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Gently Mad

A Visual History of the Industrial Revolution

The far more substantial portion of Locks and Canals drawings was turned over to the Lowell National Historical Park in the 1980s when the company was moving yet again, this time to a hydroelectric plant where it continues to sell electricity to the local grid. Included in this collection are working and presentation drawings, pencil and ink drawings on linen and paper, blueprints, machine models, photographs, and manuscript records.

During my visit to the research center, the curator of the National Historical Park archive, Jack Herlihy showed me the incorporation papers of the original company, signed boldly on June 27, 1792, by Massachusetts governor John Hancock. Another prize possession, the bound minutes of the Locks and Canals board of directors, was opened to February 11, 1822, the first meeting held under the new regime, and attended by Nathan Appleton, Patrick Tracy Jackson, and Kirk Boott.

But the highlight of my homecoming visit there, and to the Center for Lowell History next door, was without doubt a sampling of the early drawings rendered on high-quality rag paper, in all likelihood made in England by the famed firm of J. Whatman, whose founder, James Whatman, had developed the process for making wove paper in the 1750s. Of the paper’s many notable qualities, its rigid smooth surface devoid of laid chain lines made it a particular favorite of watercolor artists, printmakers, and lithographers, most famously John James Audubon for the double-folio etchings he made for his monumental Birds of America, and William Blake for his hand-illuminated books. Among other appreciative customers were the artists Thomas Gainsborough and J. M. W. Turner, the emperor Napoleon, and Queen Victoria.

In 1994, twenty-two of what were undeniably some of the most attractive drawings were mounted and displayed in a joint exhibition called Art of the Draftsman: 19th Century Plans and Drawings, some of them signed, initialed, or attributed to James B. Francis and Kirk Boott, most of them unsigned, but all exquisitely rendered and many hand-colored, suggesting to me that their creators saw them as something more than mere instruments of immediate utility. On my visits to the two collections, I was allowed to see and handle some of these remarkable drawings, and found in all of them a kind of subtle testimony to the unprecedented accomplishments of the era.

As one might expect, there is a lot to do about canals, with plans for such improvements as new basins and gates carefully drawn out. Feeder engines, flumes, turbines, guard locks, water wheels, bridges, and cofferdams are illustrated. One drawing titled “shaft gears and lever nut” depicts to scale ten views of several parts used to make the machines. Certainly one of the most important is an 1824 overhead view entitled “A Plan of the Land on the South Side of Pawtucket Canal Belonging to the Merrimack Manufacturing Company,” showing the projected location of ten mill buildings, and about ninety boarding houses for the female workers.

I discussed the subtlety of these drawings with Christine M. Wirth, a conservation specialist with the National Parks Service who has also worked with the Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site collection of one hundred and fifty thousand landscape drawings and manuscript papers in Brookline, Massachusetts. “What you see in so many of these nineteenth-century drawings is how meticulous they were about recording their work,” she said. “They recorded what they had, they used it for their work, and then they passed it on. It survived because it’s on good paper, and in many cases it’s beautiful. But the point is that nobody threw it out.”

The material for this column is derived from research and interviews conducted by Basbanes for Common Bond: Stories of a World Awash in Paper, to be published soon by Alfred A. Knopf. Details will be provided here when they are available.

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Nicholas A. BasbanesNicholas A. Basbanes recently received a National Endowment for the Humanities fellowship to work on his book on paper, which is forthcoming from Knopf. His most recent book is Editions & Impressions, a collection of essays. His other works include the acclaimed A Gentle Madness, Every Book Its Reader, Patience & Fortitude, Among the Gently Mad, and A Splendor of Letters.