Following the Money: How Lowell Made Boston, 1850

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Introduction: Lowell and Boston

Although nearly thirty miles apart, Boston wouldn't be Boston without Lowell.

This map takes that idea as its most general claim. It has a number of different ramifications. You can read the following introduction to get a better idea of how the map works — or you can just dive in my clicking on highlighted buildings/arrows and moving around the map. When you click on a building or arrow, you access further images, text, and data. Don't forget to visit Boston (and Williamstown and Groton, Massachusetts, which also benefited from the development of Lowell).

This map shows how some of the most important institutions of 21st-century greater Boston — Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard University, the Boston Athenaeum, Boston Public Library, McClean Hospital, The Lowell Institute (which provided the seed money for Boston's largest public TV and radio station, WGBH) — became possible, in part, through the financial success of the textile industry in the city of Lowell. 

The initial development of Lowell in the 19th-century as one of the first industrial cities of America has been extensively investigated by scholars. Boston investors opened the first mill in 1823, and by 1845 there were eleven textile manufacturers in the city: Lawrence, Boott, Merrimack, Appleton, Hamilton, Massachusetts, Prescott, Middlesex, Lowell, Tremont, and Suffolk.  By 1845, these companies had built 33 large factory buildings and employed over 10,000 workers (approximately 7200 female and 3000 male), many of whom lived in company boardinghouses across the city. Most of the workers came to Lowell from surrounding rural areas, with an increasing number arriving from further afield and abroad. By 1845, the population of the city had grown to 30,000 from just a few hundred 25 years earlier. At mid-century, Lowell was the most important factory city in the United States. It was central to the market revolution that transformed America.

As Lowell grew in the first part of the nineteenth century, so did Boston. Many of the investors who built the Lowell mill companies lived in Boston, and they were very generous to that larger, older city. They gave the equivalent (in today's valuations) of millions of dollars to educational, cultural, and philanthropic infrastructure in greater Boston. This map tracks that support. Capital from Boston was invested in Lowell's textile manufacturers, and then some of the profits from that investment were invested in Boston's rapidly growing institutions which still play an important role today.  

The Lowell investors did not completely ignore institutions in Lowell. They were dedicated to the idea that their workers (or "operatives," as they were known) would be well-cared for and encouraged to live virtuously. Almost immediately after opening the first mill, the investors built St. Anne's Church for mill workers at a cost of $9,000 (in 1824 dollars — see below for explanation of conversion to current dollar values). Indeed, over the next thirty years the manufacturing companies were often involved with the constrution and support of new churches in the city, understanding these institutions as contributing to the social order and the public good in the rapid growing city. The company "agents" (representive of the Boston's investors working and often living in Lowell) and other high-level managment frequently helped raise funds for a variety of denominations. Sometimes the manufacturing corporations gave directly to church projects: the land for St. Peter's Catholic Church was donated by 1831 by the Merrimack Corporation in 1845, and the Lowell manufacturers collectively donated $5000 toward the construction of Fourth Congregational Church, and, in 1849, $4000 for the construction of the Lee Street Unitarian church. Samuel Lawrence, one of the central investors living in Boston, helped save St. Paul's Methodist Episcopal Church from a forced sale in the late 1840s. By the mid-1850s, there were two dozen Protestant churches and three Catholic churches in Lowell, in large part due to the direct and indirect support of the mill companies. 

In the 1820s, the manufacturers also helped build two school buildings in the emerging city, although there simply weren't many students to teach. When city officials sought to significantly expand the school system in the early 1830s, supported by increased taxes, the mill owners spoke against the plan on fears that it would increase their taxes. In the mid-1830s, the mill corporations did help support a medical "dispensary" in the city, and in 1839 the eight mill corporations existing at that time invested $20,000 in the Lowell Corporation Hospital, which provided medical care for mill workers and the city at large. Patients themselves paid for this care, but if a mill worker were unable to pay, the mill employer was responsible for payment. This financial model worked effectively for several decades but was not sustainable, and the hospital essentially went out of business in the 1930s when it was sold to the Catholic Church of Boston for $1. Much else was also failing by the 1930s as mill work began to move to the American South in search of lower wages, easier access to raw materials, and non-union labor.

All in all, about $12.5 million was invested by Boston investors in the factories of Lowell between 1823 and 1845 (in 1845 dollars). This figure doesn't include capital invested by Boston investors in other important Lowell businesses, like the Boston-Lowell railroad or the Lowell Machine Shop, but even without these additions, it was a tremendous amount of money (somewhere around $1 billion in today's dollars, depending on how you measure value). This immense capital investment brought the city of Lowell into being. Yet, the investors' investment in Lowell's infrastructure beyond money-making factories was proportionately small. During period between 1823 and 1845, the mills did pay their taxes, which contributed to the city's infrastructure, but only approximately $40,000 (1845 dollars; 1/3 of 1% of the total capital investment of $12.5 million) was given directly by the mill corporations to develop churches, schools, and medical care in Lowell. 

Following the Money

The map to the left is of Lowell and the eastern half of Massachusetts, including greater Boston, around 1850. It is an interactive map and enables users to explore how money made by the manufacturing companies in Lowell moved to Boston institutions like Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard University, and the Boston Athenaeum. The map encourages us to ask questions and make observations about the ways Lowell and Boston developed together. In what ways was that development different? In what ways was the development uneven? What were the consequences of this development? What can be learned by looking very closely at a map of two cities about the movement of money and the making of these two cities in the nineteenth century? Does a similar relationship between cities, geographical regions, or parts of the world exist today? Does the relationship between to the two cities raise ethical questions? What stories does the map tell?

There is one important story that isn't told by this map, but it is nevertheless extremely important to the issues raised here. Much of the raw material — cotton — that went into the frabrics produced in Lowell came from slave plantations. A more comprehensive map about the development of Lowell and Boston in first half of the nineteenth century would need to include the U.S. South, the Carribean, and even Africa. The Lowell Historical Atlas welcomes proposals for building maps that depict the global Lowell. 

Some of these issues and questions are explained more elaborately on this project's page of study questions, which serves as a kind of reading guide or teaching guide to the site.

Structure and Methodology

The map is structured to allow users to click on mill complexes, arrows indicating investor's contributions to Boston, and various institutions and locales in Boston and Lowell that benifited from the surplus capital created in Lowell. Each click reveals a dialogue box with images and further information. 

It is difficult to collect data of such investments and gifts and then to represent such movements of money. Here is how the data works with this map. The term "Boston Associates" was first used by the economist Vera Shlakman in 1935 to describe a loosely affliliated group of textile investors, most of whom lived in Boston and invested in mills, railroads, and banks across Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and southern Maine. Shlakman made a list of Boston Associates, with 89 active before the end of the Civil War in 1865. Some of these Boston Associates served as directors of (and thus investors in) the mill corporations in Lowell.

When a user clicks on an arrow in the map, the user can read a narrative of gifts to a particular institution in Boston by this subset of Boston Associates with holdings in Lowell. The gift amounts have been gathered from primary and secondary sources (see the bibliography for more details). This approach to the collection and representation of the data offers a clear sense of how money moved from investors in Boston to the Lowell mills and then back to Boston, but it can't be completely accurate. For instance, it only captures the major investors in Lowell who lived in Boston (those that served as directors of the corporations); there were surely additional investors who also gave to the Boston institutions. Also, these major investors had additional investments than those in Lowell (and some, although not all, had significant family wealth made from shipping in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries). It is impossible to say that this dollar was made in Lowell and then donated to, say, Massachusetts General Hospital, but it is possible to outline in general the movements of money between the two cities.   

Much of the data is collected on a spreadsheet here.

Measuring Value

The map takes special care in expressing the value of money across time. It does this by placing investments in several kinds of context. For instance, it compares an investor's donations in, say, 1845 to the yearly pay of a mill worker in this same year. It also expresses the value of money in a given year in the past with the value of that money in the year 2015 (the last year for which there is comprehensive data). But this kind of comparison can be a tricky endeavor across so great an expanse of time because there are a number of ways of measuring such changes in value. For example, $1 in goods (soap, food, tools, etc) in 1830 would have the value of $26.50 in 2015. But the value of labor has changed at a dramatically different rate than the value of goods. $1 worth of unskilled labor in 1830 (more than two days of work in a Lowell textile factory) would cost $277 in 2015. The value of large building and infrastructure projects presents additional complexities for measuring value over time. For instance, the Erie Canal was completed in 1825 at a cost of $7 million. Measured as a good (like soap or food), the Erie Canal would cost about $173 million today. That is a significant amount of money, of course, but it would only pay for a few miles of interstate highway construction in 2015. The Erie Canal — which allowed for shipping and transportation by water between the northeast and the midwest and thus monumentally transformed the young United States — was certainly in 1825 worth more than a few miles of interstate highway is today. How to measure such value across time? Large building projects might be measured in terms of the unskilled labor (or skilled labor) that was required to build them, but they might also be measure in relation to the total size of the U.S. economy. In 1825, $7 million dollars was a significant percentage of the total of U.S. economic production (which was much, much smaller in 1825). In 2015, this proportion of the total U.S. economy would be worth $154 billion. 

These three ways of measuring value across time — as goods, as unskilled labor, as a proportion of the total U.S. economy — offer different perspectives (there are others). In most instances in this project, all three are provided parenthetical (they are always provided in the order of goods, unskilled labor, and proportion of total U.S. economy). All three measurements are provided because although easiest to imagine is goods, many of the projects discussed here involve a great deal of labor and are large building/infrastructure projects perhaps best expressed as a proportion of the total U.S. economy. The values are calculated using the data and tables at measuringworth.com.         

General Navagation 

For ease of use, go to fullpage view (link directly above map).

Read about the manufacturing companies by clicking on the highlighted mill complexes.

Read about the history of philanthropic giving by directors of the manufacturing companies by clicking on the labeled arrows (labeled Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard University, etc).

Investigate the Boston institutions that received gifts and the mill investors who lived in Boston by navigating to Boston on the map (follow the arrows) and clicking on the highlighted areas. There are also sites that benefit substantial from Lowell industry in Williamstown and Groton.

Compare 1850s Lowell (or Boston) to a contempoary map using the small map-layering icon in the top right corner of the map.

Zoom in and out using the + and - buttons or by double clicking.

Move around on the map using the arrow buttons (top right) or in other ways allowed by your browser and computer's configurations.