American Studies Seminar - 2017

Industrializing Massachusetts: Lowell, Springfield, and Worcester, 1800-1875

Three quite different approaches to industrialization took place in Lowell, Springfield, and Worcester in the 19th century. Lowell relied on the growth of gigantic cotton mills and a single product, cotton cloth. Springfield’s development was catalyzed by the federal government’s investment in an Armory that developed the technologies required for the manufacture of interchangeable parts. Relying on numerous artisans and mechanics and what today we would refer to as ‘business incubators’—large buildings that housed numerous small, but related firms operated—Worcester’s industries employed highly skilled mechanics and their journeymen and apprentices. Yet, all three cities achieved manufacturing success. The proposed seminar will look at their history, but with a particular focus on Worcester and its development into a premier metalworking center.

Starting place for the seminar will be a series of newspaper articles appearing in late April and early May 1851, in the Worcester Daily Spy titled ‘Worcester in its Shirt-sleeves”. The articles featured detailed descriptions of Bradley’s Car Shop, The Malleable Iron Foundry, The Court Mills Agricultural Implement Manufactory, Tollman & Russell Carriage Builders. To frame the Worcester story the seminar will also draw on Charles Washburn’s Manufacturing and Mechanical Industries of Worcester (1889) and his Industrial Worcester (1917). Washburn dedicated this volume to the ‘Mechanics and Manufacturers Past and Present of Worcester’.

In addition we will make use of manuscripts related to Worcester’s industrial production found in the Society’s Charles G. Washburn papers. Initial readings on Lowell and Springfield will come from some of my published material in Metal Fatigue: American Bosch and the Demise of Metalworking in the Connecticut River Valley (2009). For the three cities we will also utilize Orra Stone’s classic four-volume History of Massachusetts Industries: Their Inception, Growth, and Success (1930). Seminar participants will draw on the material in the Worcester Historical Museum.

The construction of Worcester’s Mechanics Hall and the establishment of Worcester Polytechnic Institute — both projects heavily supported by the city’s artisans, mechanics, and manufacturers — will be considered. At the school’s founding it was called the Worcester County Free Institute of Industrial Science; the name changed in 1887. The city gifted the land for the school’s construction, with the sum of $61,000 contributed to the undertaking by 232 individuals from twenty shops and factories. Who the donors were will be part of the seminar’s research focus.

Manufacturing innovation often spread among Massachusetts firms through the linked personal histories of mechanics and engineers. For example, in the 1830s Worcester, Massachusetts-born brothers Loring and Aury Coes operated a woodworking machinery and spinning machinery firm in the city’s Court Mill complex. When an October 1839 fire destroyed the Court Mill, the brothers left Worcester for jobs as skilled patternmakers in a small Springfield foundry that did work for the Armory. There the brothers produced patterns for a new-style wrench that could be opened and closed with the thumb of the hand that held it. The Coes returned to the rebuilt Court Mill in 1841 with their patterns and little else. They sold the rights to the patterns for their spinning machinery and used the proceeds to secure a patent on their wrench design. A Worcester hardware dealer financed the brothers, and in the mid-1840s with 15 men, they were making and selling 600 wrenches a month.

Joseph Wickham Roe in his classic English and American Tool Builders (1916) produced ‘family tree-like’ genealogies documenting the ways New England machinery and tool builders related to one another. Researching and writing about how such interconnections worked in Worcester will be a particular focus of the seminar.

If possible, field trips would be made to the Springfield Armory and the Boott Mills in Lowell to get an up close look at industrial history in these two cities.

The seminar will be led by Robert Forrant. Forrant, on the faculty at the University of Massachusetts Lowell since 1994, is Distinguished University Professor of History and director of the department’s graduate program. A Lawrence History Center board member, he is on the editorial board of Mass Benchmarks, a joint publication of the UMass President’s Office and the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston. In 2012 he worked extensively on programs dedicated to the centennial anniversary of the Bread and Roses Strike. He has been principal historian on research projects funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Lowell National Historical Park, and the Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities. With Susan Grabski, Director of the Lawrence History Center, he produced an exhibit on the 1912 Bread & Roses Strike found on the Digital Public Library of America’s website. Recent publications include: The Great Lawrence Textile Strike of 1912: New Scholarship on the Bread & Roses Strike (2014); The Big Move: Immigrant Voices From a Mill City, with Christoph Strobel (2011); and Metal Fatigue: American Bosch and the Demise of Metalworking in the Connecticut River Valley (2009); “ ‘Into a New Canoe’: Thinking and Teaching Locally and Globally about Native Americans on the Confluence of the Merrimack and Concord Rivers,” with Christoph Strobel, The New England Journal of History, 72 (2), 2016; “Empty Mills and Zombie Cities,” Labor History 2015.

Eligible students from the participating Worcester colleges may complete the online 2017 application form by April 1, 2017.

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