Manufacturing in America

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Manufacturing in America

MANUFACTURING IN AMERICA. American industry had not developed sufficiently by the time of the Revolution to be able to supply the rebel armies with the means to resist increased imperial control, and few of the shortcomings in the supply of manufactured goods were remedied during the war. The limited American industrial base was overwhelmed by the sudden, sharp, and continuing spike in demand for clothing, weapons, shelter, munitions, and the whole host of other things required to sustain the war effort. Enlisting men into military service meant that manpower was being reallocated away from manufacturing, and this phenomenon, plus the often extreme dislocation caused by active military operations, ensured that Americans remained dependent on foreign, especially French, sources of supply until 1783.

Before the war, the British imperial government had discouraged the development of manufacturing in the colonies, preferring to use them as sources of raw materials and markets for finished goods. Because the cost of land in the colonies was relatively low and the cost of labor relatively high, those colonists who managed to accumulate risk capital generally invested it in acquiring land rather than in establishing manufactories. A notable exception was the shipbuilding industry: by 1760 a third of all British tonnage was American-built. In the ten years up to 1775, 25,000 tons a year were turned out, at costs that were 20 to 50 percent lower than in Europe, thanks largely to the widespread local availability of timber and naval stores.

The manufacture of iron goods provides an example of the handicaps under which American industry labored. Iron manufacturing actually expanded rapidly before the war, despite restrictions in 1750 and 1757 under the Navigation Acts, because the demand was so high. In 1775 the colonies produced 15 percent of the world's iron, but imperial legislation inhibited the development of the sorts of workshops needed to turn bar iron into finished products. Imported iron goods were cheaper than nearly anything that could be produced domestically, including such simple items as iron nails. Efforts were made at the outset of the war to expand the capacity to manufacture metal goods, and to produce war materiel. By late 1775, the foundries of Philadelphia were casting cannon of bronze and iron, but they ceased these operations after a few years. Salisbury Furnace, in northwest Connecticut, also started casting cannon in 1775, but it, too, had almost ceased to operate by 1778. Technical knowledge was undeveloped, and the homemade products were inferior and more expensive than cannon imported from France.

American gunsmiths were among the finest craftsmen of individual firearms in the world and although, for example, more than 4,000 stand of arms were made in Pennsylvania over the winter of 1775–1776, they did not develop the mass production techniques needed to meet the extraordinary demand for small arms during the war. The arsenal at Springfield, Massachusetts, established in 1778, was so poorly managed that, in 1780, the Board of War recommended it be abandoned. A new United States arsenal was established at Springfield only in 1794.

Gunpowder was the single most important manufactured commodity necessary to wage an armed struggle, and the American armies never had enough of it. Six powder mills in Pennsylvania managed to produce several thousand pounds of powder a week by 1776, but a general shortage of saltpeter and sulfur, plus a lack of technical knowledge, frustrated this and other local efforts. American gunpowder was considered to be inferior in quality, and more expensive, than gunpowder manufactured in, and imported from, Europe. The Continental Congress and individual states bent every effort to acquire gunpowder and other munitions from overseas suppliers, especially in France, and managed to import directly or via the West Indies sufficient quantities to sustain the war effort through 1775 and 1776. The clandestine activities of Pierre Caron de Beaumarchais and his front company of Hortalez et Cie began to have an impact on army supplies in 1777. Once France openly allied with the rebels in February 1778, a steady stream of clothing and munitions made its way to American ports, where it faced the further problems involved in transporting the material to the American armies. The relative abundance and low cost of French supplies further dampened American efforts to supply war materiel for themselves. For example, lead mines in Virginia were abandoned early in the war, in part because importing lead from France was cheaper.

Textiles were another area of critical shortage. Women made linen at home, but the colonies had little wool for winter clothing and blankets. Canvas was needed for tents and sails, but demand rose so rapidly that supplies could not keep up. Canvas already in use for awnings and sails was remanufactured to provide tents and idle ships were eyed for the cloth in their sails. Pre-war efforts to pressure the imperial government to reverse its policies by refusing to import British manufactures had given an impetus to weaving, but the industry had not developed sufficiently to supply clothes for soldiers whose constant activity created a continual need for resupply.

Non-importation had also given an impetus to shoemakers, and during the war the Americans tried to manage the problem of turning the hides of cattle slaughtered for the army into shoes. A commissary of hides was appointed in 1777 to organize and oversee this task, but the results were unsatisfactory. The pressure to produce more shoes, a soldier's most indispensable article of clothing, led to shortcuts in the tanning process and in sewing shoes. The result was uncomfortable footwear that lacked durability.

Manufacturing enterprises in colonial America tended to be concentrated in towns and cities, where markets attracted the largest numbers of artisans and skilled workers. Philadelphia, for example, was a center for the production of hats, shoes, stockings, earthenware, cordage, and soap. Market pressures also created areas of specialized manufacturing. Lancaster, Pennsylvania, was a center of woolen and linen weaving as well as gunsmithing. Lynn, Massachusetts, was known for its concentration of families that produced shoes. Other enterprises, especially the production of raw metals, were located in areas, mostly rural, where the required resources were grouped closely together. The Brown family of Providence, Rhode Island, for example, established an iron furnace at Hope, on the Pawtuxet River, where ore, wood for conversion to charcoal, limestone, and water power were all readily available.

SEE ALSO Mercantilism; Muskets and Musketry; Naval Stores; Nonimportation; Supply of the Continental Army.


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                             revised by Harold E. Selesky

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Manufacturing in America

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