Lowell, Story of an Industrial City: Early American Manufacturing

Slater Mill 1991 by Joseph Elliot HAER
Slater Mill, Pawtucket, Rhode Island, 1991.

Photo by Joseph Elliot, Historic American Engineering Record. Collections of the Library of Congress. Public Domain (http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/ri0102.photos.362899p/)

The mounting conflict between the colonies and England in the 1760s and 1770s reinforced a growing conviction that Americans should be less dependent on their mother country for manufactures. Spinning bees and bounties encouraged the manufacture of homespun cloth as a substitute for English imports. But manufacturing of cloth outside the household was associated with relief of the poor. In Boston and Philadelphia, Houses of Industry employed poor families at spinning for their daily bread.

Such practices made many pre-Revolutionary Americans dubious about manufacturing. After independence there were a number of unsuccessful attempts to establish textile factories. Americans needed access to the British industrial innovations, but England had passed laws forbidding the export of machinery or the emigration of those who could operate it. Nevertheless it was an English immigrant, Samuel Slater, who finally introduced British cotton technology to America.

Slater had worked his way up from apprentice to overseer in an English factory using the Arkwright system. Drawn by American bounties for the introduction of textile technology, he passed as a farmer and sailed for America with details of the Arkwright water frame committed to memory. In December 1790, working for mill owner Moses Brown, he started up the first permanent American cotton spinning mill in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. Employing a workforce of nine children between the ages of 7 and 12, Slater successfully mechanized the carding and spinning processes.

A generation of millwrights and textile workers trained under Slater was the catalyst for the rapid proliferation of textile mills in the early 19th century. From Slater's first mill, the industry spread across New England to places like North Uxbridge, Massachusetts. For two decades, before Lowell mills and those modeled after them offered competition, the "Rhode Island System" of small, rural spinning mills set the tone for early industrialization.

By 1800 the mill employed more than 100 workers. A decade later 61 cotton mills turning more than 31,000 spindles were operating in the United States, with Rhode Island and the Philadelphia region the main manufacturing centers. The textile industry was established, although factory operations were limited to carding and spinning. It remained for Francis Cabot Lowell to introduce a workable power loom and the integrated factory, in which all textile production steps take place under one roof.

As textile mills proliferated after the turn of the century, a national debate arose over the place of manufacturing in American society. Thomas Jefferson spoke for those supporting the "yeoman ideal" of a rural Republic, at whose heart was the independent, democratic farmer. He questioned the spread of factories, worrying about factory workers' loss of economic independence. Alexander Hamilton led those who promoted manufacturing and saw prosperity growing out of industrial development. The debate, largely philosophical in the 1790s, grew more urgent after 1830 as textile factories multiplied and increasing numbers of Americans worked in them.

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From: Dublin, Thomas. 1992. Lowell: the story of an industrial city: a guide to Lowell National Historical Park and Lowell Heritage State Park, Lowell, Massachusetts. Washington, D.C.: Division of Publications, National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior.

Last updated: June 15, 2018