The city of Lowell, whose brilliant past is so well known, exemplifies, on that very account, better than any other manufacturing town in the States, the character of recent alterations in American labor conditions. The mill-hands, formerly such as I have described them, have been almost entirely replaced by Canadians and Irish, who have given a new character and aspect to the Lowell of forty years ago. "Little Canada," as the quarter inhabited by the former people is called, exhibits a congeries of narrow, unpaved lanes, lined with rickety wooden houses, which elbow one another closely, and possess neither gardens nor yards. They are let out in flats, and are crowded to overflowing with a dense population of lodgers. Peeps into their interiors reveal dirty, poorly furnished rooms, and large families, pigging squalidly together at meal times, while unkempt men and slatternly women lean from open windows, and scold in French, or chatter with crowds of ragged and bare-legged children, playing in the gutters.
The Irish portion of the town has wider streets, and houses less crowded than those of "Little Canada," but is, altogether, of scarcely better aspect. Slatternly women gossip in groups about the doorways. Tawdrily dressed girls saunter along the sidewalks, or loll from the window-sills. Knots of shirt-sleeved men congregate about the frequent liquor-saloons, talking loudly and volubly. No signs of poverty are apparent, but everything wears an aspect of prosperous ignorance, satisfied to eat, drink, and idle away the hours not given to work. Such is the general aspect of operative Lowell to-day; but some of the old well-conducted boarding-houses remain, sheltering worthy sons and daughters of toil. Similarly, the outskirts of the city are adorned with many pretty white houses, where typical American families are growing up amid wholesome moral and physical surroundings, and enjoying all the advantages of schools, churches, libraries, and free institutions which the Great Republic puts everywhere, with lavish profuseness, at the service even of its least promising populations.
Concerning the Lowell mill-hands of to-day, I prefer, before my own observations, to quote from an article entitled "Early Factory Labor in New England," written by a lady, herself one of the early mill-girls, and published in the "Massachusetts Labor Bureau Keport for 1883." She says:
"Last winter, I was invited to speak to a company of the Lowell mill-girls, and tell them something of my early life as a member of their guild. When my address was over, some of them gathered round and asked me questions. In turn, I questioned them about their work, hours of labor, wages, and means of improvement. When I urged them to occupy their spare time in reading and study, they seemed to understand the need of it, but answered, sadly, 'We will try, but we work so hard, and are so tired.' It was plain that these operatives did not go to their labor with the jubilant feeling of the old mill-girls, that they worked without aim or purpose, and took no interest in anything beyond earning their daily bread. There was a tired hopelessness about them, such as was never seen among the early mill-girls. Yet they have more leisure, and earn more money than the operatives of fifty years ago, but they do not know how to improve the one or use the other. These American-born children of foreign parentage are, indeed, under the control neither of their church nor their parents, and they, consequently, adopt the vices and follies instead of the good habits of our people.
It is vital to the interests of the whole community that they should be brought under good moral influence; that they should live in better homes, and breathe a better social atmosphere than is now to be found in our factory towns."
The city of Holyoke, another great cotton center, having 23,000 inhabitants, is in some respects the most remarkable town in the State of Massachusetts. It was brought into existence, 35 years ago, by the construction of a great dam across the Connecticut River; and, around the water power thus created, mills have sprung up so rapidly that the population, whose normal increase is eighteen per cent. every ten years in Massachusetts, has doubled, during the last decade, in Holyoke. But eighty out of every 100 persons in the city are of foreign extraction, the prevailing nationality being French-Canadian, a people who are so rapidly displacing other operatives, even the Irish themselves, in the manufacturing centers of New England that they must not be dismissed without remark.
The Canadian-French were recently described in a grave State paper as a "horde of industrial invaders," and accused of caring nothing for American institutions, civil, political, or educational; having come to the States, not to make a home, but to get together a little money, and then to return whence they came. The parent of these immigrants is the Canadian habitan, a peasant proprietor, farming a few acres, living parsimoniously, marrying early, and producing a large family, who must either clear the soils of the inclement north, or become factory operatives in the States. They are a simple, kindly, pious, and cheerful folk, with few wants, little energy, and no ambition; ignorant and credulous, Catholic by religion, and devoted to the priest, who is their oracle, friend, and guide in all the relations of life. Such are the people - a complete contrast with Americans - who began, some twelve years ago, to emigrate to the mills of New England. They came, not only intending to return to their own country with their savings, but enjoined by the Church to do so.
Employers, however, soon found out the value of the new comers, and Yankee superintendents preferred them as operatives before any other nationality, not only on account of their tireless industry and docility, but because they accepted lower wages, and kept themselves clear of trade-union societies. Thus, finally, it has come about that nearly 70 per cent. of the cotton operatives at Holyoke are of French-Canadian origin, and the social condition of all these people is precisely similar to that which has already been described as characterizing the inhabitants of "Little Canada" in Lowell.