Industrialism Takes Root in the United States

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Industrialism Takes Root in the United States

At the time of the American Revolution (1775–83; the American colonists' fight for independence from England) the earliest elements of another revolution—the Industrial Revolution—were taking root in the farms, workshops, businesses, and towns of the new nation. These elements included the development and use of labor-saving machines, the production of goods on a large scale, the employment of many laborers in one large operation, new management systems, and the efficient transportation of raw materials and manufactured goods. Industrialism was to have a profound effect on the way people lived in the United States, dramatically changing the nation's economy and way of life and transforming the United States from a rural (country) farming society into an urban (city) industrial society. Most historians agree that the Industrial Revolution took place over more than a century of U.S. history. The early roots that developed between the American Revolution and the American Civil War (1861–65; a war between the Union [the North], who opposed slavery, and the Confederacy [the South], who were in favor of slavery) unfolded slowly and only in certain sections of the country, but they set the stage for a powerful and rapid industrial expansion that, over the next half century, would make the United States the wealthiest and most powerful industrial nation in the world.

The Industrial Revolution in England

Though the United States would eventually become the most industrialized nation of the world, the Industrial Revolution first took shape in England in the early eighteenth century. England had long been a farming country. During the seventeenth century, however, it had experienced a dramatic increase in population. There was not enough land for everyone to farm and most farmland passed into the hands of the wealthy aristocrats. Many of the poorest people moved to the cities to try to find work. Some of England's artisans (people who are skilled at a particular trade or craft) set out to discover better ways to feed the growing population. The artisans designed new farm machinery that could do large amounts of work with fewer people. New tools for farming created larger crops that could feed the growing populations in the cities and towns.

Words to Know

Someone who is bound to work for someone else for a specific term in order to learn a trade.
A person who is skilled at a particular trade or craft.
Accumulated wealth or goods devoted to the production of other goods.
economic depression:
A period of low economic activity and increasing unemployment.
A building or group of buildings in which manufactured goods are made from raw materials on a large scale.
The social system that results from an economy based on large-scale industries.
A frame or machine used to weave thread or yarns into cloth.
To make something from raw materials, usually as part of a large-scale system of production using machinery.
To equip with mechanical power.
A device that carries threads across a loom in the weaving process.

The English textile industry

English workers who could no longer find work on farms began to spend more time at other trades, particularly the production of textiles, or cloth. Prior to the 1730s most English textiles were produced in the home. People called spinners spun thread from raw fibers like cotton, wool, or flax on a spinning wheel or by hand. They sold the thread to cloth merchants, who brought it to the homes of weavers to be woven into cloth. This process took so long that the cloth merchants could not keep up with the demand for their goods. Then, in the 1730s English engineer John Kay (1704–1764) designed the flying shuttle to speed up the pace of weaving. A shuttle is a device that carries threads across the loom (a frame or machine used for weaving thread or yarns into cloth). With the new flying shuttle a weaver simply pulled a cord and the shuttle shot across the loom by itself. Using the flying shuttle, fabrics could be woven twice as fast as they could be woven manually.

Spinning was mechanized (equipped with mechanical power) in 1764 when English weaver James Hargreaves (1720–1778) perfected an existing design for a machine called the spinning jenny, which could spin several threads at a time. At around the same time English inventor and manufacturer Richard Arkwright (1732–1792) designed his spinning frame, a spinning machine powered by a water-driven wheel. Around 1771 Arkwright built a waterwheel-operated mill (a building with machinery to produce a certain product) to power his spinning frame. The new spinning machine could spin thread by mechanically reproducing the motions ordinarily made by the human hand. Arkwright's cotton mill is often considered the world's first factory. A factory is a building or group of buildings in which many people work to manufacture goods, generally with labor-saving machines powered by a central source.

The English iron and steel industries

New ways of producing iron and steel transformed life in England in the eighteenth century. In order to convert iron ores to iron and steel, manufacturers heated the raw materials using charcoal as fuel. Charcoal is made by burning wood in a kiln. After many years of cutting down trees for this purpose, wood had become scarce in England and iron and steel producers had to look for another fuel. They found this fuel in coke, which is what coal turns into when it is heated in the absence of air. Coke was cheaper to produce than charcoal and more efficient because it could be packed more tightly into a furnace, therefore allowing a larger volume of iron to be heated. But there was a problem with coke. It required a flow of air to pass through the furnace that was more intense than any machine available could create. The answer to this problem lay in the latest designs of the steam engine.

The early steam engine

The steam engine provided the vital new power source of the Industrial Revolution. A steam engine burns wood or other fuel to heat water into steam. The steam then becomes the power that turns the parts of the engine. The first steam engines had been designed in the seventeenth century to pump water from mines. In 1712 English engineer Thomas Newcomen (1663–1729) greatly improved the steam engine, and in 1765 Scottish engineer James Watt (1736–1819) improved Newcomen's design. Watt's steam engine was equipped with a cooling system that could cool down the steam and transform it back into water, using much less fuel than previous designs. The Watts steam engine could be used to power mills, so factories no longer needed to be near a source of moving water to power a waterwheel. By the last decade of the eighteenth century, steam-engine-powered factories were being built throughout England. Using steam engines, iron and steel production became a thriving new industry.

Social changes in England

England prospered from its new industrialism. The country was able to produce the goods needed by its citizens with plenty left over to export to other nations. Many industrialists grew rich and invested in new mills, creating more goods and more jobs. People were able to purchase goods for less money because these products were cheaper to manufacture. Running a household became less laborious because less time was spent making the household goods. But industrialization was not beneficial for everyone. The people who worked in the factories often found their living conditions much worse than in a farming environment. They now faced repetitive, unhealthy, and sometimes dangerous work, long working hours, low pay, and miserable living conditions in the factory towns.

The new United States

In 1790 the newly formed United States lagged far behind England in industrialization. Of the five million people living in the country at the end of the century, more than 80 percent were farmers. Only two cities, New York and Philadelphia, had populations over twenty thousand people. One reason that industrialism was slow to develop in America was that England had always supplied the colonies with manufactured goods, but there were many other difficulties to overcome before the United States could become a productive industrial nation.

Early Americans found transportation a difficult problem, due to the size of the nation and its primitive road system. There were few roads before the Revolution, and those that existed were rugged dirt paths unsuitable for anything beyond foot or horse traffic. The Ohio and Mississippi rivers were principal transportation routes. But most manufactured goods were brought into the East Coast port cities from Europe. Transportation was so limited in the United States it was easier and cheaper to ship materials thousands of miles across the Atlantic than to cross a few hundred miles of land.

American farmers were much more isolated than European farmers and had to rely on their own abilities to farm and raise animals, make and fix their tools, and keep their families supplied with the goods necessary for their survival. For most rural Americans, shopping meant an occasional stop at the one store in town, called a mercantile. The store was stocked with every foreseeable need of the people—clothing, food, animal feed, pots and pans, farm tools, seeds, and much more. The manufactured goods, for the most part, came from England. The English merchants made a profit on them and so did the owner of the mercantile, making the goods too expensive for most people to be able to afford them. In order to be able to buy tools and other necessities, many farmers took up another occupation in the off-seasons of farming, making goods such as cloth or shoes to sell or trade. The farmers in the new nation were a particularly self-reliant group. They were full of new ideas and inventions, but there were few networks through which their breakthroughs in farming or manufacturing technology could spread.

Another factor delaying industrialism in the United States was a lack of money. There were some very wealthy people in the young nation, but there were very few people who could afford to risk great amounts of capital (accumulated wealth or goods devoted to the production of other goods) for the untested industrialization of the United States.

Visions of the future United States

Industrialization was not universally desired by the people of the new nation. Well before the American Revolution, there was controversy over whether the nation should maintain its farming economy or move toward an industrial economy like England's. The founding fathers of the young nation had decided not to follow in England's political footsteps. Instead they created a democratic republic, a society in which government gets its authority by popular vote. Many saw a possibility for a new kind of society in which everyone, no matter what social class they were born into, had equal rights. Some believed that if the United States were to follow in England's economic footsteps, it would lead to the kinds of inequalities among social classes that existed in England.

After the American Revolution, England resumed its practice of exporting manufactured goods to the United States. The United States was forced to pay the prices England demanded but had little to trade. An economic depression (a period of low economic activity and increasing unemployment) ensued, stimulating debate over whether the United States should produce its own goods in efficient factories or continue upon its farming course, allowing England to drain the country of its money and resources. Two of the best-known arguers of this debate were the U.S. statesmen Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826) and Alexander Hamilton (1755–1804).

Thomas Jefferson's pro-agricultural vision

Thomas Jefferson served as secretary of state under the first U.S. president, George Washington (1732–1799; served 1789–97). Jefferson was always a supporter of poor, laboring Americans, though he was a very wealthy slave owner himself. He firmly believed that the way to provide a prosperous and dignified life for all Americans was to create a society of independent farmers. Jefferson argued that farming was the one truly virtuous occupation. As land-owning farmers, every man, woman, and child could determine their own destinies and participate in the nation as equal citizens.

Jefferson argued that factory systems led to an unequal class system in which the working class would always be viewed as brute workers, inferior to, and with fewer rights than, their employers. He feared that workers in an industrial system would become virtually enslaved to the industrialists, who would most probably try to pay them the lowest possible wages in order to turn a large profit. The workers, having no better opportunities, would be forced to take whatever tiny wages their employers decided to give them. Having witnessed miserable conditions in England, Jefferson urged Americans to avoid dooming the working poor to the dreadful environment of the factory. In his book, Notes on the State of Virginia (1785), Jefferson argued: "Let us never wish to see our citizens occupied at a work-bench, or twirling a distaff [an implement for holding fibers when spinning]…. For the general operations of manufacture, let our workshops remain in Europe." Many Americans agreed and sought to preserve the agricultural basis of the nation.

Alexander Hamilton's pro-manufacturing vision

Alexander Hamilton, who played a large role in the shaping of U.S. economic policy as the secretary of treasury under Washington, was an outspoken proponent of industrialization. He argued that American dependence on manufactured goods from England and Europe weakened the economy and lowered the international status of the United States. He sought to replace the home crafts system of producing necessary goods with machine-driven factory production. Hamilton argued that an urbanized and industrial economy would not enslave the workers but rather create many new opportunities for them. In 1791 Hamilton presented to Congress his famous report, Report on Manufactures. He recommended that the government nurture "infant industries," or those U.S. businesses that were just getting started, by placing tariffs (taxes) on imports from overseas. If these products became too expensive for the public to buy them, it would stimulate production at home of necessary goods. Although his recommendations were not immediately put into practice, Hamilton's vision of a powerful industrial United States accurately forecast things to come.

English restrictions on U.S. industry

England had never been willing to allow the United States to participate in its successes as an industrial nation. It did not want competition and did not want to lose the American colonies as the primary market for English goods. Before the American Revolution, England had imposed many restrictions upon the colonies to prevent industrialization. A 1719 law, for example, forbade the practice of metalworking. A 1750 law was more restrictive, explicitly prohibiting the use of a mill "or other engine for slitting or rolling iron, or any plating forge to work with a tilt hammer, or any furnace for making steel." These restrictions angered the colonists and helped to fuel the revolution. After the United States gained its independence in 1783, England tried to preserve its dominant control over modern textile manufacturing. The English government refused to allow plans or models of industrial machinery to leave the country. It also prohibited the emigration (departure) of skilled workers who might share the secret designs of their machinery with industrialists in foreign lands.

Samuel Slater and the early U.S. textile industry

In the late 1780s a number of businessmen sought to industrialize the production of textiles in the United States. They found that England thoroughly controlled the industry and was not about to share the secrets of the trade. Several American textile companies began to offer rewards to mill workers who would immigrate to America, bringing their knowledge of textile machinery with them. One of the Englishmen lured across the ocean in this way was Samuel Slater (1768–1835).

When Slater was fourteen, his father died and Slater was apprenticed (bound to work for someone for a specific term in order to learn a trade) to a neighbor, textile industrialist Jebediah Strutt (1726–1797). Just a few years earlier, Strutt had entered into partnership with inventor Richard Arkwright (1732–1792) to construct the first spinning frame powered by a waterwheel. Strutt employed Slater as the supervisor of one of his textile mills. For six and a half years Slater learned about the process of manufacturing cotton yarn. At the end of his apprenticeship he decided to immigrate to the United States. Since it was illegal to export textile technology, such as parts, designs, and sketches, Slater memorized the construction plans for the Arkwright factory. He did not tell anyone of his decision to leave the country; even his family did not learn of his departure until receiving a letter a few days after Slater left. At the docks, Slater told authorities that he was a farm laborer so they would allow him to leave the country.

Slater arrived in Philadelphia in 1789. He found textile production in the United States to be very crude and inefficient. Within a few months Slater made contact with Moses Brown of the Almy and Brown textile firm. Brown offered to make Slater a partner in the firm if he would convert one of Brown's existing mills into an English-style textile factory. Slater accepted. At Brown's old mill in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, Slater designed and built the essential machinery for a cotton mill; his machines were almost identical to machines found in English mills. In 1793 Slater's mill began producing high-quality cotton yarn. The unskilled workers in his mill were generally children between the ages of four and ten. They were paid wages for their work, but very low wages.

Slater's Early Cotton Mills

In his first mill in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, Samuel Slater revolutionized the new U.S. textile industry by building several machines—three carding machines, two water frames, and a carding and roving machine—that mechanized the spinning process. When cleaned, raw cotton fibers were brought into a textile mill. The first step of the spinning process was carding, a process of combing fibers and gathering them into a loose rope. Before mechanization, carding had been done by laboriously pulling cotton fibers by hand through wire teeth mounted on a board. The ropes of carded cotton fiber were then combined, twisted, and drawn out into a roving, a tightened and aligned roll of the cotton fibers. Slater's new carding machine was equipped with a large cylinder (a tube-shaped chamber or tank) covered with slightly bent teeth sticking up from its surface. There were corresponding teeth protruding from flat surfaces just above the cylinder. The roving was fed into the teeth, and when the cylinder rotated, the roving was tightened and aligned between the two sets of teeth. The machine replaced hand carding and did the work much more quickly.

Prior to mechanization, spinners used a spinning wheel, which twisted and drew out the roving and wound the yarn onto a bobbin. The person operating the spinning wheel had to continually draw out the yarn by hand. Slater's mechanized spinning frame did the same job. The roving passed through a system of rolls and spindles that reduced them to the required yarn size. Then they were wound onto small bobbins (spindles or cylinders on which threads or yarns are wound). The machine could produce forty-eight lengths of yarn at the same time without human assistance. Operating the spinning frame required no skill; the operator simply fed it with roving and made sure that no threads broke and the machine remained running.

Slater's mill was powered by a waterwheel. Water from the river on which the mill was situated was channeled into a canal that flowed to a drop-off point. There, a waterwheel equipped with buckets caught the water as it fell to a lower level. The buckets filled with water, propelling the wheel around. The power from the wheel's rotation was then transferred to the mill's many machines via shafts running from the wheel to each floor of the mill. The process was slow and noisy, but it was far more efficient than spinning cotton yarn by hand.

In 1789 Almy, Brown, and Slater opened a second mill, then a third, and eventually controlled the production of cotton yarn in much of Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire. Slater is considered the founder of the American cotton-textile industry. By bringing English technology to the United States, he played a crucial role in setting the wheels of U.S. industrialization in motion.

For More Information


Bagley, Katie. Let Freedom Ring: The Early American Industrial Revolution, 1793–1850. Mankato, MN: Bridgestone Books, 2003.

Bailey, Thomas A., David M. Kennedy, and Lizabeth Cohen. The American Pageant. 11th ed. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1998.

Hindle, Brooke, and Steven Lubar. Engines of Change: The American Industrial Revolution, 1790–1860. Washington, DC and London: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1986.

Kornblith, Gary J. The Industrial Revolution in America. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1998.

McCormick, Anita Louise. The Industrial Revolution in American History. Berkeley Heights, NJ: Enslow Publishers, 1998.

Web Sites

Hamilton, Alexander. "Report on Manufacturers." (December 5, 1791). The Founders' Constitution. Edited by Philip B. Kurland and Ralph Lerner. (accessed on June 30, 2005).

Jefferson, Thomas. "Notes on the State of Virginia." (1st edition 1785). Electronic Text Center, University of Virginia Library. (accessed on June 30, 2005).

Kreis, Steven. "The Origins of the Industrial Revolution in England." The History Guide: Lectures on Modern European Intellectual History. (accessed on June 30, 2005).

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Industrialism Takes Root in the United States

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