The Rise of Manufacturing

Learning Objectives

  • Describe the rise of industrial manufacturing in the early-mid 19th century and the nature of factory labor

In the late 1790s and early 1800s, Great Britain boasted the most advanced textile mills and machines in the world, and the United States continued to rely on Great Britain for finished goods. Great Britain hoped to maintain its economic advantage over its former colonies in North America. In an effort to prevent the knowledge of advanced manufacturing from leaving England, the British banned the emigration of mechanics and skilled workers who knew how to build and repair the latest textile machines.

Despite their best efforts, some British mechanics, including Samuel Slater, managed to travel to the United States in the hopes of profiting from their experience with advanced textile machinery. Slater understood the workings of the latest water-powered textile mills, which British industrialist Richard Arkwright had pioneered. In the 1790s in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, Slater convinced several American merchants, including the wealthy industrialist Moses Brown, to finance and build a water-powered cotton mill based on the British models. Slater’s knowledge of both technology and mill organization made him the founder of the first truly successful cotton mill in the United States.

Image (a) is a portrait of Samuel Slater. Drawing (b) is a sketch of his water-powered textile mill on a river with a dam in Pawtucket, Rhode Island.

Figure 1. Samuel Slater (a) was a British migrant who brought plans for English textile mills to the United States and built the nation’s first successful water-powered mill in Pawtucket, Massachusetts (b).

The success of Slater and his partners, Smith Brown and William Almy (relatives of Moses Brown), inspired others to build additional mills in Rhode Island and Massachusetts. By 1807, thirteen more water-powered mills had been established. President Thomas Jefferson’s embargo on British manufactured goods from late 1807 to early 1809 spurred more New England merchants to invest in industrial enterprises because Americans were desperate for domestic goods. By 1812, seventy-eight new textile mills had been built in rural New England towns. More than half turned out woolen goods, while the rest produced cotton cloth.

Slater’s mills and those built in imitation of his were fairly small, employing only seventy people on average. Workers were organized in family units, the way that they had been in English factories. Under the Rhode Island system families were hired together, with the father being placed in charge of the family unit and directing the labor of his wife and children. Instead of being paid in cash, the workers were given credit equal to the value of the family’s labor, which could be redeemed towards rent for company-owned housing or goods from the company-owned store.

The Embargo of 1807 and the War of 1812 played a pivotal role in spurring industrial development in the United States. Jefferson’s embargo prevented American merchants from engaging in the Atlantic trade, severely cutting into their profits. The War of 1812 further compounded the financial woes of American merchants. The acute economic problems led some New England merchants, including Francis Cabot Lowell, to cast their gaze on manufacturing. Lowell, having memorized the designs for the advanced textile machines he had seen in his travels to England, convinced other merchant families to invest in the creation of new mill towns. In 1813, Lowell and these wealthy investors, known as the Boston Associates, created the Boston Manufacturing Company. Together they raised $400,000 and, in 1814, established two water-powered textile mills in Waltham, Massachusetts.

An engraving depicts the Boston Manufacturing Company buildings and the river and greenery alongside them.

Figure 2. The Boston Manufacturing Company, shown in this engraving made in 1813–1816, was headquartered in Waltham, Massachusetts. The company started the northeastern textile industry by building water-powered textile mills along suitable rivers and developing mill towns around them.

At Waltham, cotton was carded and drawn into coarse strands of fibers called rovings. The rovings were then spun into yarn, and the yarn woven into cotton cloth. Yarn no longer had to be put out to farm families for further processing. All the work was now performed at a central location—the factory.

The work in Lowell’s mills was both mechanized and specialized. Specialization meant the work was broken down into specific tasks, and workers steadily repeatedly the one task assigned to them. As machines took over labor from humans and people increasingly found themselves confined to the same repetitive jobs, the process of deskilling began, wherein there was no longer a need to hire trained, professional laborers. Any worker could perform any job with minimal instruction or training, making now interchangeable employees less valuable and more easily replaceable.

The Boston Associates’ mills, which each employed hundreds of workers, were located in company towns, where the factories and worker housing were owned by the employer. This gave the owners and their agents more direct control over their workers. The most famous of these company towns was Lowell, Massachusetts. The new town was built on land the Boston Associates purchased in 1821 from the village of East Chelmsford at the falls of the Merrimack River, north of Boston. The mill buildings themselves were constructed of red brick with large windows to let in light. Company-owned boarding houses to shelter employees were constructed near the mills. The mill owners planted flowers and trees to maintain the appearance of a rural New England town and to forestall arguments, made by many, that factory work was unnatural and unwholesome.

In contrast to many smaller mills, the Boston Associates’ enterprises avoided the Rhode Island system, preferring individual workers to families. These employees were not difficult to find. The competition New England farmers faced from farmers now settling in the Midwest, and the growing scarcity of land in population-dense New England, had implications for farmers’ children. Realizing their chances of inheriting a profitable farm or receiving a substantial dowry were remote, these teenagers sought other employment opportunities, often at the urging of their parents. While young men could work in a variety of occupations, young women had more limited options. The textile mills provided suitable employment for the daughters of New England farm families.

Anxious parents were concerned about their daughters’ moral upkeep while they worked away from home. Families hoped to avoid what they viewed as common problems of industrialization—filth and vice, so the Boston Associates established strict rules governing the lives of these young female workers. The women lived in company-owned boarding houses to which they paid a portion of their wages. They woke early at the sound of a bell and worked twelve-hour shifts during which talking was forbidden. They could not swear or drink alcohol, and they were required to attend church on Sunday. Overseers at the mills and boarding-house keepers kept a close eye on the young women’s behavior; workers who associated themselves with people of questionable reputation or behaved immorally lost their jobs and were evicted.

Michel Chevalier on Mill Worker Rules and Wages

In the 1830s, the French government sent engineer and economist Michel Chevalier to study industrial and financial affairs in Mexico and the United States. In 1839, he published Society, Manners, and Politics in the United States, in which he recorded his impressions of the Lowell textile mills. In the excerpt below, Chevalier describes the rules and wages of the Lawrence Company in 1833.

All persons employed by the Company must devote themselves assiduously to their duty during working-hours. They must be capable of doing the work which they undertake, or use all their efforts to this effect. They must on all occasions, both in their words and in their actions, show that they are penetrated by a laudable love of temperance and virtue, and animated by a sense of their moral and social obligations. The Agent of the Company shall endeavour to set to all a good example in this respect. Every individual who shall be notoriously dissolute, idle, dishonest, or intemperate, who shall be in the practice of absenting himself from divine service, or shall violate the Sabbath, or shall be addicted to gaming, shall be dismissed from the service of the Company. . . . All ardent spirits are banished from the Company’s grounds, except when prescribed by a physician. All games of hazard and cards are prohibited within their limits and in the boarding-houses.

Weekly wages were as follows:
For picking and carding, $2.78 to $3.10
For spinning, $3.00
For weaving, $3.10 to $3.12
For warping and sizing, $3.45 to $4.00
For measuring and folding, $3.12

What kind of environment were the factory owners trying to create with these rules? How do you think those who believed all White people were “born free and equal” would react to them?

Visit the Textile Industry History site to explore the mills of New England through its collection of history, images, and ephemera

The mechanization of formerly handcrafted goods and the movement of production from the home to the factory dramatically increased the output of goods. For example, in one nine-month period, the numerous Rhode Island women who spun yarn into cloth on handlooms in their homes produced a total of thirty-four thousand yards of fabrics of different types. In 1855, the women working in just one of Lowell’s mechanized mills produced more than forty-three thousand yards.

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There is now a national historic site, Lowell National Historical Park, in Lowell, Massachusetts, where you can visit and learn about the history of the textile mills and the life of the workers who lived there. This video provides a glimpse of the factories and features an interview with a national park employee who explains more about what it was like. Do you agree with his description of how life might have been for the young women who worked there?

You can view the transcript for “The Massachusettes Mill Workers, Lowell National Historical Park” here (opens in new window).

Hooper boy and bucket elevator drawing.

Figure 3. A plan of the hopper boy and bucket elevator used in Evans-style flour mills, from the Young Mill-wright and Miller’s Guide, 1834 edition.

The Boston Associates’ cotton mills quickly gained a competitive edge over the smaller mills established by Samuel Slater and those who had imitated him. Their success prompted the Boston Associates to expand. In Massachusetts, in addition to Lowell, new mill towns were built in Chicopee, Lawrence, and Holyoke. In New Hampshire, Lowell-style mills popped up in Manchester, Dover, and Nashua. In Maine, a large mill was built on the Saco River. Other entrepreneurs copied the Boston Associates’ business plan. By the time of the Civil War, 878 new textile factories had been built in New England. Altogether, these factories employed more than 100,000 people and produced more than 940 million yards of cloth per year.

A mechanical drawing shows the workings of a flour mill, with the parts of machinery labeled.

Figure 4. Oliver Evans was an American engineer and inventor, best known for developing ways to automate the flour milling process, which is illustrated here in a drawing from a 1785 instructional book called The Young Mill-Wright & Miller’s Guide.

Industrial success in New England was replicated elsewhere. Small mills, more like those in Rhode Island, were built in New York, Delaware, and Pennsylvania. By the mid-19th century, 300 textile mills were located in and around Philadelphia. Many produced specialty goods, such as silks and printed fabrics, and employed skilled workers, including those who worked in their own homes. In the South, the region that otherwise relied on slave labor to produce the cotton that fed the northern factories, more than 200 textile mills were built. Most textiles, however, continued to be produced in New England in the decades leading up to the Civil War.

Alongside the production of cotton and woolen cloth, which formed the backbone of the Industrial Revolution in the United States, production of other goods increasingly became mechanized and centralized in factories in the first half of the nineteenth century. The production of shoes, leather, paper, hats, clocks, and firearms had all become mechanized to one degree or another by the time of the Civil War. Flour milling had also become almost completely automated by the early decades of the nineteenth century, thanks to the inventions of Oliver Evans, such as the gravity-assisted bucket elevator and the flour processing hopper boy. So efficient were Evans-style mills that two employees were able to do work that had originally required five, and mills using Evans’s system spread throughout the mid-Atlantic states.

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Boston Manufacturing Company: Founded in 1813 by Francis Cabot Lowell and his investors, the Boston Manufacturing opened one of the first factories in the U.S. and paved the way for the 19th-century mill-town manufacturing model used by textile producers. The company closed in 1930, but the original factory buildings were declared a National Historic Landmark in 1977 and now house a museum.

Bucket elevator: Oliver Evans modified this concept, which had been used since Roman times to transport water, in order to lift buckets of grain to the top of an automated mill machine, which allowed gravity to do the work that employees used to do.

Hopper boy: Another invention of Oliver Evans, this machine was a large rake attached to a center pole. The rake would revolve around the pole and spread out the flour meal in order to dry it out. The rake would slowly push the meal toward a center chute, where it would be collected.

Rhode-Island System: Factories hired family units to complete tasks. Fathers were placed in charge of their unit and the family was paid in credit, which they could use to rent company-owned housing and buy goods at a company store.