SO MUCH FOR THAT PICTURESQUE IMPRESSION

Looking at all of the old red-brick mills remaining along the waterways of New England, you’re likely to see them as strong, serious, silent enterprises in their day. Something like a library, perchance.

The reality is something quite different. They were beehives, for one thing, where workers were subject to wide fluctuations in hot and cold (no heat, which could spark fires, along with some brutal summers) – in addition to cotton lung, like the black lung suffered by miners.

As for the quiet? Forget it. These factories were powered by leather belts that ran in relays from the groaning, splashing waterwheel to squeaky overhead rollers on each floor which in turn led to all kinds of clacking machinery. The whole building shook.

Not all of them wove cotton, either, but the mechanics were the same.

The leather belts, by the way, would wear out and break. They alone led to a unique art of construction and maintenance. The city where I live had tanneries to supply the mills, unlike the next city downstream, which was involved largely in shipping.

As the ditty went:

“Portsmouth by the sea,
Dover by the smell.”

As I was saying about that initial impression? These were the nitty-gritty realities.

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