The Saco-Lowell Shops: Textile Machinery Building in New England 1813-1949

A genea-friend (thank you, Judy :)) found this book among those donated to our local library and asked if I’d be interested in reading it. She knew that my grandmother had worked in in the Passaic, New Jersey mills in the early 1900s. I immediately said yes because I knew very little about the growth of the U.S. fabric mills in the 1800s.

George Sweet Gibb (1916-1989) earned his SB (B.S.?) degree in 1938 from Tufts University.

He went on to Harvard Business School and wrote several books relating to singular aspects of American history. The author’s title page of the book further states the he is “Formerly Instructor in Business History, Graduate School of Business Administration, Harvard University, At present Senior Associate in Research Business History Foundation, Inc.”

The Saco-Lowell Shops: Textile Machinery Building In New England 1813-1949, published by Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1950 is a detailed history of the arrival of the  Industrial Revolution to New England.

It probably doesn’t need to be said that this is a scholarly work and, being so, it isn’t a quick read. It’s also an astounding 835 pages long!

The content is divided into three parts:

Part I, The Formative years, 1813-1853
1. Origins of the Tree Parent Companies, 1813-1825
2. Operating as a Cotton-Mill Department: Waltham, 1814-1825
3. The Shop That Built a City – Proprietors of the Locks and Canals on Merrimack River – Lowell, Massachusetts, 1823-1845
4. Birth of Two Industries at Saco and Biddeford, 1825-1850
5. Otis Pettee and the End of the Formative Period

Part II, The Adventurous Middle Years
6. Specialization in an Expanding Market: The Lowell Machine Shop, 1845-1879
7. The Great years of the “Big Shop”: The Lowell Machine Shop, 1880-1897
8. The Years of Decline: The Lowell Machine Shop, 1897-1905
9. State Street Take a hand: The Lowell Machine Shop, 1905-1912
10. Renaissance of the Newton Shop, 1853-1897
11, Resurgence and Decline of the Biddeford Shop, 1850-1897
12. Combined Operations: The Saco and Pettee Machine Shops, 1897-1912

Part III, The Saco-Lowell shops, 1912-1948
13. The Herrick Era, 1912-1926
14. The Hard Climb Back, 1926-1941
15. War, Postwar, and Retrospect

Notes and References

The chapter titles provide an outline of the growth the textile industry from its slow beginnings trying to copy English success to its decline and end after the end of World War II.

I have to admit I skimmed over parts of Chapters 1 and 2, as they covered the earliest history of the men who developed and improved the machinery that was vital to the textile industry.

Chapter 3 introduced the transformation of the village of East Chelmsford into the industrial town of Lowell, Masssachusetts. In the ten years between 1825-1835, Lowell’s population increased by 500% from 2,500 to 15,000! Also in that time, the textile industry divided into two separate entities – one that made machines necessary to produce cloth and another that actually made the woolen and cotton fabric.

Gibb continues on to detail the parallel growth of machine manufacturing and cotton mills which happened in Saco and Biddeford, Maine.

As expected, the book closes with the decline and death of the industry in the United States at the end of World War II.

Besides the fact that my Nana (and many of her cousins and friends) worked in the worsted mills in Passaic, New Jersey in the early 1900s, I can remember the last years of those mills when they became outlets for fabric, dresses and coats.

Nana would have me walk with her down Parker Avenue, past my elementary school to a maze of closed up industrial shops with a few outlet stores dotting the city blocks.

I also remember visiting several cloth outlets in Maine to find the perfect fabric for a new outfit for me to sew! I’m sure those places were what was left of the once booming American textile industry.

If the America textile machinery and mill companies were to have a family tree, their earliest ancestor would be the Saco-Lowell Shops. I’ve learned an astounding amount of information from this book and would highly recommend it to anyone who has deep ties to this industry.

A quick look on Abe Books shows it available for $25.00. Amazon has copies in the $40-65 price range, which is a bit steep unless you really, really want to learn more about the subject.  My genea-buddy picked it up for me for just $1.00, which is way more than worth the cost!

WorldCat shows it in a number of university libraries, which might be the best option if you happen to live near one of them.



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