American Studies ETDs

Publication Date

Spring 4-25-1995


When the Boston Manufacturing Company of Waltham, Massachusetts developed mechanized cotton textile production between 1850 and 1821, female millworkers had the opportunity to gain mechanical expertise and utilize it to overcome low wages and subordination. Since management systematically used the two mills to test new machine designs, female operatives played an important role in evaluating and improving industrial technology.

This study follows the development of machinery and women's careers as revealed in the company's surviving payroll ledgers. To identify the social characteristics of the work force, the majority of the 616 millworkers employed between 1817 to 1822 were traced to their families.

Including millworking families, the Waltham labor force represented a transition between contemporary industrial employment and the Lowell system soon to come. While the Lowell mills did not employ families, about 30% of millworkers had to come to the Waltham site with their parents and siblings. Young women comprised nearly the whole of the work force because company executives decided to employ them exclusively in the new weaving branch of production. At least 30% of worker's families were economically marginalized owing to the lack of working male heads. Since management depended on workers to bring in recruits, most millhands had relatives in the labor force, a circumstance that promoted social cohesion in the group.

After they ended the technological development project in spring 1821, company executives reduced women's wage rates so that they could no longer attain high earnings. Since shopfloor supervisors promoted technically expert females workers to more demanding jobs, the wage reductions removed the financial rewords for advancement. In response, millwomen staged a two-day walkout. Resistance was short-lived because families in residence, who were not entirely dependent on mill wages, did not join the protest.

Had the Boston Manufacturing Company continued the labor practices engendered during the period of 1815 to 1821, the influential Waltham/Lowell system would have set a different precedent for women's role in industrial labor. The disadvantaged position of women that emerged from this episode was the result of company executives' decision to remove female recognition for their aquiring technical skill.




American Studies, Industrial Production, Millwomen, Textiles, Boston Manufacturing Company

Document Type


Degree Name

American Studies

Level of Degree


Department Name

American Studies

First Committee Member (Chair)

Louise Lamphere

Second Committee Member

Charles D. Biebel

Third Committee Member

Vera Norwood

Fourth Committee Member

M. Jane Slaughter

Chapters 4-6