Charles River Museum of Industry and Innovation

154 Moody Street, Waltham

Boston Manufacturing Company in Waltham, 1978. Public domain.

The Charles River Museum of Industry and Innovation is housed in part what was of one of the first factories in the United States. It is also the site of the world’s first integrated factory—one in which all aspects of the manufacturing process are housed within a single entity. As such, many consider it the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution in the United States. It was there, in 1813, that Francis Cabot Lowell, a wealthy Bostonian, along with a group of investors that historians have called the Boston Associates (but who were never formally organized as such), established the Boston Manufacturing Company.

Producing cotton textiles, the factory relied on a workforce of approximately 300 laborers—largely young, unmarried women in its initial years—and on the energy provided by a small waterfall along the Charles River. The factory housed the country’s first power loom, the design of which Lowell had effectively stolen (and then adapted with the help of Paul Moody, a mechanic/engineer) from the mills of Manchester, England. In a stunning act of industrial espionage, he visited English factories and recorded to memory strongly guarded secrets and carried them back to the United States just before the War of 1812 broke out.

While wealth accumulation was certainly central to the goals of Lowell and his fellow investors, they had a larger social mission as well, one that grew out of their concern that the United States avoid the excesses of the English industrial experience in terms of filthy cities, urban poverty, and dire working conditions, and one modeled on a different approach to industrial development practiced in Scotland. Boston Manufacturing paid its employees in cash (rather than script, which was very common at the time) and, at least initially, at levels higher than prevailing wages for female workers (which were considerably less than those received by male workers). It also owned boarding houses in which its female workers stayed; the houses were staffed by a matron. As a way of instilling confidence in families who sent their daughters to work in Waltham, the company ensured the good moral standing of the women, enforcing standards of behavior and dress and requiring weekly attendance at church. While working conditions were not easy—12-hour days, six days a week in a room with lint-filled air—they were considerably better than those at factories elsewhere.

Over time, the logic of industrial capitalism undermined the pretense of any high-minded mission on the part of the Boston Manufacturing Company. In the face of rising competition in the textile industry, working conditions deteriorated at the Waltham factory as manifested by increased work assignments and lower wages. By the mid-1800s, the workforce was also characterized by a growing number of Irish (largely immigrant) laborers—many of them children.

What came to be known as the Waltham-Lowell system speaks to its geographic origins in so-called “Watch City” (as it grew rapidly, Waltham later became one of the world’s leading producers of watches) and the fact that it spread to what came to be known as Lowell, Massachusetts.

Today, Waltham, which lies about 12 miles west of Downtown Boston, is a city of approximately 60,000. The Boston Manufacturing Company closed in 1930. The Charles River Museum of Industry and Innovation, which opened in 1988, tells the story of the company and of other aspects of Waltham’s industrial history.

Getting there:

Commuter rail from North Station (Framingham line), or MBTA bus from Downtown Boston, to Waltham Station. The museum is just below (going downhill) the station, on the Charles River, in the direction opposite that of the Waltham Common. Less than a five-minute walk.

Nearby sites of interest:

Waltham Common (across from the train station), the site of the annual Watch City Steampunk Festival (on the Saturday of Mother’s Day weekend), the largest such festival in New England.

Brandeis University, 415 South Street.

To learn more:

Robert F. Dalzell, Jr. Enterprising Elite: The Boston Associates and the World They Made, New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1993.

Howard M. Gitelman. “The Waltham System and the Coming of the Irish,” Labor History, Vol. 8, No. 3, 1967: 227-253.

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