Mapping Thoreau Country

Learn more about the industrial history of Massachusetts.

Visit the Charles River Museum of Industry in Waltham, Mass.


Winslow Homer, Factory Bell, 1868

In January 1851, when the Bigelow Mills Mechanics Institute invited Thoreau to give his lecture on Cape Cod in Clinton, his hosts took him on a tour the of the town's massive gingham factory.  He was so impressed by the sprawling mill that he entered a detailed description into his journal, noting, for example, that the main room contained "578 looms" and that parts of the machinery "revolved eighteen hundred times in a minute." "I am struck," he commented at the close of  his unusually long entry, "that no work has been shirked when a piece of cloth is produced. Every thread has been counted in the finest web...The operator has succeeded only by patience, perseverance, and fidelity."

Thoreau's keen interest in factory operations surprises many of his present-day readers.  Since he held that society would wither if the forces of civilization were not counterbalanced by "wildness" in the natural world, it seems logical to assume that he would have opposed the multiplication of factories in formerly pristine landscapes.  Likewise, in light of his consistent condemnation of routinized labor, one might expect him to at least acknowledge the plight of the operatives in mid-nineteenth-century Clinton, mostly women and children who worked sixty to seventy hours a week under miserable conditions for meager pay.

While Thoreau's unexpectedly positive response to industrialization defies easy resolution, his fascination with the complex machinery he saw in Clinton can be explained in part by his aptitude for mechanical engineering, a talent that proved highly beneficial to John Thoreau & Son, his family's pencil-making business, when he devised a new method of mixing plumbago (graphite) and clay that facilitated the production of harder pencils.  He also took advantage of the business opportunities presented by the invention of electrotyping in the 1830's, turning the company into a supplier of the fine graphite used in the high-speed printing of illustrated newspapers and other mass publications.  His success as a surveyor likewise attests to his acumen as an engineer in laying out plans for the new roads and buildings that were essential to industrial development.

His relative indifference toward the hardships faced by factory workers is more difficult to fathom, but in a conversation reported by a biographer, Walt Whitman, who recalled meeting Thoreau "several times" in Brooklyn, supplied an insightful analysis.  According to Whitman,

"Thoreau's great fault was disdain—disdain for men (for "Tom, Dick and Harry"): inability to appreciate the average life—even the exceptional life: it seemed to me a want of imagination. He couldn't put his life into any other life— realize why one man was so and another man was not so."

Whitman's comments illuminate a blind spot that sometimes marred Thoreau's vision, specifically, his inability to consider the necessity that led most of his neighbors to take and keep whatever employment they could get.  In another journal entry in 1851, for example, he described waking early enough to hear the ringing of a far-off factory bell, but rather than acknowledging or even wondering what it must have been like for the operatives to be commanded to work before dawn, he focused only on the pleasure he derived from fantasizing about the distant sound:

And now (perchance at half-past four) I hear the sound of some far-off factory-bell arousing the operatives to their early labors. It sounds very sweet here. It is very likely some factory which I have never seen, in some valley which I have never visited; yet now I hear this, which is its only matin bell, sweet and inspiring as if it summoned holy men and maids to worship and not factory girls and men to resume their trivial toil."