Lowell, the ‘City of Spindles’ was a purpose-built textile-manufacturing town harnessing the power of the nearby Pawtucket Falls. Founded in 1821, by 1860, 122,000 workers were processing nearly one million bales of cotton annually. Its modus operandi was the Waltham-Lowell System, pioneered by its founding father, with a workforce of young local girls housed in dormitories on site, closely supervised and working up to 80 hours per week. Textile mills following the Waltham-Lowell system appeared throughout northern New England between 1814 and 1850. This system was meant to promote a diligent and docile workforce, but their circumstances served to facilitate collective organization, with two strikes at Lowell (1834, 1836) the second of which successfully averted a proposed rent rise. Further inland, industrial centres like Manayunk were served by more mixed immigrant workforces; atrocious working conditions made the lung disease, ‘spinner’s phthisis’ rife, and resulted in repeated strikes, including participation in a general strike organized from Philadelphia (1835). Industrial action focused on hours, pay and conditions, and frequently achieved concessions.
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