Insights from the Past: Lowell, MA on Work

When I think of National Historic Park, I think of huge mountains, massive trees and peaceful wildlife. Our family recently went on a road trip through the Northeast and discovered a new kind of National Park on the way — Lowell, MA, where most of downtown is designated as the Park. You’ve probably heard the Death Cab for Cutie song about Kerouac’s hometown...

DCFC's song and the trolleys were about all I knew about the place before we stopped for a couple of days. I didn’t know that from its founding in 1821 through WWII, Lowell was at the center of the Industrial Revolution in America. Looking back, I should have expected inspiration...traveling opens up new ideas in so many unexpected ways. So I left with a few new perspectives on work. This is the first post in a series about insights from our time there. 

Lowell, MA on Work

We spent a lot of time walking around the old textile mills and could sense the rough working conditions. The noise level of just a few looms working was deafening. The museum offers earplugs today, but these were not an option for the young mill workers in Lowell’s heyday. Yet, people still flocked to Lowell in pursuit of better work than they could get on farms. The pull of opportunity in the city was great for many young people in New England. 

The beauty of life on a farm is the natural ebb and flow of the work, based on weather and seasons. It’s still hard work, no doubt. But Lowell's mill owners replaced this with an artificial 5am-7pm work schedule. Instead of the sunrise, the bell tolled and workers made the short walk from boarding houses to their jobs at the mills. Unintended consequences of this work style are still being felt today. 

One can imagine the toll of consecutive 12-to-14-hour days on the body and spirit. As one poet says, the workers became “one with the mills...” 

For some workers, the grueling work was still freeing in many ways. It was the kind of job where expectations were clear, and the rewards were clear.

For other workers, their dreams of freedom in the urban center of Lowell were overshadowed by the rough working conditions and overbearing management. More on that to come in a future post.

I left with a renewed sense of appreciation for how I work – the ability to create, write, and ask questions for a living. All in all, a great outcome for a vacation stop.

Josh Carlton is the Founder of 500THz, a boutique market research firm that delights in using creativity to solve marketing problems. He is also an Adjunct Professor of creative strategy at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. This post also appears on LinkedIn

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