Historic Structures

Boston Manufacturing Company, Waltham Massachusetts

Date added: October 1, 2021 Categories: Massachusetts Industrial Mill

According to business historians Glenn Porter and Harold c. Livesay, the Boston Manufacturing Company (BMC) "was the first truly modern factory in the United States." Founded in 1813 by Francis Cabot Lowell, Patrick T. Jackson, and others, the BMC "integrated and mechanized production from raw material to finished product under a single management and within a single factory." This "new industrial form," says textile manufacturing historian Caroline F. Ware, "soon came to dominate the cotton industry," because it "marked a radical departure from all that had gone before, differing almost as much from the early mill as the latter had from its handicraft predecessors." Much of the BMC's success stemmed from its innovative development of an entire series of new or improved textile machines. According to Harvard business historian George Sweet Gibb, "the power loom of the Boston Manufacturing Company affected the American cotton textile industry as no other innovation since 1790 had done. It signalized the awakening of American mechanics" and the end of their "slavish dependence" on British technology. Moreover, says Ware, it was power-loom weaving that "furnished the technical basis for reorganization of the factory" and for "a practically unlimited extension in the size of the factory plant."

In her prize-winning 1931 study of the early New England cotton textile industry, Caroline F. Ware asserts that "the story of the New England cotton industry is the story of the industrialization of America. This industry brought the factory system to the United States and furnished the laboratory wherein we worked out industrial methods characteristic of the nation." Ware and most other economic historians date the beginning of the American cotton textile industry to 1790, the year in which William Almy and Moses Brown, utilizing the ideas and skills of English immigrant Samuel Slater, opened the country's first successful cotton mill in Providence, Rhode Island. Following the Providence example, a number of entrepreneurs started cotton mills during the next two decades, and by 1810 some 168 cotton factories with 90,000 spindles were operating in the United States. These mills struggled, however, against competition from cheap goods imported from England and against shortages of skilled workers and investment capital. The trade embargo of 1807-9 and the war of 1812 altered these conditions significantly by shutting off foreign competition, freeing commercial capital for investment in manufacturing, and sparking a wave of new mill construction. Chief among these new enterprises stood the Boston Manufacturing Company, which was organized, says Ware, along a "new industrial form" that "soon came to dominate the cotton industry" and that "marked a radical departure from all that had gone before, differing almost as much from the early mill as the latter had from its handicraft predecessors."

Francis Cabot Lowell, a judge's son born in Newburyport, Massachusetts, in 1775, proved the principal architect of the innovative new company. Having grown up in Boston and excelled in mathematics at Harvard, Lowell engaged in a profitable import-export business until 1810 when he and his family took a prolonged trip to the British Isles. Historians are not in agreement about whether Lowell went abroad chiefly for his health or primarily to study English manufacturing methods, but most recent studies suggest the latter as the reason for the trip. Whatever the case, Lowell seized every opportunity to examine British technology, especially in Manchester's textile mills. In addition, while in Edinburgh in 1811 he carried on a lengthy dialogue with fellow Bostonian traveler Nathan Appleton about the organization and technical knowledge necessary to establish a successful cotton mill in the United States. British law forbade the exportation of textile machinery, designs, or artisans, but one of Lowell's biographers, Robert Sobel, speculates that he brought "the intricate designs of cotton machinery in his head without the aid of drawings" back to America.

When Lowell arrived home in 1812 he found his international commercial enterprises in financial trouble as a result of the war with England. He remained undeterred, however, and set about immediately organizing his new cotton manufacturing venture. Apparently his first partners included only his brother-in-law, Patrick T. Jackson; a cousin, Benjamin Gorham; and a former associate, Uriah Catting. On February 23, 1813, they obtained a State charter for the Boston Manufacturing Company to be situated in Waltham, and during the summer they secured additional financial support from Appleton, warren Dutton, Israel Thorndike and others. Lowell and his fellow investors, 12 men in all, met in Boston on September 4, 1813, and signed articles of association for the new firm. According to Sobel, while there is no record of what Lowell told his colleagues, his manner of proceeding suggests that he had some kind of master plan. In contrast to the British cotton manufacturing system, in which yarn was made in one place and cloth woven in another, Lowell planned to bring the spinning and weaving processes together under one roof, mechanize the entire operation, and power it with falling water.

Jackson had found a suitable mill site in the spring, and in September he completed the purchase of it. The BMC would be situated on the north bank of the Charles River in Waltham, where for almost 25 years John Boies, the previous owner of the property, had operated a paper mill. In October the 12 associates met again to complete the organization of their firm, and they made Jackson treasurer and chief executive officer. Lowell, Appleton, Thorndike, and James Lloyd were named directors. This same month Lowell secured the services of Paul Moody, a highly regarded skilled mechanic, as superintendent of construction of the new mill and machinery. From this moment, says expert textile machinery historian George Sweet Gibb, "the success or failure of the Boston Manufacturing Company was to rest less with the promoters, administrators, and mechanical theorists than in the skillful hands of Paul Moody, the practical mechanic.: He "immediately proved to be as powerful and significant a figure . . . as Francis Lowell himself."

Moody, with assistance from Jackson, commenced at once erecting the mill and setting up a machine shop. Work crews needed almost a year to construct it, but by November 1814, BMC had a solid red brick mill that measured about 90 by 45 feet and rose three and one-half stories to a double-pitched or monitored roof. The basement contained space for a waterwheel and the machine shop, while the first floor was reserved for carding, the second for spinning, and the third and fourth for weaving. Jacob Perkins, who had rejected the superintendent's job before Moody took it, helped install a waterwheel, dam, flumes, and a raceway. Meanwhile Lowell developed plans and drawings for a power loom, and Moody constructed a model. By the end of 1814 the two men had completed a workable loom chiefly of their own design and had purchased several other machines so that now the BMC stood ready to begin producing cotton cloth.

When the Boston Manufacturing Company turned out its first cloth early in 1815, according to business historians Glenn Porter and Harold C. Livesay, it "was the first truly modern factory in the United States, for it integrated and mechanized production from raw material to finished product under a single management and within a single factory." Lowell had become, says textile industry historian Perry Walton, the first person systematically to arrange the processes of manufacturing in a mill so that no labor would be lost in passing from one process to another." This integration "established," says Gibb, "a pattern that had a profound effect upon the industrial organization of the country." Other entrepreneurs copied the "Waltham model," and the Waltham promoters themselves built the Nation's first planned industrial city, Lowell, Massachusetts, on this new principal.

The Boston Manufacturing Company had a far-reaching impact on the future development of textile machinery as well as on mill planning and organization. In Gibb's opinion, the firm's "power loom ... affected the American cotton textile industry as no other innovation since 1790 had done. It signalized the awakening of American mechanics" and the end of their "slavish dependence" on British technology. Moody and his assistants studied, mastered, and improved, says Gibb, "not just the power loom but most of the machines then known to cotton textile manufacturers." The Waltham power loom necessitated changes in the spinning process, so Lowell and Moody invented the warper. Later Lowell and Moody joined to develop the double speeder, and still later Moody came up with the filling throstle for the so-called "dead spindle" system of spinning. "From 1814 to 1824," says Gibb, "Moody's inventions and adaptations of English inventions," which he made in the BMC machine shop, "were the dominant development in the American textile industry." Moreover, his work laid a foundation for evolution of the long-famous Saco-Lowell Shops, which historically has been one of the Nation's two major manufacturers of textile machinery.

During its first decade, the BMC grew rapidly and carried the town of Waltham, rural until then, along with it. Able to turn out cloth in quantity and compete successfully with British firms, the BMC reaped sizeable profits and poured some of them back into the community by building several schools and churches and founding a library and the town's first fire department. In the middle of all this success, Lowell died, in 1817, and Jackson, Appleton, and several other Waltham associates formed the Merrimack Manufacturing Company to develop a completely new planned industrial community, to which they gave their deceased partner's name. "With the establishment of Lowell," says Kenneth Mailloux, historian of the BMC, "the Boston Manufacturing Company ceased to be New England's most professive textile factory." Still, during the next few decades, while distinguished visitors frequented the factory primarily because of its historical significance, the BMC continued to grow at a modest rate. The firm continued to do business until 1929, but then the stockholders voted to cease operating and sell the buildings piecemeal to several small companies.