Teacher's Essay

Early Industrialization

Starting in the early 19th Century the United States underwent an industrial revolution. The work that many people did changed as they moved from farms and small workshops into larger factories. They tended to buy things in stores, rather than make them at home or trade with their neighbors. They used machines, and purchased the products of machines, more than they ever had.

spinning wheel women operating mechanized spinner
LEFT: Spinning wheel, possibly for flax. Courtesy of the National Museum of American History, Washington, D.C.
RIGHT: Mechanized Spinner from The Progress of Cotton, 1835-40. Courtesy of Slater Mill Historic Site, Pawtucket, RI.
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The small-scale centers of textile production discussed in Unit 1 lasted well into the 19th century. But the manufacture of textiles began to change dramatically, starting as early as the 1790's, as these traditional sources were first joined, and then replaced, by a new material, a new kind of agriculture, and a new kind of factory. The material processed changed, from linen and wool to cotton; the way that cotton was grown and prepared changed, with the invention of the cotton gin and the reinvention of the plantation; new machines, invented to process the cotton, found a new setting in larger and more complex factories. Together, these changes added up to an industrial revolution.

This textile revolution did not happen everywhere in the United States at the same time, and its effects were quite different in different areas. Perhaps the largest change came in the South, where the new demand for cotton was supplied by plantations based on slave labor and mechanized processing of the cotton by the cotton gin. ("Gin" is short for "engine.") The Northeastern United States changed dramatically as home spinning and weaving, and small-scale carding and fulling mills gave way to large integrated mills where a new kind of worker used new machines to produce cotton cloth on a scale previously unimagined. Smaller mills remained, and would remain for the rest of the century, but for the most part, only in areas of low population far from the commercial markets of the Northeast.

This account of the American Industrial Revolution is different from the usual one found in textbooks. Many textbooks claim, for example, that the Industrial Revolution did not occur until the end of the 19th century, with the coming of massive steel mills and the end of small-scale production. And they omit the mechanization and reorganization of Southern plantations, on the grounds that agricultural production is not part of the history of industry. While this traditional story is not wrong, it leaves out an important part of the story.

It also leaves out many people who participated in and whose lives were changed by industrialization. To focus on factories, which have traditionally employed native white and immigrant workers, and from which African Americans were kept by racial prejudice, leaves out a large group whose story is a key element of American history. Slaves produced the cotton that made possible Northern factories, a piece of history often slighted in favor of stories about those factories. In this curriculum we have widened our point of view to include Southern cotton production as part of textile history. So slavery, and later sharecropping, becomes an important part of the story of Northern textile mills; African Americans become part of the history of technology; and technology becomes part of African American history. Such an inclusionary view should help students of color imagine themselves as people who, like their ancestors, use and control technology.

The South
William Aiken Walker, The Sunny South, 1881
Photo courtesy of Robert M. Hicklin Jr.,Inc., Spartanburg, SC.

It is right to start the story of the industrialization of the textile industry in the South, because that is where the story of cotton starts. Southern plantations underwent an industrial revolution of a sort: one of the key new technologies of the textile revolution, the cotton gin, made possible a new, much larger scale of production, and that increased scale demanded new organization and management.

Before the American Revolution, tobacco, rice, and indigo were the major crops produced for market in the South. Cotton was not produced for market because it was so hard to remove the sticky seeds from inside each cotton ball; it could not be done fast enough to make cotton profitable. (The only exception was long-staple cotton, which could only be grown on the seacoast.) Since the first millenium B.C., people around the world used roller gins to speed the cleaning of cotton. The saw gin, patented in 1793, made processing cotton even easier, faster, and cheaper.
Eli Whitney's cotton gin, demonstration model
1973. Courtesy of National Museum of American History,
Washington, DC

Based on an ancient technology, the introduction of the saw gin at the end of the 18th century changed the nature of American cotton cultivation. Developed just as the world-wide demand for raw cotton was skyrocketing because of the expansion of textile mills in Britain and the United States, the machine removed the principal bottleneck to cotton production. Even the early machines allowed one person to clean the seeds from fifty pounds of green-seed cotton in one day. Soon cotton became the most important market crop in the South. Production went from 3,000 bales in 1790 to 1 million bales in 1835.

With the opportunity to make a good profit from cotton came dramatic changes in Southern agriculture: increased size of plantations, and to work them, increased numbers of slaves. African slaves had been used in Southern agriculture almost from the beginning of European settlement. Tobacco planters had used slaves since the 17th century; slaves were critical to the rice cultivation that developed in the 18th century. Plantations, large farms using slave labor to grow a single crop, were created to make a profit for the owners before technology made cotton a cash crop and before slavery was the only labor system. But plantations were adapted to produce cotton in the 19th century and by then many of them employed only slaves. Planters became wealthy by exploiting the labor of Africans in America, men and women who could not choose another way of life. The growth of cotton as a cash crop in the 19th century meant the growth of slavery throughout the South. Slavery, which had been in decline, became an integral part of the new agriculture.

It might seem odd that a new labor-saving machine like the cotton gin meant an increase in the size of the labor force. But the lower price meant an enormous increase in cotton production, and even with the cotton gin, cotton production still required an enormous amount of labor. Cotton demanded large plantations; it made money only when plantation owners could put more workers in the field. From an investor's point of view, slaves were a capital investment, comparable to the machinery a northern factory owner might purchase. (The student essay "Why a Plantation?" addresses the issues of plantation size and management.)

The cotton gin was one of those inventions that brought about an enormous change in the way people lived and worked, and even in their politics, and so it is appropriate that much of the southern section of this Unit is focused on the gin. The exercise on "Inventing the Cotton Gin" raises issues about the nature of invention. The exercise on fixing a gin raises questions about technological skills. Both of these include a discussion of race and technology.

The North
Bleaching, from The Progress of Cotton, 1835-40
Courtesy of Slater Mill Historic Site, Pawtucket, RI.

The invention of the cotton gin was only one of the technological innovations that propelled the growth of cotton as a cash crop. The other important new technology was new machines for the manufacture of cloth, which lowered the price and increased the speed of production. These technological developments were crucial in the growth of cotton as a commodity crop, as was a commercial and market revolution that created a growing demand for cotton. The new technology and new demand meant changes in northern industry every bit as extensive as those in the South.

As discussed in Unit 1, textile manufacturing in the 18th century occurred mostly in homes. Farm women worked hard to turn raw wool into finished cloth, first picking and breaking it, then spinning, and then weaving. For some farm women this work was a full-time winter job, for some a job done between other chores. Toward the end of the century, small water-powered carding and fulling mills became increasingly common. Thus, some of this work was industrialized. Women might take the wool to the local carding mill for cleaning and carding, then take it home for spinning. They might do the weaving themselves, or perhaps take the yarn to a professional weaver. Finally, they would take the cloth to a mill to be fulled and finished. This division of labor brought some of industrial work into the home, but, for the most part, women worked alone, in control of the details of their own time and pace. They used machinery, but very simple machinery. Hand powered, individually controlled, and highly dependent on the skill of the user, home textile production made use of mechanisms that were more tools than machines.

Samuel Slater's 1793 Mill
Courtesy of Slater Mill Historic Site, Pawtucket, RI.


In the late 18th century, a new kind of textile mill, invented in England, began to be found in the United States. The first was the Pawtucket, Rhode Island, mill of Almy, Brown and Slater. It was the first mill in the United States set up on an English pattern, as well as the first to use water-powered spinning machines. The men, women, and children (mostly families) who worked at the mill produced yarn, which was sent out to hand weavers for production into cloth. Samuel Slater, trained in England as a mill manager, brought the knowledge of technology with him. He also called on local experts: millwrights to place and build the waterwheel and mill, and iron and wood workers to build the machines. Almy and Brown were merchants; they provided the capital, and took responsibility for the purchasing of materials and the sale of product.

Mills like that of Almy, Brown, and Slater were soon found throughout Southern New England, especially after the 1809 Embargo on shipping with England led to an enormous increase in American textile production. (In 1815, there were almost 170 mills just in the area of Providence, RI.) These mills changed the lives of their thousands of workers, who had to learn a new time discipline, and of their workers' families. But they also changed the lives of those who bought the cloth the workers produced--cloth became cheaper, and part of a system of commercial exchange, impacting the lives of those who lived nearby. The dams required to provide water power to the mills flooded farmers' fields and stopped fish from their annual migration. Industry did not coexist easily with traditional ways of life. (These early mills are discussed in the student essay, "Why a Factory?", the game "Industrial Life," the exercises on water power and factory ecology, and the video exercise.)

A different sort of textile industry developed in the cities, which had always been centers of manufacturing. Philadelphia, which became the largest producer of textiles,pioneered a style of production quite different from that found in New England. Philadelphia's textile industry was quite diverse. There were a few large mills that used water or steam power to drive machinery, but, for the most part, Philadelphia's textiles were produced in small shops or home-based operations. The workers who produced them, many of them British immigrants, tended to be highly skilled workers, able to undertake a variety of jobs. The management too was highly skilled, not only knowledgeable about the machines and processes under its control, but skilled in rapid shifts of resources, product, and market. The products tended to be of high quality. The machines reflected what historian Philip Scranton has called "productive flexibility," their complexity and ease of adjustment allowing a broad range of output.

A View of Lowell, 1840.Courtesy of
The Library of Congress.



A third style of textile mill was found in Lowell, Massachusetts. The city had been founded in 1822; by 1840, it had 26 cotton mills, employing some 7,000 workers. Almost all of these mills produced the same basic product--a low-grade cotton cloth. The mills, all of them enormous, were powered by water wheels, and all were basically identical, both inside and out. The workers, almost all of them young unmarried women who would work there for only a few years, possessed only the specialized skills they were taught for the machines they ran. The machines were largely devoid of adjustable features. Mechanical ingenuity went into increasing automatic operations and speed, not improving the machines' quality or variability of output. Managers were more knowledgeable about the control of workers than the details of machinery or of markets; other specialists dealt with those departments of the business.

It is worthwhile to look more deeply into the story of Lowell, for it was, at its start, a unique industrial city--a city that raises key questions about the nature of American industrialization. Designed as an explicitly American style of industry, the mills at Lowell were unique in their utopian aims, their workforce, their managerial style, and their machines. Not that the Lowell mills had no predecessors--these mills had a heritage that stretched back to the English mills of Arkwright and Robert Owen, to the many industrial experiments that were part of the American attempts to win economic independence from England, and to the small textile mills of New England--but the Lowell mills compounded these all, and at a scale so much larger as to be something new in industrial history.

In developing this experimental city, the developers of Lowell broke new ground. They had to solve a new set of problems, and they solved them in a different way than anyone else. The problem was simple: how to make money in manufacturing in a nation unused to manufacturing. That is, in a country without skilled machine makers, without skilled workers--for that matter, without many workers available at all--without a great deal of capital or a tradition of manufacturing--indeed, with a strong philosophical bent against manufacturing, and against managerial prerogative. Many of the beliefs, ideas, skills, and machines that modern industrialists take for granted, or assume they can purchase, were missing in Lowell. So too were most of the economic assets. The solutions found by the owners and managers of Lowell--solutions managerial, technological, social, cultural, and political in nature--took a large step toward the modern industrial style. Lowell was to become one of the places where American manufacturing and managerial traditions were born. By 1840, more than 50,000 people worked in the cotton textile industry in New England.

Perhaps the most important tradition to which the founders of Lowell helped contribute was that of managerial expertise, separate from engineering or technological or financial expertise. Managers at Lowell were hired for their skills as managers, not their technical abilities or their financial prowess. The textile mills of Lowell drew on traditions of authority that existed elsewhere--in schools, prisons, on ships--and reshaped them to the needs of industry. Managers at Lowell brought a new rationality of production, a new precision of understanding of processes, and also a new way of looking at the men, women, machines, and materials of industry. It is the beginning of the abstraction from reality into information that is essential to modern economic life, the origin of a new belief in the efficacy of numbers as a means of control. (For some of the technical decisions Lowell mill managers had to make, see the "What's in a Factory?" exercise.)

The Three Cassidy Sisters, 1877.
Courtesy of The Pollard Memorial Library, Lowell, MA.


The workforce at Lowell, and the way it was managed, was also something new. The young women who left their family's farms expected to stay there only a few years. Millgirls (so the female workers were called at the time) were expected to abide by a list of "General Regulations" that outlined the new world of bureaucracy They were about to enter. The rules were part moral exhortation, part guide to duties and the duties of the managers under whom they would work, and part legal contract stating obligations as an employee. They were required, the Regulations stated, to "attend assiduously" to duties, to "aspire to the utmost efficiency" in work, and "to evince . . . a laudable regard for virtue [and] temperance." They would be expected to attend public worship, to observe the Sabbath, and not to drink or gamble. At work, they would "conform to regulations." (See the "Factory Rules" part of the "Comparative Labor Systems" exercise, and the scholarly article.)

The social, cultural, and technological innovations of the New England corporations were important elements in the industrialization of the United States. Not so much because these mills set the style for other industries; the Lowell mills, with their millgirls and "moral" boardinghouses, were not widely copied outside of northern New England. They also did not last long; by 1860 the so-called "golden age" of Lowell was over, and the utopian dreams of its founders had disappeared as Lowell became simply another textile city. But, as the first large-scale industrial experiments, the mills at Lowell brought with them much that would be found in later factories--not only large-scale production, but also some profound opposition to industrial capitalism.

The opposition was in part theoretical and in part practical. The theoretical aspects were based on philosophical beliefs about the nature of American democracy. America would only stay a republic, Thomas Jefferson and others of his period believed, as long as it stayed agricultural. "God forbid," wrote Zachariah Allen, an American mill owner, "that there may arise a counterpart of Manchester [England] in the New World." Thomas Mann put the same sentiments in even stronger terms. A sometime mill worker and teacher, he made up in feeling what he lacked in poetic ability in his Portrait of a Factory Village (1833):

For liberty our fathers fought
Which with their blood, they dearly bought,
The Factory system sets at naught.
A slave at morn, a slave at eve,
It doth my inmost feelings grieve;
The blood runs chilly from my heart,
To see fair Liberty depart;
And leave the wretches in their chains,
To feed a vampyre from their veins.
Great Britain's curse is now our own;
Enough to damn a King and Throne.

Another mill worker was less poetic and more straightforward. Jabez Hollingworth, an English immigrant who had worked in several American mills, combined in one sentence the two comparisons that came to a textile mill operative's mind when management was oppressive: "Management breeds lords and Aristocrats, poor men and slaves." Some of the Lowell millgirls felt the same way. The rhetoric of their early strikes showed the influence of radical democratic ideas: The millgirls called themselves "daughters of freemen" and feared that the "oppressing hand of avarice would enslave us."

The mention of slavery brings us back to the beginning of this essay. Clearly, the use of the word "slavery" by radical Northern workers is more rhetorical than real; industrial work, as hard and unpleasant as it might have been, was not slavery. Workers were not property like slaves were. They were, in principle anyway, always free to leave. But there are some comparisons that are useful. Both factory workers and slaves were treated, to some extent, as cogs in a larger machine. Northern factory owners as well as Southern plantation owners used similar imagery in describing their operations as machines. Andrew Ure, a British scientist, wrote in his Philosophy of Manufactures (1835): "The main difficulty [of inventing the factory was] in training human beings to renounce their desultory habits of work, and to identify themselves with the unvarying regularity of the complex automaton." A plantation owner echoed Ure when he wrote a few years later: "A plantation might be considered as a piece of machinery, to operate successfully, all of its parts should be uniform and exact, and the impelling force regular and steady." Both systems of labor demanded a strict adherence to the rules set down by those in charge.

New systems of rules, along with the new machines and new products, are the legacy of the Industrial Revolution of the early 19th century, for the second Industrial Revolution of the later part of the century, and, to a large degree, for today. We have come to accept the necessity of technology, products, and hierarchy. The exercises in this unit suggest that they came about not out of necessity, but as the product of specific historical circumstances.

In her 1931 history of the early New England textile industry, historian Caroline Ware asked: "Could political democracy encompass industrial autocracy, could it harbor a working class and a moneyed power and survive? . . . These problems which New England faced before 1860 have confronted other American communities as one by one they have experienced the process of industrialization. Their solution still lies in the future."

The path to that solution might be the key question for students to take from this Unit. Why a plantation? Why a factory? What were the relations of labor and management, of machines and people? Why were they that way? And how did the factories and machines, the owners and the workers of the factories, change American culture?


Copyright 1998 The Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution. All rights reserved.

Comments and questions to the Lemelson Center:lemcen@si.edu

Last Revision: 7/12/99
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