1775, Newburyport, MA
1817, Boston, MA
Francis Cabot Lowell was a member of the prominent Boston Brahmin family, which included statesman John Lowell, Harvard University president Abbott Lawrence Lowell, civil war general Charles Russell Lowell, and poet Robert Lowell.
Photos: American Textile History Museum
This American industrial pioneer left as his legacy a manufacturing system, booming mill towns, and a humanitarian attitude toward workers.
Bringing Industry to America
In just six years, Francis Cabot Lowell built up an American textile manufacturing industry. He was born in Newburyport, Massachusetts in 1775, and became a successful merchant. On a trip to England at age 36, he was impressed by British textile mills. Like Samuel Slater before him, Lowell was inspired to create his own manufacturing enterprise in the United States.
In 1813, back in Boston, Lowell and several partners formed the Boston Manufacturing Company. Lowell led them in both technical and business decisions. They introduced a power loom, based on the British model, with significant technological improvements. And they found a novel way to raise money: they sold $1000 shares in the company (each worth over $10,000 in 2002 dollars). The shareholder corporation they devised would rapidly become the method of choice for structuring new American businesses.
The company built a tall brick mill building next to the Charles River in Waltham, Massachusetts, incorporating various mechanization technologies to convert raw cotton into cloth. The Waltham mill integrated the chain of tasks under a single roof, inaugurating what would become the American factory system of the nineteenth century. Waltham cloth gained immediate popularity.
Another of Lowell's innovations was in hiring young farm girls to work in the mill. He paid them lower wages than men, but offered benefits that many girls, some as young as 15, were eager to earn. Mill girls lived in clean company boardinghouses with chaperones, were paid cash, and benefitted from religious and educational activities. Waltham boomed as workers flocked to Lowell's novel enterprise.
When he died of an illness in 1817, Lowell left his Boston Manufacturing Company poised to expand and reward its investors handsomely. In 1821, dividends were paid out at an astounding 27.5%. In 1822, Lowell's partners named a new mill town on the Merrimack River, Lowell, after their visionary leader. New England had embarked on the transformation of its economy from farming to industry.