MANUFACTURING, HOUSEHOLD. In the colonial and early national periods, many rural households conducted their own manufacturing activities in conjunction with farming, making yarn, cloth, soap, candles, tools, and other items. Farm families manufactured such items partly to avoid purchasing them and partly to exchange them with neighbors or merchants for other goods. Estate inventories reveal the existence of spinning wheels, looms, and other equipment connected with textile production, as well as carpenters' tools and other implements. Usually employing the labor of women, children, servants, and slaves, household manufacturing was somewhat correlated with wealth. It became increasingly important in the later eighteenth century, when the American Revolution spurred domestic production and "homespun" became a patriotic symbol of both family and national virtue.
Household manufactures were never comprehensively enumerated. Incomplete returns at the 1810 census reported more than 72 million yards of household-made fabrics valued at almost $38 million, or roughly $5 per head of population. The expansion of factory production, which had already begun by this time, substantially replaced household textile manufactures in subsequent decades, so that while total family-made goods of all kinds were valued at $25 million in 1860, this now represented less than $1 per capita. However, the decline of "home-spun" masked some important changes in the character of household manufacturing. In New England especially, merchants organized networks of "outworkers" in shoemaking, straw-and palm-leaf braiding (for hats), and the manufacture of brooms, buttons, and suspenders. Most of these activities employed women and child workers; as many as 51,000 Massachusetts women worked at straw-or palm-leaf braiding in 1837. In some regions, men also worked part-time making parts for tools and implements, or, in southwestern Connecticut, they worked in the production of wooden-movement clocks that flourished in that region from the 1810s to the 1840s. Outwork constituted an American example of "protoindustrialization," a stage in the introduction of factory and mechanized manufacturing techniques. It posed problems for the entrepreneurs who organized it: it was hard to supervise, control quality, or accurately record. Manufacturers often resolved these difficulties by moving the work into larger workshops or factories. By the later nineteenth century, most remaining rural outwork was in marginal trades and was conducted by poor families.
Household manufacture did not die out with industrialization, however; it just took new forms. Although production shrank, farm families continued to make foodstuffs, clothing, and other goods for their own use or for sale. Urban household production also grew: clothing manufacturers put out sewing and dressmaking to home-working seamstresses, and the mid-nineteenth century development of the sewing machine fostered the expansion of sweatshop production, particularly among poorer and immigrant populations of large cities. Indeed, although its relative economic contribution dwindled, household manufacture remained a significant activity throughout the twentieth century. It even experienced elements of a resurgence in the early twenty-first century—to meet tourist demand for craft-produced items in poor but scenic rural regions such as Vermont or New Mexico, or with the spread of electronic information technology that fostered new patterns of home-working in both manufacturing and service occupations.
Ulrich, Laurel Thatcher. The Age of Homespun: Objects and Stories in the Creation of an American Myth. New York: Knopf, 2001.