemed to be beaten, though, until a significant number of Greek mill laborers joined them. The end result was a significant pay raise (up to 11 percent).

8. Unfortunately, the Boott Cotton Mills played a role in a sad chapter of American history. One of its primary products in the first half of the 19th Century was a low-grade mixture of wool and cotton, which was termed “negro cloth.” Slaves in the American South were typically provided with clothes made out of this coarse material. Thankfully, production of “negro cloth” ceased after the end of the Civil War.

9. Innovations in power loom technology continued after the work of Lowell and Moody. One neat invention in this area was the warp stop-motion device, which would automatically shut down a loom’s operation upon detection of issues such as broken yarn threads. Another clever invention was the Northrop Loom, which could detect when the currently loaded bobbin was about to run out of thread; it would automatically eject this spent bobbin and load in a fresh one.

10. After the Civil War, mill operations in the Northeast began a steady decline. Competition between different mills intensified as their “cotton hungry” consumer base demanded the production of more elaborate fabrics. To reduce transportation costs, mill companies began shifting their operations to warmer climes; for example, the Merrimack Manufacturing Company established a mill in Huntsville, AL. Mill closings in colder climes occurred at a sad but steady rate, including the demise of the Boott Cotton Mills in 1954.

The museum has its charms, including a large room filled with 200 power looms that operated during the 1840s; during my visit, the museum staff turned on ten of the looms so that I could understand the difficulties of working in a typical cotton mill. I also enjoyed watching a 30-minute presentation on the rise of the American textile industry and the ensuing battle between “agricultural virtues” and “manufacturing-based independence” that raged in the hearts and minds of Americans for most of the 19th Century. In addition, I enjoyed the exhibits that highlighted the recovery of Lowell as a city after the various mill closures.

In terms of drawbacks, some of the exhibits were in the process of being replaced.

Overall I enjoyed my time at the museum and I learned a lot along the way. I’m now more interested in checking out the other museums in the Lowell National Historical Park.

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