Why Worcester?

Excerpt from Worcester Women's History Heritage Trail: Worcester In the Struggle for Equality in the Mid-Nineteenth Century published by the Worcester Women's History Project, 2002.  

“Why Worcester?” is the most common question people ask when they learn about this city’s leadership role in the history of radical social reform. Like many other communities in the early nineteenth century, Worcester encountered a surge of new ideas at the onset of the industrial revolution. Economic growth, coupled with a heartfelt theology that stressed human free will, inspired a keenly felt desire for a new social order. The generation that came of age in the two decades before the Civil War believed that they had the ability to reorder virtually every aspect of society from as personal as one’s own hygiene to redefining the meaning of human rights. Campaigns against drunkenness, capital punishment, and slavery, on the one hand, or for women’s rights, dress reform, and a ten-hour work day, on the other, existed alongside a proliferation of new religions and utopian communities. In this period, even the human body was reinterpreted as new methods to read it, treat it, or feed it—such as phrenology, hydropathy, and the Graham diet—emerged.

During these years, however, Worcester experienced an even greater transformation than many other locations. Extensive stage, canal, and railroad lines allowed people and goods to get here quickly and easily. The Blackstone Canal opened in 1828; the first railroad arrived in 1835; and by 1850, six railroads passed through the city and twenty-four trains arrived and departed each day. The population exploded. By 1820, Worcester had become the largest town in the county, and it continued to grow. By 1850, its population had increased fivefold. Manufacturing had become the city’s dominant enterprise by then, and its metal industries gained national prominence. Worcester’s highly skilled labor force led the country in mechanical invention and design. In 1855, an article in the Massachusetts Spy noted that the number of patents granted to Worcester residents exceeded, by proportion, those of any other city. By 1860, Worcester was home to 170 manufacturing establishments; indeed, that year its wire mills turned out 58% of all wire produced in America. By the last third of the nineteenth century, Worcester had become a major industrial center—second only to Boston in Massachusetts, and the 28th largest such center in the entire United States.

But Worcester was known for more than its manufacturing. The city’s growth promoted a rich cultural life, and it had the economic means to build the halls, hotels, and various institutions necessary to host speakers and events. The Worcester Lyceum and the Mechanics Association sponsored a lively lecture series that included notable speakers addressing all the pressing issues of the day. In 1853, “Stella,” a columnist for the Palladium newspaper, wrote that “Our citizens are lecture crazy!” (Chasan, 166). A vast assortment of panoramas, tableaux, exhibitions, fairs, conventions, and concerts could be seen in Worcester at any given time. The city was known for its ability to attract and host large gatherings. “Another Convention at Worcester!” Christopher Columbus Baldwin, a lawyer, and the librarian of the American Antiquarian Society, recorded in his diary in 1833. In 1850, the National Aegis newspaper expressed the same sentiment: “The Whigs, Democrats, Free-Democrats, Land Reformers, Come-Outers and Disunionists have already held their respective Conventions for the season, and most of them in this city.”

As a result, Worcester citizens pondered, debated, and discussed the latest reform issues. Among all of those issues, however, Worcester and Worcester County particularly supported radical abolitionism and women’s rights. Two of the nation’s most radical (and often despised) abolitionists, Abby Kelley Foster and her husband Stephen S. Foster, adopted Worcester as their home, as did Thomas Wentworth Higginson and Edward Everett Hale. The area was already home to Lucy Stone, Eli Thayer, and Samuel May, Jr. They were joined in their political activities by networks of related Quaker families such as the Earles and the Chases, whose organizing efforts were crucial to the anti-slavery cause in central Massachusetts and throughout New England.


The first National Woman’s Rights Convention, in 1850, was significant for a number of reasons. It marked the beginning of the organized movement for women’s rights and called for the total reorganization of “all social, political, industrial interests and institutions.” The convention elected officers who were appointed to committees on education, civil and political rights, social relations, and avocations. Its final resolution, which called for “Equality before the law without distinction of sex or color,” was highly controversial because of its shocking support of equality for black women. The convention was applauded by a few local and national newspapers, but disparaged by most of them. The issues raised at the convention, however, were heard throughout the world.  [See continuation in booklet or on www.wwhp.org.]

Published Date: 
February 28, 2018