The Telegraph’s May 6 column




Editor’s Note: Imagine Nashua: Then & Now is a weekly photo column by Don Himsel. Each week, he will feature an old photo within a more recent photo and an explanation of how he got the shot.

“It is the greatest of all mistakes to begin life with the expectation that it is going to be easy, or with the wish to have it so.”

– Poet and teacher Lucy Larcom in “A New England Girlhood”

The work of New England textile mills, including Nashua’s, required hands. Opportunities attracted many from near and far. The noted writer Lucy Larcom became a mill girl herself when, after the death of her father, her widowed mother moved her and her siblings from Beverly, Mass., to Lowell. There she became a mill girl, while her mother ran a boardinghouse for other workers.

Lynn Betlock of the New England Historic Genealogical Society provided some background during a recent phone conversation. “First came the daughters of Yankee farmers,” she said, “then they get replaced by Irish who have come over, then the French Canadians. It was such a cross-section over time and waves of ethnicity.”

The tenements and boardinghouses that sprang up provided a place to call home in the growing cities. Some were independently operated, others established by the companies themselves. The Nashua Gazette reported by 1828, the Nashua Manufacturing Co. had built “48 houses or tenements.”

The blueprint for early industrialization was set in England. Betlock said mill principals traveled there to study their systems. “They wanted to do it better,” she said.

“And for a little while it was only a new amusement; I liked it better than going to school and making believe I was learning when I was not …”

Betlock wrote last year in an issue of American Ancestors Magazine, “According to a rather romanticized view held by earlier historians, these Yankee farmers’ daughters lived through an industrial ‘golden age’ attracted by high wages, ‘agreeable’ living conditions and social and cultural advantages.”

Betlock said conditions changed over time. Then came more demands, less time to accomplish it all and eventually less money.

Looking at it through contemporary eyes, the work was decidedly rough and uncomfortable by any standards, and often downright dangerous. The air inside the mills was filled with dust and cotton fibers. Machinery had exposed components, all whirring and spinning with a deafening sound. Time and schedules were strictly marked by the company.

“For this first generation of mill workers especially, the transition to an urban factory life was generally not smooth or easy,” Betlock wrote.

A story by Judith A. Ranta in the publication states, “In the early republic, men’s physical strength was needed for farming and construction. People believed that machinery made textile mill work ‘easy’ enough for women and children.”

The National Park Service description of their “Mill Girls and Immigrants” exhibit in Lowell says “early boardinghouses in Lowell and other New England mill towns were two and a half story, whitewashed duplexes made of wood. By the mid-1830s, three and a half story brick rowhouses, reflecting the now more familiar Lowell boardinghouse design, became the norm. These dwellings housed 20 to 40 people and contained a kitchen, a dining room and parlor, a keeper’s quarters and up to ten bedrooms.”

Company influence of New England mills went even deeper. “Under this early form of corporate paternalism, the millworkers’ behavior came under the watchful eyes of the boardinghouse keepers. The corporations required the keepers to report any unacceptable conduct to mill managers. Intemperance, rowdiness, illicit relations with men and ‘habitual absence from worship on the Sabbath’ were grounds for dismissal from the factory and removal from the boardinghouse,” reports the museum website.

The building in the photograph is gone. The pedestrian walkway for BAE Systems is there now at the corner of Chandler and Canal. There were several boardinghouses and tenements in what is now the parking lot for BAE located across from the old Jackson Mill, an operation that eventually was conjoined with the Nashua Manufacturing Co. Betlock said when she put out a call through her organization’s newsletter for personal connections to members’ millworker heritage, the response was impressive.

“I was astonished by that,” she said. “I was not prepared for the enthusiasm on this very narrow set of people who were not the bluebloods when you think of geneology.

“People were really excited to be validated about what their working-class ancestors had done in the mills,” she said.

“I know that sometimes the confinement in the mill became very wearisome to me. In the sweet June weather I would lean far out of the window, and try not to hear the unceasing clash of the sound inside. Looking away to the hills, my whole stifled being would cry out, ‘oh, if I had wings.’ Still I was there from choice, and ‘the prison unto which we doom ourselves, no prison is.’”

Don Himsel can be reached at 594-6590 or dhimsel@nashuatelegraph.com. Also, follow Himsel on Twitter (@Telegraph_DonH).

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