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Charles Dickens > American Notes > Chapter IV

American Notes

Chapter IV


BEFORE leaving Boston, I devoted one day to an excursion to Lowell.
I assign a separate chapter to this visit; not because I am about
to describe it at any great length, but because I remember it as a
thing by itself, and am desirous that my readers should do the

I made acquaintance with an American railroad, on this occasion,
for the first time. As these works are pretty much alike all
through the States, their general characteristics are easily

There are no first and second class carriages as with us; but there
is a gentleman's car and a ladies' car: the main distinction
between which is that in the first, everybody smokes; and in the
second, nobody does. As a black man never travels with a white
one, there is also a negro car; which is a great, blundering,
clumsy chest, such as Gulliver put to sea in, from the kingdom of
Brobdingnag. There is a great deal of jolting, a great deal of
noise, a great deal of wall, not much window, a locomotive engine,
a shriek, and a bell.

The cars are like shabby omnibuses, but larger: holding thirty,
forty, fifty, people. The seats, instead of stretching from end to
end, are placed crosswise. Each seat holds two persons. There is
a long row of them on each side of the caravan, a narrow passage up
the middle, and a door at both ends. In the centre of the carriage
there is usually a stove, fed with charcoal or anthracite coal;
which is for the most part red-hot. It is insufferably close; and
you see the hot air fluttering between yourself and any other
object you may happen to look at, like the ghost of smoke.

In the ladies' car, there are a great many gentlemen who have
ladies with them. There are also a great many ladies who have
nobody with them: for any lady may travel alone, from one end of
the United States to the other, and be certain of the most
courteous and considerate treatment everywhere. The conductor or
check-taker, or guard, or whatever he may be, wears no uniform. He
walks up and down the car, and in and out of it, as his fancy
dictates; leans against the door with his hands in his pockets and
stares at you, if you chance to be a stranger; or enters into
conversation with the passengers about him. A great many
newspapers are pulled out, and a few of them are read. Everybody
talks to you, or to anybody else who hits his fancy. If you are an
Englishman, he expects that that railroad is pretty much like an
English railroad. If you say 'No,' he says 'Yes?'
(interrogatively), and asks in what respect they differ. You
enumerate the heads of difference, one by one, and he says 'Yes?'
(still interrogatively) to each. Then he guesses that you don't
travel faster in England; and on your replying that you do, says
'Yes?' again (still interrogatively), and it is quite evident,
don't believe it. After a long pause he remarks, partly to you,
and partly to the knob on the top of his stick, that 'Yankees are
reckoned to be considerable of a go-ahead people too;' upon which
YOU say 'Yes,' and then HE says 'Yes' again (affirmatively this
time); and upon your looking out of window, tells you that behind
that hill, and some three miles from the next station, there is a
clever town in a smart lo-ca-tion, where he expects you have
concluded to stop. Your answer in the negative naturally leads to
more questions in reference to your intended route (always
pronounced rout); and wherever you are going, you invariably learn
that you can't get there without immense difficulty and danger, and
that all the great sights are somewhere else.

If a lady take a fancy to any male passenger's seat, the gentleman
who accompanies her gives him notice of the fact, and he
immediately vacates it with great politeness. Politics are much
discussed, so are banks, so is cotton. Quiet people avoid the
question of the Presidency, for there will be a new election in
three years and a half, and party feeling runs very high: the
great constitutional feature of this institution being, that
directly the acrimony of the last election is over, the acrimony of
the next one begins; which is an unspeakable comfort to all strong
politicians and true lovers of their country: that is to say, to
ninety-nine men and boys out of every ninety-nine and a quarter.

Except when a branch road joins the main one, there is seldom more
than one track of rails; so that the road is very narrow, and the
view, where there is a deep cutting, by no means extensive. When
there is not, the character of the scenery is always the same.
Mile after mile of stunted trees: some hewn down by the axe, some
blown down by the wind, some half fallen and resting on their
neighbours, many mere logs half hidden in the swamp, others
mouldered away to spongy chips. The very soil of the earth is made
up of minute fragments such as these; each pool of stagnant water
has its crust of vegetable rottenness; on every side there are the
boughs, and trunks, and stumps of trees, in every possible stage of
decay, decomposition, and neglect. Now you emerge for a few brief
minutes on an open country, glittering with some bright lake or
pool, broad as many an English river, but so small here that it
scarcely has a name; now catch hasty glimpses of a distant town,
with its clean white houses and their cool piazzas, its prim New
England church and school-house; when whir-r-r-r! almost before you
have seen them, comes the same dark screen: the stunted trees, the
stumps, the logs, the stagnant water - all so like the last that
you seem to have been transported back again by magic.

The train calls at stations in the woods, where the wild
impossibility of anybody having the smallest reason to get out, is
only to be equalled by the apparently desperate hopelessness of
there being anybody to get in. It rushes across the turnpike road,
where there is no gate, no policeman, no signal: nothing but a
rough wooden arch, on which is painted 'WHEN THE BELL RINGS, LOOK
OUT FOR THE LOCOMOTIVE.' On it whirls headlong, dives through the
woods again, emerges in the light, clatters over frail arches,
rumbles upon the heavy ground, shoots beneath a wooden bridge which
intercepts the light for a second like a wink, suddenly awakens all
the slumbering echoes in the main street of a large town, and
dashes on haphazard, pell-mell, neck-or-nothing, down the middle of
the road. There - with mechanics working at their trades, and
people leaning from their doors and windows, and boys flying kites
and playing marbles, and men smoking, and women talking, and
children crawling, and pigs burrowing, and unaccustomed horses
plunging and rearing, close to the very rails - there - on, on, on
- tears the mad dragon of an engine with its train of cars;
scattering in all directions a shower of burning sparks from its
wood fire; screeching, hissing, yelling, panting; until at last the
thirsty monster stops beneath a covered way to drink, the people
cluster round, and you have time to breathe again.

I was met at the station at Lowell by a gentleman intimately
connected with the management of the factories there; and gladly
putting myself under his guidance, drove off at once to that
quarter of the town in which the works, the object of my visit,
were situated. Although only just of age - for if my recollection
serve me, it has been a manufacturing town barely one-and-twenty
years - Lowell is a large, populous, thriving place. Those
indications of its youth which first attract the eye, give it a
quaintness and oddity of character which, to a visitor from the old
country, is amusing enough. It was a very dirty winter's day, and
nothing in the whole town looked old to me, except the mud, which
in some parts was almost knee-deep, and might have been deposited
there, on the subsiding of the waters after the Deluge. In one
place, there was a new wooden church, which, having no steeple, and
being yet unpainted, looked like an enormous packing-case without
any direction upon it. In another there was a large hotel, whose
walls and colonnades were so crisp, and thin, and slight, that it
had exactly the appearance of being built with cards. I was
careful not to draw my breath as we passed, and trembled when I saw
a workman come out upon the roof, lest with one thoughtless stamp
of his foot he should crush the structure beneath him, and bring it
rattling down. The very river that moves the machinery in the
mills (for they are all worked by water power), seems to acquire a
new character from the fresh buildings of bright red brick and
painted wood among which it takes its course; and to be as light-
headed, thoughtless, and brisk a young river, in its murmurings and
tumblings, as one would desire to see. One would swear that every
'Bakery,' 'Grocery,' and 'Bookbindery,' and other kind of store,
took its shutters down for the first time, and started in business
yesterday. The golden pestles and mortars fixed as signs upon the
sun-blind frames outside the Druggists', appear to have been just
turned out of the United States' Mint; and when I saw a baby of
some week or ten days old in a woman's arms at a street corner, I
found myself unconsciously wondering where it came from: never
supposing for an instant that it could have been born in such a
young town as that.

There are several factories in Lowell, each of which belongs to
what we should term a Company of Proprietors, but what they call in
America a Corporation. I went over several of these; such as a
woollen factory, a carpet factory, and a cotton factory: examined
them in every part; and saw them in their ordinary working aspect,
with no preparation of any kind, or departure from their ordinary
everyday proceedings. I may add that I am well acquainted with our
manufacturing towns in England, and have visited many mills in
Manchester and elsewhere in the same manner.

I happened to arrive at the first factory just as the dinner hour
was over, and the girls were returning to their work; indeed the
stairs of the mill were thronged with them as I ascended. They
were all well dressed, but not to my thinking above their
condition; for I like to see the humbler classes of society careful
of their dress and appearance, and even, if they please, decorated
with such little trinkets as come within the compass of their
means. Supposing it confined within reasonable limits, I would
always encourage this kind of pride, as a worthy element of self-
respect, in any person I employed; and should no more be deterred
from doing so, because some wretched female referred her fall to a
love of dress, than I would allow my construction of the real
intent and meaning of the Sabbath to be influenced by any warning
to the well-disposed, founded on his backslidings on that
particular day, which might emanate from the rather doubtful
authority of a murderer in Newgate.

These girls, as I have said, were all well dressed: and that
phrase necessarily includes extreme cleanliness. They had
serviceable bonnets, good warm cloaks, and shawls; and were not
above clogs and pattens. Moreover, there were places in the mill
in which they could deposit these things without injury; and there
were conveniences for washing. They were healthy in appearance,
many of them remarkably so, and had the manners and deportment of
young women: not of degraded brutes of burden. If I had seen in
one of those mills (but I did not, though I looked for something of
this kind with a sharp eye), the most lisping, mincing, affected,
and ridiculous young creature that my imagination could suggest, I
should have thought of the careless, moping, slatternly, degraded,
dull reverse (I HAVE seen that), and should have been still well
pleased to look upon her.

The rooms in which they worked, were as well ordered as themselves.
In the windows of some, there were green plants, which were trained
to shade the glass; in all, there was as much fresh air,
cleanliness, and comfort, as the nature of the occupation would
possibly admit of. Out of so large a number of females, many of
whom were only then just verging upon womanhood, it may be
reasonably supposed that some were delicate and fragile in
appearance: no doubt there were. But I solemnly declare, that
from all the crowd I saw in the different factories that day, I
cannot recall or separate one young face that gave me a painful
impression; not one young girl whom, assuming it to be a matter of
necessity that she should gain her daily bread by the labour of her
hands, I would have removed from those works if I had had the

They reside in various boarding-houses near at hand. The owners of
the mills are particularly careful to allow no persons to enter
upon the possession of these houses, whose characters have not
undergone the most searching and thorough inquiry. Any complaint
that is made against them, by the boarders, or by any one else, is
fully investigated; and if good ground of complaint be shown to
exist against them, they are removed, and their occupation is
handed over to some more deserving person. There are a few
children employed in these factories, but not many. The laws of
the State forbid their working more than nine months in the year,
and require that they be educated during the other three. For this
purpose there are schools in Lowell; and there are churches and
chapels of various persuasions, in which the young women may
observe that form of worship in which they have been educated.

At some distance from the factories, and on the highest and
pleasantest ground in the neighbourhood, stands their hospital, or
boarding-house for the sick: it is the best house in those parts,
and was built by an eminent merchant for his own residence. Like
that institution at Boston, which I have before described, it is
not parcelled out into wards, but is divided into convenient
chambers, each of which has all the comforts of a very comfortable
home. The principal medical attendant resides under the same roof;
and were the patients members of his own family, they could not be
better cared for, or attended with greater gentleness and
consideration. The weekly charge in this establishment for each
female patient is three dollars, or twelve shillings English; but
no girl employed by any of the corporations is ever excluded for
want of the means of payment. That they do not very often want the
means, may be gathered from the fact, that in July, 1841, no fewer
than nine hundred and seventy-eight of these girls were depositors
in the Lowell Savings Bank: the amount of whose joint savings was
estimated at one hundred thousand dollars, or twenty thousand
English pounds.

I am now going to state three facts, which will startle a large
class of readers on this side of the Atlantic, very much.

Firstly, there is a joint-stock piano in a great many of the
boarding-houses. Secondly, nearly all these young ladies subscribe
to circulating libraries. Thirdly, they have got up among
themselves a periodical called THE LOWELL OFFERING, 'A repository
of original articles, written exclusively by females actively
employed in the mills,' - which is duly printed, published, and
sold; and whereof I brought away from Lowell four hundred good
solid pages, which I have read from beginning to end.

The large class of readers, startled by these facts, will exclaim,
with one voice, 'How very preposterous!' On my deferentially
inquiring why, they will answer, 'These things are above their
station.' In reply to that objection, I would beg to ask what
their station is.

It is their station to work. And they DO work. They labour in
these mills, upon an average, twelve hours a day, which is
unquestionably work, and pretty tight work too. Perhaps it is
above their station to indulge in such amusements, on any terms.
Are we quite sure that we in England have not formed our ideas of
the 'station' of working people, from accustoming ourselves to the
contemplation of that class as they are, and not as they might be?
I think that if we examine our own feelings, we shall find that the
pianos, and the circulating libraries, and even the Lowell
Offering, startle us by their novelty, and not by their bearing
upon any abstract question of right or wrong.

For myself, I know no station in which, the occupation of to-day
cheerfully done and the occupation of to-morrow cheerfully looked
to, any one of these pursuits is not most humanising and laudable.
I know no station which is rendered more endurable to the person in
it, or more safe to the person out of it, by having ignorance for
its associate. I know no station which has a right to monopolise
the means of mutual instruction, improvement, and rational
entertainment; or which has ever continued to be a station very
long, after seeking to do so.

Of the merits of the Lowell Offering as a literary production, I
will only observe, putting entirely out of sight the fact of the
articles having been written by these girls after the arduous
labours of the day, that it will compare advantageously with a
great many English Annuals. It is pleasant to find that many of
its Tales are of the Mills and of those who work in them; that they
inculcate habits of self-denial and contentment, and teach good
doctrines of enlarged benevolence. A strong feeling for the
beauties of nature, as displayed in the solitudes the writers have
left at home, breathes through its pages like wholesome village
air; and though a circulating library is a favourable school for
the study of such topics, it has very scant allusion to fine
clothes, fine marriages, fine houses, or fine life. Some persons
might object to the papers being signed occasionally with rather
fine names, but this is an American fashion. One of the provinces
of the state legislature of Massachusetts is to alter ugly names
into pretty ones, as the children improve upon the tastes of their
parents. These changes costing little or nothing, scores of Mary
Annes are solemnly converted into Bevelinas every session.

It is said that on the occasion of a visit from General Jackson or
General Harrison to this town (I forget which, but it is not to the
purpose), he walked through three miles and a half of these young
ladies all dressed out with parasols and silk stockings. But as I
am not aware that any worse consequence ensued, than a sudden
looking-up of all the parasols and silk stockings in the market;
and perhaps the bankruptcy of some speculative New Englander who
bought them all up at any price, in expectation of a demand that
never came; I set no great store by the circumstance.

In this brief account of Lowell, and inadequate expression of the
gratification it yielded me, and cannot fail to afford to any
foreigner to whom the condition of such people at home is a subject
of interest and anxious speculation, I have carefully abstained
from drawing a comparison between these factories and those of our
own land. Many of the circumstances whose strong influence has
been at work for years in our manufacturing towns have not arisen
here; and there is no manufacturing population in Lowell, so to
speak: for these girls (often the daughters of small farmers) come
from other States, remain a few years in the mills, and then go
home for good.

The contrast would be a strong one, for it would be between the
Good and Evil, the living light and deepest shadow. I abstain from
it, because I deem it just to do so. But I only the more earnestly
adjure all those whose eyes may rest on these pages, to pause and
reflect upon the difference between this town and those great
haunts of desperate misery: to call to mind, if they can in the
midst of party strife and squabble, the efforts that must be made
to purge them of their suffering and danger: and last, and
foremost, to remember how the precious Time is rushing by.

I returned at night by the same railroad and in the same kind of
car. One of the passengers being exceedingly anxious to expound at
great length to my companion (not to me, of course) the true
principles on which books of travel in America should be written by
Englishmen, I feigned to fall asleep. But glancing all the way out
at window from the corners of my eyes, I found abundance of
entertainment for the rest of the ride in watching the effects of
the wood fire, which had been invisible in the morning but were now
brought out in full relief by the darkness: for we were travelling
in a whirlwind of bright sparks, which showered about us like a
storm of fiery snow.

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