The Waltham-Lowell System

Drawing of Francis Cabot Lowell
Francis Cabot Lowell

National Park Service

The success of the early spinning mills of southern New England in the years before 1810 and the uncertainties of shipping led the son of a leading Boston merchant family, Francis Cabot Lowell, to seek a haven for his fortune in manufacturing. Having developed the country's first working power loom, Lowell, with fellow Bostonians Patrick Tracy Jackson and Nathan Appleton, established the Boston Manufacturing Company along the Charles River in Waltham in 1814.

There Lowell and his fellow entrepreneurs, later called the "Boston Associates," transformed the country's fledgling textile industry. Capitalized at $400,000, the Waltham mill dwarfed its competition. The power loom and related machinery permitted the combination of all the steps in the production of cloth under a single roof. Instead of relying on traditional family labor, the company recruited young single women from the surrounding countryside. So great were the profits at Waltham that the Boston Associates soon looked for new sites, first at East Chelmsford (renamed Lowell), and then Chicopee, Manchester, and Lawrence. The "Waltham-Lowell system" succeeded beyond their expectations, giving the Boston Associates control of a fifth of America's cotton production by 1850.

Their profits permitted this tight-knit group of families - Appletons, Cabots, Lowells, Lawrences, Jacksons - to build an economic, social, and political empire. They helped develop the Boston and Lowell Railroad and other railroad lines in New England. They owned controlling stock in a host of Boston financial institutions, allowing them to finance and insure ventures through their own companies. As their fortunes grew, the Boston Associates turned to -philanthropy-establishing hospitals and schools-and to politics, playing a prominent role in the Whig Party in Massachusetts. Until the Civil War, the Boston Associates were New England's dominant capitalists.

Source: Lowell National Historical Park Handbook 140


Last updated: February 26, 2015

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