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Monday, January 5, 2015

January 5, 2015: Waltham Histories: The Watch City

[Two years ago this week, I moved to my new home in Waltham, Massachusetts. Since then I’ve learned a lot more about the histories and stories of this great town, and wanted to share a few of them this week, leading up to a Guest Post from one of my favorite Walthamites!]
On three stages of American history captured by phrases from Waltham’s past and present.
The earliest iterations of the Industrial Revolution in America are often associated with Lowell, Massachusetts and its mills (and mill girls)—but in the parlance of the era the name Lowell was linked to Waltham through the concept of the Waltham-Lowell System of production. The Lowell in that phrase wasn’t yet the city but rather Newburyport businessman Francis Cabot Lowell, who with a group of fellow investors opened the nation’s first vertically integrated cotton production firm, the Boston Manufacturing Company, on the banks of the Charles River in Waltham in 1814. Besides vertical integration (controlling every step and aspect of the production process at one site), the company also pioneered mass production and a number of other elements of the labor process (including housing, feeding, and educating the factory’s entirely female workers in company boarding houses) that would become the standard throughout the industrial Northeast.
The Charles River didn’t provide quite enough power to sustain that mass production, and after Lowell’s death in 1817 his partners moved the factory to the banks of the Merrimack River in East Chelmsford, a town that would become incorporated as Lowell in 1826 and in the famous history of which the BMC’s mills would play a vital role. But Waltham remained an industrial center throughout the 19th century and well into the 20th, and no industry and company better exemplified that identity than the Waltham Watch Company. WWC opened its first factory in 1851, quickly thereafter became the first company to produce watches on an assembly line, and literally served as the industry’s gold standard for many decades, winning the gold medal for its 1872 model at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. Although Waltham Watch Company closed its doors in 1957, having produced nearly 40 million watches and clocks in that century of work, its legacy endures in the nickname of “The Watch City,” a representation of how closely linked these industrial histories and their settings remain.
Those industrial histories gave more than just nicknames to their cities, however—they also contributed a striking demographic effect, bringing consistent streams of immigrant arrivals to these communities and continually changing their ethnic makeup in the process. Waltham is perhaps especially associated with Italian American arrivals and communities, as illustrated by the 1992 dedication of a monument to Christopher Columbus as part of the city’s town common. But every census (since ethnicity/nationality began to be recorded in the late 19th century) has revealed new additions to the city’s diversity and evolving community, from sizeable Eastern and Southern European influxes at the turn of the twentieth century through the growing Hispanic populations at the turn of the 21st (on the 2010 census, nearly 14% of the city’s population self-identified as “Hispanic or Latino”). Indeed, one of the city’s new nicknames is “Little Kampala,” due to a surge in arrivals from Uganda that began in the era of Idi Amin’s violent leadership and has continued to this day. If Watch City captured a crucial element of Waltham’s past, Little Kampala nicely illustrates its present—and the two phrases are as interconnected as past and present always are.
Next history tomorrow,
Ben

PS. What do you think? Any histories and stories from your hometowns you’d share?

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