"Why A Factory?"
|Power Loom. One Girl Attends Four, 1868.|
Courtesy of the Lowell National Historical Park, Lowell, MA.
Factories are places that rely on the division
of labor to mass-produce items for a profit. They often rely
on machines (as well as people) to produce items more cheaply
than would be possible if the goods were produced by a craftsman.
Factories didn't come into existence automatically, as if there
were no other possible ways to organize production, and that is
particularly true for clothmaking. In England, for example, cloth
merchants often "put out" raw materials to artisans
who worked at home or in shops where several people would labor
together. Some things--straw hats and shoes, for instance--were
made that way in America, too. But most early textile factories
in this country tended to emerge from two lines of development.
In one case, they grew out of existing water-powered milling
operations. So, for instance, a miller added a carding machine
to the equipment of a grist mill or saw mill, drawing upon the
water power already in use at the site. That experiment then
often led an owner to introduce some of the new spinning machines
and power looms, in many cases taking out the older grist or saw
mill machinery, and by such a process a textile mill was created.
These kinds of factories were often small and oriented to local
markets. By 1815 there were lots of them, especially in southern
In the second case, textile factories were
established as complete enterprises from the beginning, depending
on the development of new power sources and the identification
of new populations of labor. This is what happened at Waltham,
MA in 1813, at Lowell, MA in 1822, and then
later at Manchester, NH, and other places in northern
New England. The men who established these factories were originally
looking for new kinds of investments because the shipping they
were engaged in had become too risky during the early 19th
century as a result of the international hostilities which led
up to and continued during the War of 1812. These merchants were
able to combine large amounts of capital (which were unavailable
to almost everyone else in the United States) with powerful water
sources to create large factories oriented towards national markets.
From an investor's or a manager's point
of view, the advantages of combining raw materials, workers, machines,
and power--all under one roof--were obvious. One of the first
benefits was better supervision of workers and work processes.
Someone working at home without the pressure of immediate supervision
might not work as hard or as regularly. Working and drinking
(not an uncommon practice in some early industries) could also
result in less than perfect yarn or cloth. With workers in a
single place for 11-to-13 hours a day, almost all these
problems could be minimized, giving managers a more predictable
output-per-week at a lower cost-per-yard.
Employing the new textile machinery in
a water-powered factory setting provided huge gains in productivity
and that was another important benefit for mill owners. Single
spinning machines and power looms spun and wove much faster than
individuals could; assembling a great many of these machines,
with each worker tending several at once, multiplied the possibilities
for profits. Here is an important difference from plantations,
where gains in productivity came only by adding more workers.
|FromThe Progress of Cotton, 1835-40.|
Courtesy of Slater Mill Historic Site, Pawtucket, RI.
But like plantation owners, factory managers
also had to be concerned with discipline, to insure control over
production. Small factories employed families, relying primarily
on the labor of children (usually between the ages of 10 and 20)
to produce cloth. The large factories of places like Lowell employed
young women (usually between the ages of 13 and 25) to produce
their cloth. In both cases, factory managers argued that these
groups of people needed close supervision because they could not
be trusted to take care of themselves. Some owners argued that
poor families who did not work in factories would only become
idle, immoral, and even criminal. Those who employed young women
in places such as Lowell did not feel that these young women were
likely to become immoral, but they did feel that the women needed
to live in boarding houses with strict rules of behavior, and
they certainly never expected these young women to move up the
factory ladder to become overseers, much less owners. Although
factory workers were given more independence than slaves, factory
owners still looked down upon them.
However, in the North, factory owners paid
wages to their workers (or the parents of their workers where
family labor was used). They expected their workers to provide
their own food and clothing and they expected their workers to
depend on family members for support in a time of crisis. In
this way, northern workers were treated differently from slaves.
Factory owners only claimed to own the labor of their employees,
not their whole person.
|The Three Cassidy Sisters, 1877.|
Courtesy of Pollard Memorial Library, Lowell, MA.
Cotton production resulted in the spread
of slavery; textile production resulted in the beginnings of a
class of factory workers who had limited prospects in the industrial
world. In the South, slave owners looked down on slaves because
of their race; in the North, factory owners looked down on operatives
because of their economic background (class) and because they
Many northern factory workers were no more
enamored of their jobs than slaves were of theirs. Indeed, they
sometimes called themselves wage slaves. Factory workers organized
collectively to resist unfair labor conditions more regularly
than slaves did, no doubt because the consequences for such behavior
were less severe than on southern plantations. But factory workers
also engaged in day-to-day resistance by quitting their jobs and
by working more slowly than their overseers demanded.
Thus factories, like plantations, were set up to increase profits for their owners. However, factories increased profits not only through the organization of labor, but through the development and spread of technology.
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Last Revision: 6/5/98