Book Reviews / Comptes rendus de livres - Laurence F. Gross, The Course of Industrial Decline: The Boott Cotton Mills of Lowell, Massachusetts, 1835-1955

Book Reviews / Comptes rendus de livres

Laurence F. Gross, The Course of Industrial Decline: The Boott Cotton Mills of Lowell, Massachusetts, 1835-1955

Alan B. McCullough
National Historic Sites Directorate of Parks Canada in Ottawa
Gross, Laurence F. The Course of Industrial The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993.279 Decline: The Boott Cotton Mills of Lowell, Massachusetts, 1835-1955. Baltimore, Maryland: pp., 32 illus. Cloth U.S. $42.00, ISBN 0-8018-4453-3.

1 The Course of Industrial Decline traces the history of the Boott Cotton Mills of Lowell, Massachusetts, from its founding in 1835 to its closure in 1955. It is a long story, and a depressing one. Gross characterizes the typical Lowell cotton company as a corporation which "devoted itself entirely to financial success, denied reciprocal responsibility to its employees, and left their care when unneeded to their families or public agencies" (p. 12). Gross's primary thesis is that the ultimate failure of the Boott Mills, and by implication of the New England cotton industry, was due not to any inherent flaws in the company or its employees but to a decision by the firm's proprietors to use it as a cash cow with all profits to be invested elsewhere. As a result it was, through most of its history, technologically obsolete, and survived only through the dedication of its managers and the exploitation of its work force.

2 The Boott was the eighth of nine major cotton companies formed at Lowell by a tightly knit group of Boston capitalists between 1825 and 1840. The early history of Lowell as an industrial city is well known and justly regarded as a key stage in the development of industry, industrial labour, and corporate organization in America. The significance of these developments is recognized in Lowell National Historical Park, which commemorates Lowell as a pioneer and symbol in the industrial revolution in America. The surviving Boott mills form a part of the park, and the author has conducted research on the mills under contract with the National Parks Service. The book under review doubtless owes something to this earlier research but it is an independent work, not a product of the National Parks Service.

3 Gross passes over the early history of Lowell and the Boott quickly; his focus is not on the Golden Age of Lowell but on the century following the Civil War when the processes that started with such promise in Lowell worked themselves out.

4 During the last three decades of the nineteenth century the Boott paid regular dividends, but apparent prosperity masked growing problems. The New England cotton industry was being pressed by southern cotton companies with lower labour costs and newer, more efficient mills. After the 1870s the owners of the Boott failed completely to re-invest in new buildings and were slow to replace equipment. By 1902 a consultant reported that the buildings were beyond adaptation and should all be completely replaced. The recommendations, like many similar ones, were ignored. In 1905, following a crisis in the industry, the company was reorganized as Boott Mills. The re-organization changed little. The obsolete buildings remained in use for another 50 years and equipment remained outdated. Profitability was maintained by the "speed up" and the "stretch out," demanding more of workers while keeping wages so low that the mill could not retain its best workers. The company also benefited from a remarkably dedicated and able manager, Frederick Flather, and his two sons, who ran the mill for 50 years. Flather, an admirer of F.W. Taylor's scientific management theories, was not technically expert in the cotton industry but he had executive ability and was adept in exploiting niche markets. Most important, he was dedicated to the survival of the company; there is little doubt that he prolonged the Boott's existence by many years. What he could not do was persuade the mill owners to make the significant investment that the mill needed to be competitive. By 1955 the Boott had reached the end of its course and, faced with a refusal by labour to accept a wage rollback, the owners shut the mill down. The remarkable thing is not that the company failed but that it survived as long as it did. As Flather wrote to a former employee, the closing was "fifty years overdue" (p. 239).

5 Gross creates a richly textured and sympathetic history of the company, describing the interplay of management, labour and technology. He minimizes the traditional argument that competition with low-wage textile mills in the south doomed the New England mills and argues convincingly that both labour and management at the Boott fought an uphill battle to compensate for the antiquated mill buildings and outdated equipment imposed by the owners. If there is a weakness in his account of the company, it is in his portrait of the proprietors. They remain a largely faceless and nameless group. There is little sense of what led them to follow a policy that, they were advised again and again, would cripple the mill in the long term. Gross would probably argue that the personalities and personal motivations of the owners are not significant, for they were simply following principles which were inherent in the Lowell experiment and in much of modern economics: the absolute mobility of capital, the absence of any responsibility of capital to labour beyond a daily wage, and the pursuit of comparative advantage.

6 The work would also be stronger if the author could provide more detail as to how profitable the Boott was and where the profits were re-invested; Gross makes it clear that profits were not plowed back into the mill. It is probable that the figures are simply not available but, if they could be presented, they would make a strong case even more convincing.

7 In his postscript Gross draws parallels between modern entrepreneurs, who are often criticized for "being devoted to the production of profits, not of goods" (p. 242), and the owners of the Boott. He argues that the modern "plunderers" are not anomalies but are the legitimate descendants of the financiers who organized Lowell and the Boott. In short, Gross turns a study of a defunct textile corporation into a condemnation of economic practices and theories that are widely accepted today and are inherent in the North American Free Trade Agreement. How his thesis will be received and incorporated into the interpretation of Lowell is an interesting question.