How Industrial Manufacturing Began in the USA

Child Laborer in the Mollahan Mills

There was more than one kind of frontier and one kind of pioneer in early America.

While many people were trying to carve out a new existence in states and territories continually stretching to the West, another group pioneered the American Industrial Revolution. They developed new, large forms of business enterprise that involved the use of power-driven machinery to produce products and goods previously produced in the home or small shop. The machinery was grouped together in factories.

Part of the technology used in forming these new business enterprises came from England, however, increasingly they came from American inventors and scientists and mechanics.

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The First Factory in America

The first factory in the United States was begun after George Washington became President.

Samuel Slater Textile Manufacturing

In 1790, Samuel Slater, a cotton spinner’s apprentice who left England the year before with the secrets of textile machinery, built a factory from memory to produce spindles of yarn.

The factory had 72 spindles, powered by by nine children pushing foot treadles, soon replaced by water power. Three years later, John and Aethur Shofield, who also came from England, built the first factory to manufacture woolens in Massachusetts.

From these humble beginnings to the time of the Civil War there were over two million spindles in over 1200 cotton factories and 1500 woolen factories in the United States.

From the Textile Industry, the factory spread to many other areas. In Pennsylvania, large furnaces and rolling mills supplanted small local forges and blacksmiths. In Connecticut, tin ware and clocks were produced. Soon reapers and sewing machines would be manufactured.

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Early Corporate Manufacturers

Shortly after the War of 1812, a new form of business enterprise became prominent — the corporation. In a corporation, individuals are financially responsible for business debts only to the extent of their investment, rather than extending to their full net worth, which included his house and property.

First used by bankers and builders, the corporation concept spread to manufacturing. In 1813, Frances Cabot Lowell, Nathan Appleton and Patrick Johnson formed the Boston Manufacturing Company to build America’s first integrated textile factory, that performed every operation necessary to transform cotton lint into finished cloth.

Over the next 15 years they charted additional companies in Massachusetts and New Hampshire. Others copied their corporation model and by 1840 the corporate manufacturer was commonplace.

Lowell and his associates hoped to avoid the worst evils of British industry. They built their production facilities at Massachusetts.

Mill Girls - women labourersTo work in the textile mills, Lowell hired young, unmarried women from New England farms. The “Mill Girls” were chaperoned by matrons and were held to a strict curfew and moral code.

Although the work was tedious (12 hours per day, 6 days per week), many women enjoyed a sense of independence they had not known on the farm. The wages were about triple the going rate for a domestic servant at the time.

During the 1840s, the population of the country as a whole increased by 36%. The population of towns and cities of 8,000 or more increased by 90%. The impact of the creation of all these factories and corporations enticed people from rural areas to the cities where factories were located.

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Child Labour and Racial Segregation

From 1880, the Carolinas mills employed children in preference to adults. As well as the usual report of hands and fingers getting severed by the machinery, and insufferable heat- the dust inhaled caused a fatal condition known as brown lung.

Child laborer in a Textile Factory

Laws were rarely enforced, and the presence of small children in the factory was explained away to the inspectors saying they were visiting the mill to bring meals to their parents (meal totters), or helping but not on the payroll (helpers).

Wages were good for the workers who could earn $2 a day in the mill against $0.75 on a farm.

Cotton Mill

In the segregated south, ‘Blacks’ were not allowed to work inside a mill; had they been the need for child labour would have been eliminated.

Child labour finally stopped, but sadly is was not only because of new laws. The type of machinery was adapted and changed, which required greater height and skill.

Despite a beginning rife with child labour, racism and extremely hard working conditions, the corporation evolved and grew into what it is now: a central force in America’s economic growth.


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