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Determining the Facts

Reading 1: Mechanics: A Rising Middle Class

The age of glaciers left New England with many steeply falling streams that were well suited to water-powered activities. Soon after settling the region, the colonists of New England began to build water mills to process grain, lumber, and iron-goods. However, harsh weather often limited mobility, and early transportation routes were primitive and unreliable. As a result, manufacturing remained isolated and self-sufficient.

The situation changed drastically following Samuel Slater's construction of a water-powered cotton carding and spinning mill in 1790 in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. The Blackstone River Valley became a center for industrial growth and technological innovation. Textile, tool, machine, hat, and shoe factories filled the region. Increased investment and industrialization led to large urban centers of production linked by improving transportation. Worcester, Massachusetts, is an example of this change in the American scene.

Worcester did not have streams for large mills or reliable, cheap transportation, so it remained rural in character after the lower Blackstone River Valley began to experience industrial development. Transportation was finally improved by the completion of the Blackstone Canal in 1828. The canal paralleled the Blackstone River and connected tiny Worcester, Massachusetts, to Providence, Rhode Island, a major port. Although it could only be used seasonally, the canal triggered rapid growth in the previously agricultural village. Worcester's population grew from less than 3,000 in 1819 to 7,000 in 1840.

Improvements in the steam engine provided better solutions to Worcester's power and transportation problems. The steam engine generated power for factories, while the steam locomotive offered fast, inexpensive, year-round transportation. Major rail lines completed in the 1830s and 1840s connected Worcester to distant markets. Population growth accelerated, and by 1890, Worcester's population numbered 80,000.

At the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, mill owners hired farmers and agricultural workers from nearby. These laborers had to master the discipline of working on a factory schedule, rather than the rhythms of the agrarian calendar, and learn how to run the complicated machinery in the mills. The ever increasing need for more sophisticated material, machinery, and tools in the rapidly developing industries challenged early craftsmen. The most successful of these early "mechanics" soon became inventors, entrepreneurs, and directors of large scale enterprises. They attained a social status equal to that of the earlier aristocrats and landed gentry.

Among the most successful entrepreneurs was Ichabod Washburn (1798-1868). The young man arrived in Worcester from his blacksmithing apprenticeship in nearby Leicester "with no money, but a fortune in my hands."¹ Washburn made his fortune by inventing industrial machinery, most notably the drawing block, which revolutionized the method for making wire. He and an associate formed the Washburn and Moen Company, which became a world leader in manufacturing wire products such as carding wire for cotton mills, piano and corset wires, and telegraph and barbed wire. This self-made man was a generous philanthropist who supported the abolitionist and temperance movements, gave generously to Lincoln College (renamed Washburn College) and Worcester Polytechnic Institute, and helped to found Worcester's Mechanics Association.

In late 1841, some of the mechanics of Worcester decided to found an association to help educate the city's industrial workers. They formed a committee to draft a constitution for the organization; Ichabod Washburn served as chairman. By February 1842, the Worcester County Mechanics Association had attracted more than a 100 members. Like many mutual aid societies, the Mechanics Association provided assistance to disabled members as well as to the widows and families of deceased members. The Association was particularly active in educating its members. It collected technical books and manuals for a library that members could use to help expand their knowledge of machinery and manufacturing procedures. Members could take individual classes to learn skills such as mechanical drawing and blueprint reading or even follow a diploma course. The Association also held Mechanics Fairs, public exhibitions of mechanical and manufactured arts featuring new inventions and products. Members and the general public could also attend debates, abolition and temperance lectures, and scientific demonstrations sponsored by the Mechanics Association.

Questions for Reading 1

1. Why did Worcester remain rural after other parts of the Blackstone River Valley became industrialized? How and when did this change?

2. What did the term "mechanic" mean in the 19th century? What does it mean today?

3. What benefits did members of the Mechanics Association enjoy? What benefits did the community of Worcester enjoy from having a substantial number of mechanics as residents?

Reading 1 was compiled from standard references about the Industrial Revolution in the United States; Henry T. Cheever, Autobiography And Memorials Of Ichabod Washburn, Showing how a great business was developed and large wealth acquired for the uses of benevolence (Boston: D. Lothrop and Company, 1878); and Margaret A. Erskine, Mechanics Hall (Worcester, Mass.: Worcester Bicentennial Commission, 1977).

¹ Henry T. Cheever, Autobiography And Memorials Of Ichabod Washburn, Showing how a great business was developed and large wealth acquired for the uses of benevolence (Boston: D. Lothrop and Company, 1878), 42.

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