Tag Archives: Charles Dickens

In His Words – Dickens’ Visit to Lowell, Massachusetts, 1842

By Francis Alexander (1800-1880) ([1]) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Charles Dickens in Boston, 1842

Were your ancestors among the crowds gathered to meet a young Charles Dickens when he visited Lowell, Massachusetts in early February 1842?   Dickens, a young writer of rising fame at the time of his visit, had yet to write A Christmas Carol and A Tale of Two Cities.  His fame had largely been won by his earlier works, including the Pickwick Papers and The Adventures of Oliver Twist.

Charles Dickens had arrived in Lowell to view its mills, newly built in a city incorporated just five years before – and only created as a town just a decade earlier.  Dickens arrived in downtown Lowell by train and was met at the station by a “gentleman intimately connected with the management of the factories”.

So impressed was Dickens with the large, populous, thriving city that he dedicated a chapter of his later travelogue, American Notes for General Circulation, to a discussion on Lowell.  The crowds watched Dickens step from the train into a dirty winter day in Lowell.  Dickens later remarked that the dirty snow provided a stark contrast to the newness of the city, something which struck the Englishman as interesting enough to note.

As he took in Lowell, Dickens saw a new wooden church, with no steeple and still unpainted, that reminded him of the packing box the city might have recently arrived in.  Further on, he saw a large hotel, likely the Merrimack House, “whose walls and colonnades were so crisp, and thin, and slight, that it had exactly the appearance of being built with cards.”

Lowell's Merrimack House, 1886 City Directory

He saw the Merrimack, “the very river that moves the machinery in the mills (for they are all worked by water power) [and] that it seems to acquire a new character from the fresh buildings of bright red brick and painted wood among which it takes its course.”  Dickens imagined that Lowell’s bakeries, groceries, or bookbinderies had just taken down its shutters for the first time, opening their businesses just as he was arriving.

While in Lowell, Dickens visited a woollen factory, a carpet factory, and a cotton factory to see them in their “ordinary working aspect”.  Dickens arrived at the first mill as dinner hour was concluding and he saw the mill girls, ascending the stairs, returning to work.

A Page from the 1836 Lowell City Female Directory, showing a list of mill girls, including Lucy Larcom - of later fame.

He later remarked:  “They were well dressed, but not, to my thinking, above their condition: for I like to see the humbler classes of society careful of their dress and appearance, and even, if they please, decorated with such little trinkets as come within the compass of their means.”

Women's Fashions from the 1840's

He remarked on the mill girls’ “extreme cleanliness”, in their bonnets, good warm cloaks, and shawls.  He also found them “healthy in appearance, many of them remarkably so, and [that they] had the manners and deportment of young women:  not of degraded brutes of womanhood.”

He continued:  “I cannot recall or separate one young face that gave me a painful impression ; not one young girl whom, assuming it be a matter of necessity that she should gain her daily bread by the labour of her hands, I would have removed from those works if I had had the power.”

He examined their boarding houses, which he noticed were carefully guarded by the mill owners.  He observed that no one could enter the houses who had not undergone the most “searching and thorough inquiry”.

Dickens observed few children working in the mills and noted that Massachusetts state law forbid their employment during more than nine months of the year.  He visited the present-day Lowell General Hospital – which was “some distance from the factories, and on the highest and pleasantest ground in the neighbourhood” and that the building itself had first been constructed as a private residence for a wealthy merchant.  He stated that the weekly charge for each mill girl was three dollars, but girls were not turned away if they lacked sufficient funds.  The girls appeared to be well-paid.  Dickens had learned that, as of July 1841 – about six months before, almost one thousand mill girls had opened accounts with the Lowell Savings Bank for a total of $100,000.

In concluding his thoughts on Lowell, Dickens stated three facts, which he assumed would startle his contemporary readers:

First, he observed that each boarding house had a joint-stock piano.  Next, he noted that almost all mill girls subscribed to a circulating library.  Last, he wrote that they had also created a periodical known as “The Lowell Offering” – written exclusively by them, despite their twelve-hour workdays.  Dickens was so impressed that he bought several editions of the periodical and read them “from beginning to end”  and compared it favorably to many of the English Annuals he had read.  Within the pages of The Lowell Offering, Dickens found stories about mill life with ‘appropriate’ undertones of self-denial, contentment, and appreciation for nature’s beauties.  Perhaps he also read the work of Lucy Larcom, a regular contributor to the magazine, and now quite probably the most famous of the Lowell mill girls.

Dickens did not spend the night in Lowell – but returned, after dark, by the same railroad he rode into town that morning.  He had the misfortune of sitting next to a passenger who spoke at such great length about the merits of American travel books written by Englishmen, that Dickens pretended to fall asleep on the car as he watched the light from the wood fire in the passing darkness outside.

In His Words: Charles Dickens’ Perspective on New England and Public Transport, 1842

We New Englanders have long called Boston “the Hub”.  And there’s a sense, just barely concealed, that we’re really referring to the hub of the universe, and not merely the hub of the state or region.   Undoubtedly, New England has a strong regional identity that includes the ubiquitous image of the “proper Bostonian” as well as a rich, well-known history that stretches back, at least from a European perspective, almost four centuries.  So, when one thinks about Massachusetts during the Victorian period, images of God-fearing, long-hemmed, be-hatted New Englanders walking to white, steepled churches in verdant town commons emerge.  Great Britain, whose long-reigned monarch gave the period its name, surely corners the market on the prim manners and complex social rituals associated with the Victorian era.  But, from an American perspective, how was New England viewed during the Victorian period?

By From an oil painting by R. J. Lane [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Charles Dickens, ca. 1840

Enter Charles Dickens to provide us some perspective, from one of Queen Victoria’s most well-known subjects, no less.  When Charles Dickens and his wife made their first trip to the United States and Canada in 1842, he was barely 30 years old, nearly three years away from publishing A Christmas Carol, and almost two decades from publishing A Tale of Two Cities and Great Expectations.  Even with his early works, however, Dickens, by 1842, had already amassed a large following in New England.

The long-time Justice at the Lowell Police Court, Samuel P. Hadley, a ten-year-old boy at the time, recorded his memories of the Dickens visit to Lowell, Massachusetts years later for the Lowell Historical Society.  He recalled Dickens’ early novel, The Pickwick Papers, and how Lowell had grown enamored with the rich scenes and contagious humor displayed by Dickens in the work.   Judge Hadley, like many Lowell residents of the time, had taken turns reading the book aloud with his family, and recalled watching his father convulse with laughter, until they had to close the book and stop reading, not being able to stand any more.  He also recalled spilling tears over Little Nell Trent, the angelic and virtuous young heroine who met a tragic fate in Dickens’ novel, The Old Curiosity Shop.

While visiting Boston in early February 1842, Dickens took a one-day excursion to see the factories of Lowell, a young city barely 20 years into its existence at the time.  Very little documentation of the visit exists in the Lowell papers of the day.  Dickens made no friends with the reporters when he failed to notify them of his coming visit.  His recollections of the trip survive mostly in his travelogue, American Notes for General Circulation, published later that year.  He used the travelogue to discuss his perceptions of American culture, and provide some interesting insights into how our Victorian-era ancestors were viewed by the English.

Q:  What were Dickens’ impressions of rail travel in the United States?

A:  Dickens noticed that the American railroads had no distinct first and second class carriages like their British counterparts.  Rather, he remarked that the railroad cars were divided into gentlemen’s cars (where everyone smoked) and ladies’ cars (where no one did).  He also noted, nineteenth-century perspective clearly exhibited, that “as a black man never travels with a white one, there is also a negro car”, which he went on to describe as a “great, blundering, clumsy chest”.

He found the railroad cars to provide a “great deal of jolting, a great deal of noise, a great deal of wall, not much window, a locomotive engine, a shriek, and a bell”.  The cars, he said were like “shabby omnibuses, but larger, holding thirty, forty, or fifty people.”  For warmth, the cars were equipped with a stove, he noted, fed with charcoal or anthracite coal, which was red-hot and “insufferably close”.  Through the light of its embers, one could see fumes co-mingle with the tendrils of smoke wafting in from the gentlemen’s car.  Gentlemen did ride in the ladies’ car, when they accompanied ladies.  Also, some ladies travelled alone.

Q:  Victorian-era people have a reputation for being rather standoffish, even stiff in their rigid, long-hemmed clothes.  What did Dickens think of the Americans he met on the train?

A:  Dickens bristled at the informality exhibited by the train conductor (“or check-taker, or guard, or whatever he may be”).  As he explained:

“He walks up and down the car, and in and out of it, as his fancy dictates; leans against the door with his hands in his pockets, and stares at you, if you chance to be a stranger; or enters into conversation with the passengers about him.”  He also found it odd that “everybody” on the train “talks to you, or to anybody else who hits his fancy.”

Q:  And the American intellect?

A:  Dickens wasn’t impressed.  He noticed that when upon learning he was an Englishman, Americans asked how the US railroad compared to its British counterpart.  In his travelogue, Dickens presents this rather comical exchange:

“If you are an Englishman, he expects that the railroad is pretty much like an English railroad.  If you say “No,” he says “Yes?” (interrogatively), and asks in what respect they differ.  You enumerate the heads of difference, one by one, and he says “Yes?” (still interrogatively) to each.  Then he guesses that you don’t travel faster in England; and on your replying that you do, says “Yes?” again (still interrogatively), and it is quite evident, doesn’t believe it.  After a long pause he remarks, partly to you, and partly to the knob on the top of his stick, that “Yankees are reckoned to be considerable of a go-ahead people too;”  upon which you say “Yes,” and then he says “Yes” again (affirmatively this time) ; and upon your looking out of window, tells you that behind that hill, and some three miles from the next station, there is a clever town in a smart location, where he expects you have concluded to stop.  Your answer in the negative naturally leads to more questions in reference to your intended route (always pronounced rout) ; and wherever you are going, you invariably learn that you can’t get there without immense difficulty and danger and that all the great sights are somewhere else.”

Dickens noted that politics was much discussed aboard the train, as were banks and cotton.  He also noted that, as today, “that directly [after] the acrimony of the last [presidential] election is over, the acrimony of the next one begins”.

Q:  And the landscape of Victorian-era New England?

A:  Dickens found the rail very narrow in the United States – with the forest closing in tightly, almost claustrophobically, on the train.  Where a view could be had, he saw only “stunted trees: some hewn down by axe, some blown down by the wind, some half fallen and resting on their neighbours, many mere logs half hidden in the swamp, others mouldered away to spongy chips.”

Q:  And the picturesque lakes and ponds we treasure today?

A:  “Each pool of stagnant water has its crust of vegetable rottenness; and on every side there are the boughs, trunks, and stumps of trees in every possible stage of decay, decomposition, and neglect.”

Q:  And the idyllic New England townscapes we imagine as even more pristine in Victorian times?

By Boston Directory [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

1852 B&L RR Schedule, Showing Dickens' Route from 11 Years Earlier.

A:  “Now you emerge for a few brief minutes on an open country, glittering with some bright lake or pool, broad as many an English river, but so small here that it scarcely has a name; now catch hasty glimpses of a distant town, with its clean white houses and their cool piazzas, its prim New England church and school-house; when whir-r-r-r ! almost before you have seen them, comes the same dark screen: the stunted trees, the stumps, the logs, the stagnant water.”

So much for an appreciation of the wetlands protection act.

Dickens appears to have viewed the towns along the Boston to Lowell route – Somerville, Medford, Winchester, Woburn, and Billerica, to name a few, as hinterlands on civilization’s edge.  He noted stations “in the woods” where it seemed “the wild impossibility of anybody having to get out is only to be equalled by the apparently desperate hopelessness of there being anybody to get in.”

On arriving in Lowell

Dickens thought it odd that no gate, policeman, or signal marked the railroad crossings.  As his train rushed through the last crossing before Lowell, he noticed only a wooden arch (“rough”, in his words) with these words of caution: “When the bell rings, look out for the locomotive.”  He found his arrival into Lowell startling as the train raced through the darkness under a wooden bridge and emerged into the blinding brightness of the main thoroughfare of a large town (probably Lowell’s Merrimack Street).

He watched as tradesmen looked up from their trades, people leaned from their doors and windows, boys stopped playing with kites and marbles, pigs stopped burrowing, and horses reared up,  as the train pulled into the station in a shower of burning sparks, screeches and groans.

Dickens had arrived in Lowell – to see the factories of a manufacturing town that, at approximately 21 years old, was “only just of age”, in his words.

Next Post:  Dickens thoughts on Lowell, the City.