INDUSTRIES, COLONIAL. During the colonial period most people engaged in agriculture. A greatly diversified agriculture in the North contrasted with the extreme importance of tobacco in the South. However, from the earliest days of settlement many other industries developed. The vast natural resources of the coast and continent facilitated many of these early enterprises. Shipbuilding, fishing, fur trapping, iron making, and the production of textiles and naval stores helped provide the basis of the colonial economy.
Shipbuilding was an industry of primary importance. Colonists built wooden vessels varying in weight from a few to several hundred tons for the fisheries, the coastal trade, and trade with the West Indies, Great Britain, and
foreign countries. Boston, Salem, New Haven, Portsmouth, and Philadelphia became shipbuilding centers. Shipbuilding created or stimulated many other industries. Among these were the making of sails, rope, nails, spikes, anchors, and chain plates, as well as caulking and painting.
Coastal fishing and whaling were carried on in most colonies, but in New England fishing the banks for cod, mackerel, bass, herring, halibut, hake, sturgeon, and other ocean fish developed into a leading industry. Allied to the fishing industry, and often considered a part of it, was whaling. By the close of the seventeenth century, Plymouth, Salem, and Nantucket, Massachusetts, and villages on the eastern end of Long Island were doing a profitable business in supplying the demand for spermaceti, sperm oil, whalebone, and ambergris. After the opening of the eighteenth century, whaling expanded to a remarkable extent, as whalers often pursued their prey to Arctic waters. Before the colonial period ended, several hundred vessels were engaged in this perilous industry.
The fur trade was also important from the time the first settlements were founded. The abundance of furbearing animals provided opportunities for trapping, frequently as an occupation supplemental to farming. The trade in furs, large quantities of which were secured from the Indians, provided a valuable source of income. Significant in its industrial and commercial aspects, the fur trade was also of great importance in pointing the way to the West, as trappers and traders pressed after the retreating fur-bearing animals. Like the fisheries, the fur trade was an important factor in colonial rivalries, especially between England and France, and was partly responsible for many of the intercolonial struggles.
Iron making was an industry that reached relatively large proportions. The basic mining and smelting processes generally occurred on plantations or large estates where fuel for the ironworks and food for the workers could be obtained. From the bar iron produced, blacksmiths and other artisans, scattered in villages, towns, and cities, fashioned tools, implements, and other hardware.
Textile production was largely a household industry. Imported textiles were expensive and therefore almost every home had a spinning wheel and handloom to produce rough serges and linsey-woolseys. Textiles were made chiefly from wool and flax; cotton was used to a much lesser extent. Before the Revolution a few shops were established in New England and in other places where several looms were brought together under one roof, thus prefiguring the coming factory system. Among the long list of home manufactures in addition to textiles were furniture, tools and other implements, wagons, harnesses, and nails. Meal, hominy, maple sugar, dried fruits, candles, lye, and soap were also produced on the farms.
Pine forest products—tar, pitch, rosin, and turpentine—as well as masts and spars were exported to the mother country from all sections of the seaboard, especially from the southern colonies. In addition to naval stores, quantities of planks, boards, shingles, barrel staves, and even house frames were produced at sawmills and exported to the West Indies and elsewhere. Among forest industries, the production of potash and pearl ash—which are made from wood ashes—must be included. Mainly incidental to the clearing of land, these two products were in demand, especially in England, for bleaching and soap making.
Other important colonial industries included tanning and leatherworking establishments, fulling mills, gristmills, powder mills, saltworks, paper mills, printing shops, glassworks, brick kilns, firearms shops, copper shops, breweries, and distilleries. In connection with the last-mentioned industry, the distillation of rum in New England was important and lucrative.
McCusker, John J., and Russell R. Menard. The Economy of British America, 1607–1789. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1985.
Tunis, Edwin. Colonial Craftsmen and the Beginnings of American Industry. Cleveland, Ohio: World Publishing, 1965.
Vickers, Daniel. Farmers and Fishermen: Two Centuries of Work in Essex County, Massachusetts, 1630–1850. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1994.
Arthur C.Bining/h. s.