Arts and Leisure

How the Lowell Mill Girls Led to Masterpiece Theatre

In January 1971, WGBH-TV presented the first Masterpiece Theatre, made possible by a grant in 1836 from John Lowell, Jr.


John Lowell, Jr., on his travels

John Lowell, Jr., on his travels

John Lowell, Jr., was the son of Francis Cabot Lowell and Hannah Jackson.

Lowell’s father founded Lowell, Mass., and his mother was the sister of Patrick Tracy Jackson, Lowell’s business partner. These early mill owners created educational and cultural institutions for the mill girls they employed: libraries, concerts and lectures.

High-Class Adventure

Lowell was born on May 11, 1799 and named after his grandfather, who’d been appointed to the federal bench by George Washington and John Adams. He led a life of high-class adventure that could have made a terrific Masterpiece Theatre series.

He attended Edinburgh High School in Scotland, entered Harvard at 14, dropped out and sailed before the mast to India, where he followed Marco Polo’s route. Lowell then returned to America and pursued politics and the family business.

Within a few months in 1830 and 1831 his wife and two young daughters died of scarlet fever. Bereft, John Lowell, Jr., quit business and traveled west to assuage his grief. Still grieving, he sailed to Europe where he commissioned artist Charles Gabriel Gleyre to record his journey to Italy, Greece, Turkey, Armenia, Persia and Egypt.

Lowell fell ill on a camel trip through Egypt. He knew his condition was serious, so he sat at the palace of Luxor and revised his will. He then pushed on to Bombay, where he died on March 4, 1836, all of 36 years old.

Lowell Mill Girls

Lowell Mill Girls

That will written on the banks of the Nile included a bequest of $250,000 to be used for popular lectures by eminent scientists and intellectuals. It was an enormous and unusual charitable donation for the time. It funded the Lowell Institute, which would eventually foster the Lowell Institute School at Northeastern University, the Harvard Extension School, the Boston Public Library Lowell Lecture Series, the Kennedy Library Forums, the New England Aquarium Lecture Series and WGBH.

Lowell Lecturers

The Lowell Institute lectures were wildly successful. There were two kinds: popular courses and more advanced lectures. As many as 10,000 people tried to get into the popular courses.

The first season of lectures was delivered by Benjamin Silliman, the Yale College professor of geology who first studied a meteorite in America. That led to a second season of talks on chemistry, which was so popular that the crowd filled the streets and crushed in the windows of the Old Corner Bookstore, where tickets were sold.

Over time, the Lowell Lecturers  would include the most famous figures in science, literature, philosophy and politics, such as naturalist Louis Agassiz, novelist Charles Dickens and landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted.

John Lowell, Jr.

John Lowell, Jr.
(Yup, same guy)

One reason for their success was the size of John Lowell, Jr.’s bequest. “It is so substantially endowed as to be able at all times to command any man it may name as a lecturer, and to remunerate him generously for the careful preparation which it always demands,” wrote Mrs. Harriette Knight Smith in her The History of the Lowell Institute.

Another reason: They were free and open to everyone regardless of gender, race or class. Lowell left specific instructions to that effect. He also ordered the trust be administered by a single person, preferably a Lowell, who would appoint his own successor. Lowell’s cousin John Amory Lowell got the job. Today, William A. Lowell is the sole trustee.

A Bright New Hope

In the middle of the 20th century the Lowell Institute got into broadcasting by forming the Lowell Institute Cooperative Broadcast Council. The council created the WGBH (89.7 FM) radio station, which went on the air on October 6, 1951. It featured a live broadcast of — what else? — the Boston Symphony Orchestra. During the intermission, composer Aaron Copeland called the radio station a ‘bright new hope.’

WGBH Masterpiece TheatreWGBH-TV first aired on May 2, 1955, with a children’s program called Come and See, from Tufts’ Nursery Training School with Mary Lou Adams and folk singer Tony Saletan. For the next decade and a half, WGBH-TV would broaden its programming to include a broadcast of James Brown’s performance at Boston Garden, Evening at Pops, Eleanor Roosevelt’s Prospects of Mankind and This Old House.

On Jan. 10, 1971, Masterpiece Theatre made its debut on WGBH with Alistair Cook in the armchair. The First Churchills dramatized the lives of John and Sarah Churchill, from their first meeting at the court of King Charles II through the court of Queen Anne. Judi Dench was slated to play Sarah Churchill but she couldn’t do it, so Sarah Hampshire took the part and won an Emmy for it.

The First Churchills set the pattern for many more Masterpiece Theatre, then Masterpiece, productions: I, Claudius; The Forsyte Saga; Upstairs, Downstairs; The Jewel in the Crown; and Downton Abbey. It is America’s longest-running weekly prime-time drama series, and now has two spinoffs: Masterpiece Mystery! and Masterpiece Contemporary.

Upcoming events sponsored by the Lowell Institute can be found here.

This story was updated from the 2014 version.

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