Aspirations and Anxieties: New England Workers and the Mechanized Factory System, 1815-1850

By David A. Zonderman | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 2
The Quest for the Middle Ground: Workers and Factory Buildings

There was cause for celebration at the Lowell Manufacturing Company in the spring of 1848. The firm had recently completed a new carpet mill capable of containing 250 Bigelow power looms. But before the machinery arrived, the management decided to put on one of the biggest public demonstrations in the history of Lowell, Massachusetts. Some 5,000 operatives, overseers, and townspeople filled the new mill. They were serenaded by two bands and feasted on corned beef, cold ham, bread, cheese, pies, tarts, apples, oranges, and raisins. One hundred sets of dancers took over the mill floor for an evening of entertainment. Harriet Farley, then editor of the New England Offering, was captivated by the entire scene and remarked:

we can only say, that when we entered the room, brilliantly lighted as it was, ornamented with the bright productions of the rug and carpet weavers, and filled, though not crowded, with a happy multitude of all ages and conditions, moving to and fro, and sending forth a low, pleasant murmur, -- when we first entered, a soft, subduing influence fell upon us, for we were reminded of our childhood ideas of heaven. 1

The Lowell Company's festivities were not the first of their kind in New England, though they were probably the grandest. Back in 1825, a woolen mill "raising" in Uxbridge, Massachusetts, brought forth a grand meal, including shankbone soup; and the name "Shankbone" was linked with that mill for many years after. In another part of the same town lay the mill village of "Crackerville," where less fortunate workers had been plied with mere crackers for their help in "raising" another factory. The Pomfret, Connecticut, Cotton Factory opened its mill with a celebration and punch for the whole community. And in Central Falls, Rhode Island, a factory opening was marked with speeches and toasts. 2

These occasions were all intended to show off the new buildings in a favorable light. Factory owners were intent on rounding up support for these new enterprises from overseers, operatives, and townspeople. The owners wanted all these groups to perceive the factory as part of a common good in which each one had a stake:

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