The History of Lowell in 10 Objects: Selections from the Museum Collection at Lowell National Historical Park

A few months ago, during NMSC’s second annual March Madness Facebook campaign, over 800 people voted Lowell National Historical Park (LOWE) their favorite national park in the Northeast Region.  EIGHT HUNDRED people!  That’s a lot of love!  We watched as people from near and far cast their votes for LOWE, and as one local community group after another shared our Facebook post, encouraging their own followers to “Vote for Lowell!”  This year’s contest showed us what a powerful tool social media can be for getting the word out about the wonderful and varied parks in the Northeast Region.  It also showed us how many people appreciate, support, and value this very special park.

When LOWE emerged victorious from our March Madness competition, we visited the park to offer our congratulations and to learn more about their museum collection in preparation for the winner’s blog post.  We met some very friendly rangers at the Visitor Center, toured the Working People Exhibit at the Patrick J. Mogan Cultural Center, and were awed by the sights and sounds of the working looms in the weave room at the Boott Cotton Mills Museum.  We were treated to a tour of collections storage, where former LOWE Museum Specialist Jack Herlihy and LOWE Chief of Cultural Resources Laurel Racine showed us maps and textiles related to the history of Lowell and the Boott Mills.

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LOWE’s Chief of Cultural Resources Laurel Racine with NMSC’s Jessica (author).

The story of Lowell National Historical Park is one of ingenuity, industry, diversity, and resilience.  We asked the curatorial staff at LOWE to choose ten objects from the park’s museum collection that best represent this story.  (You, our readers, are lucky, because they gave us eleven!)  We hope that you enjoy learning about these objects as much as we did, and we hope that this post inspires you to visit Lowell and enjoy its unique history and vibrant culture firsthand.

1792 Locks and Canals Charter

This charter signifies the incorporation of the Proprietors of Locks and Canals, a corporation founded by Boston-area businessmen in 1792 to control water rights and water power along the Merrimack River.  The Proprietors of Locks and Canals constructed the Pawtucket Canal in 1796 to skirt the Pawtucket Falls in the Merrimack River.  The water power controlled by this corporation would prove integral to the development of the textile industry along the Merrimack and hence the development of the City of Lowell.  For a company to incorporate in 1792, the governor of Massachusetts had to sign the charter.  Hence the John Hancock – literally! – at the bottom of this document.

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1792 charter for the Proprietors of Locks and Canals. Photo courtesy of Lowell National Historical Park.

Clock for Boston Manufacturing Company

This clock, made in Boston by Zalman Aspinwall, was purchased for the offices of the Boston Manufacturing Company in Waltham, Massachusetts.  The origins of the textile industry in America can be traced back to this office and its associated mill, which was the precursor to the larger and more productive mills in the new city of Lowell.   This clock witnessed some bold ideas and some grand planning from its place on a Waltham wall!

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Clock purchased for the offices of the Boston Manufacturing Company in Waltham, Massachusetts. 

The Boston Manufacturing Company was founded in 1814 by Francis Cabot Lowell, who had seen power looms at work in England and wanted to copy the process in America.  With mechanical engineer Paul Moody, Lowell built his own version of a power loom, and founded a textile mill on the banks of the Charles River in Waltham.  The water power supplied by the Charles could only go so far, and when the Boston Manufacturing Company wanted to increase production, they sought out new sources of water power in nearby East Chelmsford.  As noted by Laurence Gross in his book The Course of Industrial Decline, “The thirty-foot fall in the mighty Merrimack could power ninety mills the size of Waltham’s” (p. 4).

1821 Map of Lowell

In 1821, before the “Mile of Mills” sprang up along the Merrimack River, the area now known as Lowell was a predominantly rural part of East Chelmsford, sprinkled with small farms and homesteads.  That very year, Boston businessmen would travel to East Chelmsford to view the Pawtucket Falls in the Merrimack and envision the industry that could be supported by such impressive water power.  Just a couple of years after this map was drawn, the depicted area would be almost unrecognizable.

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1821 Map of Lowell by J. G. Hales.  Photo courtesy of Lowell National Historical Park.

 

Locks and Canals Plan, Kirk Boott

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Kirk Boott, image found on Wikimedia Commons.

In the early 1820s, the Boston Manufacturing Company hired Kirk Boott to lead the development of land along the Merrimack River.  Boott worked with the Proprietors of Locks and Canals, selling land and water rights to allow for the establishment of several textile factories along the Merrimack.  Boott oversaw the planning of not only the mills themselves but also the surrounding canals, locks, workers’ housing, and streets.  Mrozowski, Ziesing, and Beaudry write in Living on the Boott that “the factories, street layout, and worker accommodations were constructed according to detailed plans, carefully thought out” (p. 2).  Despite its early 19th-century date, this plan has a classic and timeless quality about it.  As noted by Jack Herlihy during our site visit, these original plans “are still used today [by city planners and canal operators] for their intended purpose.”

locks and canals plan

Locks and Canals Plan by Kirk Boott.  Photo courtesy of Lowell National Historical Park.

 

Lowell Machine Shop Loom

This loom is attributed to the Lowell Machine Shop, which began as the machine shop for the Boston Manufacturing Company in Waltham then followed textile production to the new mills in Lowell.  The Shop was distinct from the mills, having been incorporated as an independent entity in 1845. According to Lowell National Historical Park’s official website, “the shop underlay Lowell’s textile industries:  fabricating machines that turned cotton into cloth, building waterwheels, turbines, and steam engines that provided the power, and making shafts, gears, and pulleys that transferred power within the mill…  The development of such skills in the textile industry’s early machine shops was a crucial step in the American Industrial Revolution.”  In other words, without the expertise contained in the Lowell Machine Shop, and the dependable tools and machines produced there, the story of textile production in America would have been very different.

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Lowell Machine Shop Loom.  At Lowell National Historical Park.

This loom is on exhibit at Lowell National Historical Park, where you can also walk through the Weave Room at the Boott Cotton Mills Museum and get a feel for what it must have been like to work in the mill at its heyday.  Loud, for starters!  During out site visit, we were amazed by the sound the working looms produced: it was deafening!  The looms on exhibit today represent only a fraction of those in place when the mill was functioning. Just imagine how crowded and noisy a day at work was for the men, women, and children tending the looms!

1855 Loom Patent Model

This loom might look a little small to you.  It’s not a mini version, it’s a patent model!  From 1790 until 1880, anyone applying for a patent with the U.S. Patent Office was required to submit a working model of his or her invention as well as supporting documents.  This model was created for that purpose in 1855 by Samuel T. Thomas of Lawrence, Massachusetts.  It is currently on display at the park’s Visitor Center on Dutton Street in downtown Lowell.  Be sure to take a look when you visit!

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Loom patent model, on exhibit at Visitor Center on Dutton Street.

 

Front Cover of the Lowell Offering

Most people familiar with the history of Lowell have heard the term, “mill girls.”  This name refers to the many young women who came to Lowell in the early 19th century, seeking a chance to earn their own wages or an alternative to rural life.  These women worked and lived together, laboring long hours in the mills then going home to nearby boardinghouses in the evenings.  The Lowell Offering was a publication produced between 1840 and 1845 that contained writings by the “mill girls.”  In Loom and Spindle (written in 1898), former mill girl Harriet Robinson wrote of the Lowell Offering that “many of the pieces that were printed there were thought out amid the hum of the wheels, while the skillful fingers and well-trained eyes of the writers tended the loom or the frame” (p. 98).

According to Robinson, the origin of the Lowell Offering stemmed from workers’ desire to improve themselves morally and intellectually, and to prove that “intellect and intelligence might be found even among factory operatives” (p. 99-100).  The content of the Lowell Offering varied from poetry and other literary contributions, to scientific papers about astronomy or physiology, to political statements about working conditions in the mills, women’s rights, or slavery.  The magazine was distributed throughout New England and was welcomed in many communities as a source of enlightened, progressive ideas.  In his American Notes, Charles Dickens wrote admiringly of the Offering, stating that even though written after a hard day’s work, “it will compare advantageously with a great many English annuals” (p. 111).

The idyllic image on the cover of the Lowell Offering evokes everything a proper and righteous mill girl ought to have been:  the book in the young lady’s hand signals her studiousness and dedication to self-improvement; the church spire in the background indicates her faith and attendance at religious services; the beehive in her view speaks to her industriousness and selflessness.  As the 19th century progressed, the workforce in the mills shifted.  The era of the “mill girl” in Lowell was succeeded by waves of various immigrant groups, who brought to the mills their own ideas of identity and work, and who brought to the city the different cultural elements that helped make Lowell the rich and diverse community it is today.

 

Lowe 1257 LowellOffering Cover

Front cover of a Lowell Offering publication ca. 1845.  In the museum collection at Lowell National Historical Park.  Photo courtesy of Lowell National Historical Park.

Archeological Artifact – Kiss Me, I’m Sterilized! Pin

As a member of NMSC’s archeology team, I was thrilled to see on the LOWE staff’s list of eleven objects an “archeological artifact of your choosing.”  We love archeology because of its potential to tell the stories that are unwritten and to illuminate the lives of those who do not appear in historical documents.  Unlike their Yankee predecessors, the Irish, French-Canadian, Greek, Polish, Portuguese, Russian and other immigrants who worked in Lowell’s textile factories starting in the second half of the 19th century generally did not publish literature about their experiences in the mills.  Their voices can be heard by examining the material culture they left behind in the archeological record.

NMSC processed a large collection of archeological artifacts from LOWE in 2014.  The collection contained 19th-century ceramics, glassware, medicinal bottles, and several personal objects including a button painted with an Irish shamrock design, a simple gold wedding ring, and two mourning brooches.  One of our favorite artifacts is a pin-back button printed with the phrase “Kiss Me Kid, I’m Sterilized!” and an image of a man and woman in early 20th-century attire leaning in for a kiss.  This pin may be associated with the severe outbreak of Spanish influenza that affected Boston in 1918, which killed 141 people in one week alone that October.    Tufts Medical Center in Medford began offering vaccinations soon after the outbreak occurred.  While the imagery on this artifact is light and funny, whoever donned the pin clearly took the health scare seriously and went out of his or her way to avoid getting sick.

I find a bittersweet irony in this artifact and the story behind it.  The working conditions in the Lowell mills in the 1910s were abysmal.  Official reports noted dark, dirty rooms with filthy floors, broken windows, and temperatures that were often extremely hot or cold.  The noise levels in the weaving room were deafening.  The cotton “fly” in the air created a fire hazard and made it difficult to breathe, a hardship exacerbated by the high levels of humidity in the mills.  Workers suffered from frequent injuries and “colds, catarrh, and grippe infections,” not to mention byssinosis, or “brown lung.” (Gross p. 133-138) In light of these conditions and the refusal of management to deal with them for the sake of their employees, the idea of a mill worker seeking out a vaccination to protect his or her health seems especially poignant.

kiss me kid

“Kiss Me Kid, I’m Sterilized!” pin from the archeology collection at Lowell National Historical Park.  (Left:  artifact from LOWE collection.  Right:  image of intact example found online)

 

Boott Products

The Boott Mill is associated primarily with coarse goods like corduroy, canvas, and toweling.  These items are important components of the park’s museum collection because they represent the culmination of the technology, labor, and marketing exercised by the Boott Mills and its employees.  During World War II, the company focused its efforts on military products.   After the war, towels once again became a major commodity for the Boott, reaching a production level of ten million yards a year.  (Gross p. 215) These items were known for their good quality and repeatedly received the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval.  Successful marketing strategies in the 20th century led to a wide distribution of these products, which ended up at wholesalers, chain stores, and mail-order houses.  Montgomery-Ward, Sears & Roebuck, and Woolworth’s are just some of the sellers that offered Boott towels by the mid-1900s.

 

Army-Navy E Award Pennant and Poster

The Army-Navy E Award was an honor presented to companies during World War II that achieved excellence in production of war equipment.  Viewing these important objects, which, as you can see from the photos, are beautifully preserved, was a highlight of our site visit.  During World War II, the Boott Mill focused on producing goods for the war effort, primarily canvas for the navy.  Earned by only 5% of the more than 85,000 companies involved in producing materials for the US effort, the E Award was granted to the Boott Mill every year during World War II.  According to the park’s former Museum
Specialist Jack Herlihy, historic photographs show Congresswoman Edith Nourse Rogers at the Boott Mills with mill employees wearing E Award pins.  Nourse was sponsored several pieces of legislation designed to support our armed forces.  Jack also told us while visiting LOWE that this E Award pennant once flew at the counting house of the Boott Mill.  Walking through the courtyard today, it’s easy to picture these proud, bright colors flying overhead.

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E Award pennant from the museum collection at Lowell National Historical Park.

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E Award poster from the museum collection at Lowell National Historical Park.

Cambodian Dance Costume Helmet

In Mill Power:  the Origin and Impact of Lowell National Historical Park, Paul Marion describes the dynamic changes in Lowell’s population during the last twenty years of the 20th century, when “some 17,000 refugees from Southeast Asia, most of them Cambodians, along with many Vietnamese and Laotians, resettled in the mill city” (p. 31).  The Cambodian population has enriched Lowell in many significant ways, adding specific elements of their traditional culture to an already diverse city.  This headpiece signifies the Cambodian refugees’ heritage and their cultural contributions to modern-day Lowell.

This object is not a historic piece; it was purchased by Lowell National Historical Park as a representative item for exhibit purposes.  The helmet is one element of a costume worn during a traditional Cambodian dance performed regularly in Lowell by the Angkor Dance Troupe.  As expressed on the group’s website, the troupe was formed in 1986 when “Tim Thou and a group of Cambodian refugees with a passion for Khmer performing arts came together in Lowell, Massachusetts with the sole purpose to revive a culture once almost lost.”  This headpiece is an important piece in Lowell National Historical Park’s museum collection because it represents a part of Lowell’s history that is not related to – but equally as worthy of interpretation and preservation as – the story of the textile mills.

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Helmet from traditional Cambodian dance costume. In the museum collection at Lowell National Historical Park.

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Image of Angkor Dance Troupe, found online at Massachusetts Cultural Council’s website.

 

Conclusion

In Mill Power:  The Origin and Impact of Lowell National Historical Park, Paul Marion writes about the creation of Lowell and the ideals that it was founded on:  “Lowell was the American imagination at work…a declaration of industrial independence.”  (Marion p. 7)  Lowell’s history is characterized by growth, decline, and rebirth, as the city continuously sought to keep up with America’s changing economy.  The story of Lowell’s people reflects the story of America:  a population as diverse as it is hardworking, strong, and proud.  Without the European immigrants who powered the mills in the 19th century, and the Cambodian refugees of today who infuse the city with their vibrant culture, Lowell as we know it would not exist.

Patrick Mogan, who dedicated his career to revitalizing Lowell in the 20th century and was instrumental in the formation of Lowell National Historical Park, often said:  “A city that has no past cannot have a future.” (Marion p. 159)  History provides us with a sense of belonging that instills pride in our local places and stories. Lowell National Historical Park helps to ensure that Lowell’s inspiring history will be preserved and passed on for years to come.

We hope that you enjoyed learning about these objects from the museum collection at Lowell National Historical Park!  It was our pleasure sharing them with you.  We offer our most sincere thanks to LOWE’s former Museum Specialist Jack Herlihy and LOWE’s Chief of Cultural Resources Laurel Racine for taking the time to meet with us and share their extensive knowledge about the park’s museum collection.  Summer’s not over yet!  Add a visit to this one-of-a-kind park to your bucket list this year!

References:

Angkor Dance Troupe, official website:  http://www.angkordance.org/

Gross, Laurence F.  The Course of Industrial Decline:  The Boott Cotton Mills of Lowell, Massachusetts, 1835-1955.  Baltimore:  The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993.

Herlihy, Jack, personal communication, May 18, 2017.

Lowell National Historical Park, official website:  https://www.nps.gov/lowe/index.htm

Marion, Paul.  Mill Power:  The Origin and Impact of Lowell National Historical Park.  ew York:  Rowman and Littlefield, 2014.

Mrozowski, Stephen A., Grace H. Ziesing, and Mary C. Beaudry.  Living on the Boott:  Historical Archaeology at the Boott Mills Boardinghouses, Lowell, Massachusetts.  Amherst:  University of Massachusetts Press, 1996.

Racine, Laurel, personal communication, May 18, 2017.

Robinson, Harriet H.  Loom and Spindle:  Or Life Amongst the Early Mill Girls.  Carlisle, MA:  Applewood Books, 1898.

 

 

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About JessicaC

Jessica is a Museum Specialist in the Archeology Program at the Northeast Museum Services Center/National Park Service. She majored in history as an undergraduate at the State University of New York at Geneseo, and has a master's degree in historical archeology from the University of Massachusetts-Boston. She is particularly interested in 18th and 19th century American history and material culture.
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