|Tag(s):||Chevalier, Industrial Revolution, women's rights, Lowell|
|Course:||“U.S. History: 1812 - 1914,” Foothill College|
The machine once promised humanity greatness—or so the 19th-century train of thought went. “There is nothing in the physical order of things,” wrote Michel Chevalier, “of which our race has a better right to boast, than the mechanical inventions, by means of which man holds in check the irregular vigour, or brings forth the hidden energies, of nature. By the aid of mechanical contrivances, this poor weak creature, reaching out his hands over the immensity of nature, takes possession of the rivers, of the winds of heaven, of the tides of the ocean.” Indeed, the machine was the greatest example yet of man’s genius. It would prove, however, to also be one of its darkest hours.
In his writings on the factories at Lowell, Chevalier went so far as to equate the steam-engine with a living being: “it runs like a courser at the top of his speed; more than this, it breathes.” This prologue set the stage for his commentary that dripped with the hope that Lowell would finally fulfils the prophecy that industrialization had promised decades prior. Chevalier was very much aware of the disastrous consequences the factories of Europe had had on the working class. This was no hidden secret. Chevalier even called the factories a “canker”. But he refused to give up on the prophecy that the machine would save mankind. “The manufacturing system is a novelty, it is expanding and maturing itself, and as it ripens, it certainly will improve.” With that in mind, Chevalier’s analysis of the working conditions at Lowell was continuously compared to those in Europe, especially in England and France. Things looked much cheerier from this perspective.
Chevalier broke his commentary down into two main groups: economic and social/religious. Economically, he focused most on the high wages the Lowell women received when compared to European workers. The average weekly wage fluctuated from $3.00 to $4.00 depending on the job. This was quite high compared to the twenty cents to one dollar a week wages Europeans made, not to mention the fact that the cost of living in Europe was much higher than that of America during this part of the 19th-century. Socially, Chevalier attempted to determine why the American system seemed fairer than the European model. He boiled it down to differences in societal expectations. After quoting at length a number of the codes at one of the factories, Chevalier admitted that those regulations would not be practical in France. Yet in America, he said that they were enforced without opposition or difficulty. This was not completely accurate, however, at least not from a historical standpoint. There were a number of strikes, the first of which took place in 1836. These typically involved wage cuts or other reductions in benefits. That said, Chevalier visited Lowell in 1832. This date is important because the factories had only been in operation for ten years, when the youth ignited a wave of hope not only across the United States but also across Europe. But, as Professor Allan MacDonald points out, we now “look back from our disillusionment with an experiment that has run its course only to acknowledge how far short we have come of the goal we had set for ourselves.” Chevalier’s wave of optimism and hope was most obvious when he tried to describe the town. “Lowell, with its steeple-crowned factories, resembles a Spanish town with its convents; but with this difference, that in Lowell, you meet no rags nor Madonnas, and that the nuns of Lowell, instead of working sacred hearts, spin and weave cotton.” Indeed, to Chevalier this new commercial utopia must have seemed like a dream come true. Here it was, the industrial revolution prophecy finally realized. Man had conquered nature and did so in a way that had no negative consequences. At least, that’s the way it appeared to Chevalier.