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Some friends had an expedition to Lowell today, to look at industry/labor museums, then go to some very minor baseball game. The hardcore biked up the 20 miles, I took the train. First we were at the Boott Cotton Mills Museum. There's a room of looms, many at work. It's LOUD, they give you free earplugs, and this is with only a fraction of the looms in operation. Interesting to see pre-electricity power transmission up close: a big spinning wheel and shaft (originally driven by the Merrimack River, if not still) and leather belts from the ceiling shafts to the looms. Later a worker elsewhere said she'd asked what happens when a belt breaks, but apparently that hardly ever happened; the damage and losses from idle machinery would be too great, so they spent a lot of effort on making sure that didn't happen. Frequent oiling, inspections, splicing via stapling of new leather in for stretched segments.

Upstairs is a bunch of stuff on the history of the textile industry and Lowell, which I got kind of superficial impressions of since the group wasn't into deep museum study. I did wonder about pictures of cotton-picking slaves showing them fully clothed, and whether that was artistic license; OTOH, there was a repeated point of slaves being clothed in cheap Lowell cloth from the looms.

The museum also had some movie we watched. My notes say "labor movie" but I don't think that was the entire theme, I did note it ended around 1900, before any really inconvenient history. Did we see more than one movie? I dunno now. We laughed at some of the cheesy visual and musical effects, and the closed captioning saying things like [horn blows]. I also noted them saying 35,000 miles of railroad track were laid in 5 years, mostly by Chinese and Irish labor. Or as the movie put it, immigrants from Canton and County Cork. By contrast, the Interstate Highway system took 35 years for 47,000 miles (and $425 billion in modern dollars, by one adjustment.) Try to imagine the modern US doing either...

The docent in the loom room is a mill worker herself; I'd asked what portion of cloth or clothing prices comes from labor. Happily, a room I'd have loved to spent more time in had an exhibit addressing just this, with simple breakdowns for various pieces of clothing. Breakdown as in price attributable to retail, management, materials, and labor, along with where the work was done, and other notes. Answer: 3-5% in most cases, 10% in one, 20% for something made by US union labor. Two shirts were identical, except for one being organic cotton and $20 instead of $10. IIRC materials were only $4 vs. $2, but organic retail was $9 vs. $4. Retail profit off of people willing to splurge for organic? Labor was $1 for both. The two jeans samples both noted the high management costs associated with them, like $65 out of $150. I think there was a claim of high workplace comfort/safety standards being part of that.

All this is pertinent to my wondering about how much First World standard of living depends on a pool of cheap laobr, e.g. if workes were paid well would this triple prices for clothing and produce, or is the drive to cheap labor mostly benefiting corporate profits? The answer seems to be the latter. If labor is 5%, paying 10x as much would add 50% to clothing prices.

We also went to the Mill Girls Museum (free! Not $6!) which showed the boarding houses early "mill girls" lived. It was claimed they got meat or fish 3x daily, which sounded surprising for early-mid 1800s. Also that they got paid a bit more than schoolteachers, though possibly had to work a lot harder -- 13 hour workdays, half-day on Saturday, fairly high risk of industrial injury like losing your hand. People were surprised at a sample table setting of decorated if mismatched China; I noted this was the fruit of England's industrialization like cheap Wedgwood china.

I didn't want baseball, to split off to explore the town a bit more (get value out of my $17.50 round trip.) The 1800s canals are still around and have water in them, making for nice walkways, and maybe boat tours. Downtown buildings are pleasantly high and dense, but occupancy and use are still low, didn't feel entirely like a ghost down but definitely not as happening as major squares in Camberville or Boston. WIC fuel assistance is a thing I saw a sign for. There's trolleys, but I was told they're for tours, not really transport. One had 3 employees: driver, flag person, person in the bag with a steering rod? But then I saw it come back without the guy in the back. A high school has covered transparent walkways above the canal, connecting buildings on either side, that must be a neat way of getting to class.

I found a Tabletop Arena store, with all sorts of games and activities, including what seemed like a video game competition going on. I saw two women out of like 40 people.

A real estate store had signs about buses, claiming every 15 minutes M-F, 30 Sat, no service Sunday. A specific schedule for a different route was also shown, more like 40, 60, and none.

Curbside parking is $12/2 hours. In Lowell, and in Cambridge, with land values probably 5-10x as much. This seems to be a customary parking price completely divorced from any rational land use management.

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( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
Aug. 4th, 2013 04:59 am (UTC)
An old textbook I have shows that belts were often sewn as mobius strips, so wear would take place on both sides. I'm not sure how that increased service life, though.
Aug. 4th, 2013 05:27 am (UTC)
Huh! Someone asked something about the belts, which I didn't catch because of earplugs, but looking at my photos... some of the belts look like they could be Moebius strips, yeah.

Aug. 4th, 2013 08:56 am (UTC)
The rr and the interstate are not really comparable, with the latter encompassing 4 lanes and a couple hundred feet of right-of-way plus overpasses and exits and undertaken with in the 40-hour work week era. A railway mile is 5280 feet x 2 rails, timbers, prepared rail bed, and such crossings as the railway saw fit to put in. The interstate construction was actually interrupted where it conflicted with local interests, and remains technically incomplete due to that resistance. Not the railroad, and it wasn't due to Marshall Dillon talking sense into the obstructing homesteaders.
Aug. 4th, 2013 01:00 pm (UTC)
Poking around, I see claims for the most common rail right of way at 50, 100, and 200 feet. Depending on terrain and number of tracks, they might need a varying fraction of that (drainage and bed stability).

As for being comparable, the interstate may be a bigger project to build. OTOH, the railroad can move more people for less. :)
( 4 comments — Leave a comment )


Damien Sullivan

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