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.
|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..
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.
|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
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,
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.
|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.
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
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
|A View of Lowell, 1840.Courtesy of |
The Library of Congress.
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?"
|The Three Cassidy Sisters, 1877.|
Courtesy of The Pollard Memorial Library, Lowell, MA.
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
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
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
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?
Comments and questions to the Lemelson Center:firstname.lastname@example.org
Last Revision: 7/12/99
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