Factory Labor

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Factory Labor

Industrial systems are evolutionary. While seventeenth- and eighteenth-century manufacturing and labor systems in British North America did not, in many ways, resemble nineteenth-century factory systems, they were the building blocks on which the processes of the industrial revolution were built.

colonial manufacturing

Early American manufactories, where commodities were processed or produced in large quantities for designated markets, both local and far away, included iron furnaces and forges, tanneries, glassworks, and various types of mills. The greatest difference between colonial manufactories and those of the nineteenth century and beyond was that their operations were seasonal. Prior to the advent and application of the steam engine to American manufacturing in the 1790s, ironworks and mills were dependent on waterpower from fast-moving rivers, creeks, and streams. Nearly 75 percent of the water sources suitable for effective milling were located from the Upper Chesapeake Bay region (the northern counties of Maryland) northward through the New England colonies. In this region, winter freezes limited the availability of waterpower to run the mill wheels to approximately nine months in northern Maryland and southeastern Pennsylvania and to little more than seven months in New England. The seasonal dependence on waterpower not only placed limits on the extent of production but also ultimately dictated the relationship between entrepreneurial owners and managers of manufactories and their workforces.

Free men, whether landowners, tenant farmers, or landless, could not depend on factory work as a constant source of income. Landowning farmers needed industrial jobs the least, while landless men most needed any type of work to live. Work at an iron company or a mill could be a source of supplementary income for farmers, particularly for those with older children whose labor was not constantly needed at the farm. Farm work, however, had to come first, meaning that a balance had to be achieved between the need or desire for work and its seasonal availability. Landless men sought work both on farms and at manufactories, hiring on where and when labor was needed. Given the seasonality of colonial manufacturing, in either case most men worked part-time in manufacturing. Across all the colonies, at least 50 percent of families had at least one member working in industry in any given year, but the work was overwhelmingly part-time. Even if one considers an eight-to-nine-month industrial work year as the basis for full-time employment, over two-thirds of industrial laborers worked only part-time in manufacturing prior to the American Revolution.

Owners, realizing that they did not have access to a sufficient full-time labor force of free men during peak manufacturing seasons, turned to bound workers—both indentured servants and slaves. In all regions, servants and slaves formed the core of full-time workers at ironworks, mills, and tanneries, but there were regional variations. In New England, approximately 20 percent of full-time manufactory workers were slaves (5 percent of all workers) and 65 percent of full-time workers were servants (20 percent of all workers). In the middle colonies, 60 percent of full-time workers were slaves (17 percent of all workers) and 25 percent of full-time workers were servants (7 percent of all workers). In Virginia, 80 percent of full-time workers were slaves (60 percent of all workers) and 13 percent of full-time workers were servants (10 percent of all workers). These regional differences were directly related to seasonality and the relative value of various types of labor.

In New England the costs of bound labor, particularly slaves, were prohibitive in industry, as they were in farming. To buy a slave for seven months' work at a manufactory without enough work to keep that slave busy the other five months of the year was economically inefficient. The availability of slaves for hire in New England was also limited because of their overall rarity, so that manufacturers could not access slave labor only at times when needed. The purchase of an indentured servant's contract was generally much more common, and servants for hire could more easily be found. In the middle colonies the manufacturing season was longer, as was the growing season. There, it was more feasible to purchase a slave for nine-months' work in industry and also find them work for another month or two during the year. The greater number of slaves in the region from northern Maryland through New York, approximately 12 percent of the overall population, also made it easier to hire slaves as needed—for a month or a year at a time. In Virginia, a manufacturer could count on a ten-month productive season, and winter was not so severe that work could not be found in the off-season for slaves. Therefore, a much greater number of slaves were purchased for full-time manufacturing work than further north.

manufacturing after the revolution

The American Revolution acted as a watershed of a kind for industry. While no technological changes of any consequence occurred, labor patterns during the War for Independence and the war's effects caused both entrepreneurs and laborers to view industry and industrial work differently beginning in the mid-1780s.

The disruptions of war as well as its length created opportunities for bound servants and slaves to run way from their masters. Beginning with the call of Lord Dunmore, the last royal governor of Virginia, for bound workers to run to the British lines to seek their freedom, successful flight encouraged others to run. While flight affected production in all areas, industrial production, necessary for the war effort, was hurt the most. Ironworks and mills, particularly in the mid-Atlantic and the South, had constructed their core, full-time workforces around slaves and servants. Commercial operations lost over 20 percent of their total workforces during the war and nearly 35 percent of their full-time workers. The realization that bound labor was not always dependable hit home with force. In the mid-Atlantic region generally, which was the center of early American manufacturing, there was an impetus toward a full-time workforce of free labor by the Revolution's end.

If this could be achieved, factory owners would save on the up-front investment in bound workers and remove the possible loss of that investment should the worker escape from bondage. Also, free wage earners were not paid for their labors until after production was completed, which would enable manufacturers to exert more quality and production controls. The question was whether a conversion to a free labor base could be done.

Workers proved to be generally cooperative in the decades immediately after the Revolution. The economic crisis of the 1780s put both landless workers and tenant farmers in a very poor position, and many landed farmers felt the pressures of high inflation and sagging markets. Immigration after 1785 also began to have an effect, as many newcomers sought work in industry as a possible step toward land ownership in the future. The availability of workers allowed owners and managers to slowly move toward a larger full-time workforce of free workers. The only thing many could not offer until the 1790s was year-round work. Beginning at that time, however, the opportunity for converting to steam power, the availability of loans for conversion and expansion made possible by the new Bank of the United States, a stabilizing currency, and increasing support for manufacturing by the federal government made it possible for full-time, free industrial labor slowly to become a reality and opened the way to the industrial revolution.

See alsoIron Mining and Metallurgy; Manufacturing .


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Kennedy, Michael V. "The Home Front during the War for Independence: The Effect of Labor Shortages on Commercial Production in the Mid-Atlantic." In A Companion to the American Revolution. Edited by Jack P. Greene and J. R. Pole. Oxford, U.K., and Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2000.

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Michael V. Kennedy