Thursday, December 14, 2023

Early Mills: Cabots & Lowells


Self-portrait by Lydia Cabot Perry (1848-1933) 
"The Green Hat"
American aristocracy or nouveau rich? The artist was a "Boston Brahmin,"
her parents being Samuel Cabot III and Hannah Lowell Jackson.

Europeans have long been appalled that American aristocracy is based on financial worth rather than generations-old family pedigree. The U.S. has been full of arrivistes since it was founded and within its communities we see levels of snobbism. Boston has looked down on New York for generations due to the ascent of the nouveau riche there. One would think the presumptuous Cabots and Lowells went back to the years of the Norman conquest.

"... good old Boston,
The home of the bean and the cod,
Where the Lowells speak only to Cabots,
And the Cabots speak only to God."   John Collins Bossidy

Like much else in American history there is a textile link. 

Francis Cabot Lowell (1775-1817) about 1800

Francis Cabot Lowell was born in Newburyport, Massachusetts. After graduating from Harvard he engaged in trade --- importing European goods in a growing fleet of ships. Great Britain's stranglehold on American cotton textile manufacturing inspired him to visit England with wife Hannah Jackson in 1810. No British textile machinery or plans to make it were permitted to be exported to the States, incentive for Lowell to observe closely in the mills he visited in his two years in England.*

English power loom weaving cotton

The Lowells returned to Massachusetts in 1812. Francis and Hannah's brother Patrick Tracy Jackson purchased land in Waltham to build the Boston Manufacturing Company. They apparently invested $400,000 of their friends' and relatives' money in the mill. With the help of engineer Paul Moody they rebuilt water-powered machines seen in England and improved upon them, making the mechanics easier to operate, requiring less skill from the employees---to the point where young women could run the looms and other machines.

Paul Moody (1779-1831)

The partners made money, which the Lowells invested well. The Jacksons and the Moodys made less profitable investments or perhaps never cared about establishing dynasties. 

Water flowing over the Charles River dam powered the belts that ran each loom.

Boston Manufacturing Company, Waltham

The factory is best remembered as the first American mill to combine all the steps of cotton cloth production from carding raw cotton to packaging cloth in one place. But what was the finished product?

1822 ad for Waltham Cottons from the Philadelphia Inquirer,
ten years after the mill's founding

I can find no sample books or swatches of fabric woven in the Waltham mill.

Were various woven checks and plaids like these samples from 1834 produced there?
It seems unlikely.

It may be that their only product was plain yardage in different 
weights like these---bleached and brown.

Display of coarse cotton cloth woven at the Boott Mills in Lowell.
In the middle bleached and brown sheetings?
This plain domestic cloth made a huge profit for the investors.

Francis Cabot Lowell died at the age of 42 in 1817. Five years later the partners decided the Charles River was not large enough for their plans so they moved north to a waterfall on the Merrimack River and established a new industrial town they named Lowell to remember Francis with a new mill The Merrimack Manufacturing Company.

In 1826 the Philadelphia paper advertised a number of cotton types
from several mills but mostly bleached and brown. 
Towards the bottom a different description:
Merrimack and Taunton Prints.

Merrimack mills in Lowell, thirty years later---1850

Well, we can guess what the Cabots and Lowells and God were talking about---plain cotton, two shades: bleached and brown.

Photo formerly in the collection of the American Textile History Museum
Plain cotton

* Englishman Samuel Slater is also credited with memorizing the workings of British textile machines before emigrating to Rhode Island and establishing the Samuel Slater & Company mill in
Pawtucket in 1798.

Another post about early New England fabric production:


  1. In that Philadelphia newspaper add - what do all those "do." mean? Domestic? They had a little tune running in my head... do doo do do dooty do...

    I'm of mixed feelings on the advancements in the looms. It's good that they were made easier to use for all workers. The part about young women now able to run them...hmmm. Too many conflicting thoughts to start here.

    1. Ditto. Yes, the idea that the mechanization made the machinery so simple that women could run them is condescending. One sees the same idea in sewing machine advertising.