|Tag(s):||Industrial Revolution, Cotton Mills, Charles Dickens, Lowell, women's rights|
|Course:||“U.S. History: 1812 - 1914,” Foothill College|
|Rating:||2 (2 votes)|
He said he wasn’t going to compare the textile factories at Lowell, Massachusetts, to the ones in his home country of England, but how could he not? After all, Charles Dickens would make it his life’s work to critique the deplorable working conditions that his fellow countrymen had to suffer through on a daily basis. “The contrast would be a strong one,” Dickens wrote in comparing Lowell to England, “for it would be between the Good and Evil, the living light and the deepest shadow.”
By the time Dickens arrived in Lowell in 1842 for his one-day inspection of the factories, the mills had only been in operation for twenty years. Everything looked and smelled and felt new. “One would swear that every ‘Bakery,’ ‘Grocery,’ and ‘Bookbindery,’ and other kind of store, took its shutters down for the first time, and started in business yesterday.” More important, America still must have felt like a young babe to many Europeans. In that vein, Emerson famously declared that America was “a country of beginnings, of projects, of vast designs and expectations.” So when Dickens arrived in Lowell that rainy day, he probably had rather high expectations of examples of America’s grandeur and progressive thinking. In Dickens' mind, the promise of industrialization had failed in England, and it was up to America to fulfill its prophecy. Dickens, it would seem, was in no way disappointed.
Given our knowledge of Dickens’ life and his literary works, it is of no surprise that most of his focus at Lowell was on the women and the conditions in which they worked and lived in. Lowell was constructed in 1822 from the ground up. First, mills were built on the river. Next, the town was constructed around them, which included boarding houses, churches, stores, and even a hospital. Over the years Lowell had been described as a “commercial utopia.” This is perhaps because the Merrimack Manufacturing Company designed the town in the guise of a utopia, in the hopes that the women would work long and difficult hours without a hint of unrest. For a while, this appeared to work. Indeed, many people visited the mills and commented on how happy the women appeared to be. Dickens was no different. “They were healthy in appearance, many of them remarkably so, and had the manners and deportment of young women: not of degraded brutes of burden.”
Dickens most famous and most fascinating commentary, however, was in regards to three “facts,” as he calls them, which “will startle a large class of readers on this side of the Atlantic, very much.” First, Dickens wrote that many boarding houses had a joint-stock piano. Apparently, to Englishmen this would seem like a luxury not fitting for workers. Second, Dickens noted that many women subscribed to circulating libraries. This was a fact that was widely publicized in America at the time. While it’s true that many of the women read a great deal, it is perhaps an example of the propaganda that surrounded those hopeful to shape Lowell into the American dream of prosperity and innovation. Lastly, Dickens told his English readers that the women working at Lowell produced a periodical called The Lowell Offering. Dickens was enamored with this magazine, as were many of the visitors of Lowell. “Of the merits of the Lowell Offering as a literary production, I will observe…that it will compare advantageously with a great many English Annuals.” In hindsight, much of the work published in the Lowell Offering was rather dull and incredibly sentimental. So much so that it has been argued by Professor Allan MacDonald that, “the Offering received attention more because of the peculiar circumstances of its production that its merit.” Nonetheless, the mere production of a periodical is remarkable when you consider the twelve-hour workdays.
Dickens can be regarded among the many well-known Europeans to write about their travels through a young America. The most famous, perhaps, was Alexis de Tocqueville, who visited the U.S. in 1841. Harriet Martineau, Michel Chevalier, and Frances Trollope are three others. Each had their agenda. For Dickens, his agenda was no doubt manifold. He was very much interested in promoting the abolitionist movement, for example. But given his background, he couldn’t help but take a daylong trip to the factories at Lowell, Massachusetts. There, he marveled at the working and living conditions the women workers faced. You can almost here in his writing the voice of a person who believed America would lead the world into the millennium.