Manufacturing, in the Home

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Historians once viewed home manufactures as part of a golden age of rural economic isolation and self-sufficiency. More recently, they have viewed home manufacturing as a vital link in the economy of early America. It connected the rural economy to the urban economy at the same time that it tied the private world of the household to the public world of the marketplace.

Home manufacturing became increasingly important during the late colonial era and much of the early national period because of political and economic factors. Politically, home manufacturing played a central role in the protests leading up to the Revolution. Most famously, the Daughters of Liberty held highly publicized "spinning bees" at which they demonstrated their support for a nonimportation movement that, in calling for a boycott of British textiles, temporarily bolstered the symbolic and economic importance of homespun products. Others, such as volunteer firefighters, the graduating classes of both Harvard and Yale, and elite politicians such as Benjamin Franklin and George Washington also patriotically supported homespun.

As the colonies moved to separate themselves from the British Empire, economic circumstances again thrust home manufacturing into the limelight. Throughout the colonial period, home manufacturing processes such as cabinetmaking, leather tanning, and potash making held important places in regional economies. But after the colonies declared independence and the British navy blockaded their harbors, colonists increasingly were also forced to manufacture war materiel, ranging from gunpowder to textiles, within their households.

After the war, home manufacturing continued to prosper. By one estimate, New England farm families doubled their manufacturing output between 1770 and 1790, and as late as 1810, census figures showed "blended and unnamed cloths and stuffs," primarily home manufactures, as America's leading manufactured goods. Some entrepreneurs attempted to promote new home manufactures on a broader scale; for example, William Cooper and Henry Drinker tried to convince upstate New York farm families to produce maple sugar as a substitute for imported West Indian sugar in the early 1790s. To the south, enslaved African Americans continued to manufacture many necessities for their owners' plantations and surrounding farms. For a time in the 1790s, for example, Thomas Jefferson turned a tidy profit from a slave-run nailery at Monticello. Other farm families continued to make finished items, such as candles, and processed foodstuffs, such as cider and cheese. But textiles, ranging from simple thread to high-quality woven products, remained the most important home manufactures. Agricultural societies promoted them by offering prize medals and publicizing them at country fairs. New York's state legislature even offered fifteen thousand dollars in prizes for homespun cloth made from domestic wool between 1809 and 1814.

Home textile manufacturing followed different patterns in different regions. In seventeenth-century New England and Maryland, male artisans had performed many cloth-making functions, but by the late colonial period all aspects of the process—from spinning to weaving—were generally performed by women in the New England household. By contrast, in early national Pennsylvania, women usually were responsible for spinning, but male weavers, some trained in Europe, still generally performed the final stages of manufacture on their looms. Far from destroying home manufacturing, early industrialization initially stimulated it in both Pennsylvania and Massachusetts, beginning in the 1790s. Because this early factory production of textiles was only partly mechanized, women outworkers became a crucial aspect of the new factory system. As a result, women's work was increasingly brought into the marketplace.

This situation did not last long, however. Just as women's work became more profitable, home manufacturing began to decline. One can see the beginnings of this shift as early as the War of 1812, when patriotic literature was more inclined to laud new factories than to praise the female spinners who followed in the footsteps of the Daughters of Liberty. The industrial revolution played an important role in this decline. As more fully automated factories such as those in Lowell, Massachusetts, became more common by the 1820s, there was less demand for women to do outwork at home. Additionally, the concomitant market revolution led to a greater supply of all sorts of inexpensive goods to replace many of the products previously made at home. Thus, by 1830 or so, home manufacturing had begun a precipitous decline from which it never recovered. This decline altered family structures in important ways. In some rural families, women who might once have spun thread or woven cloth on the farm were now employed outside the home in new mechanized factories rising up along rural and urban waterways. Other rural women found new opportunities to sell processed agricultural goods such as butter to workers in nearby factories. Many middle-class women increasingly shifted their labor away from production and toward consumption and the more intensive child rearing characteristic of the Victorian era, reversing the earlier trend toward female market participation through home manufacturing.

See alsoHome; Manufacturing; Work: Women's Work .


Hood, Adrienne D. The Weaver's Craft: Cloth, Commerce, and Industry in Early Pennsylvania. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003.

Tryon, Rolla Milton. Household Manufactures in the United States, 1640-1860: A Study in Industrial History. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1917.

Ulrich, Laurel Thatcher. The Age of Homespun: Objects and Stories in the Creation of an American Myth. New York: Knopf, 2001.

Lawrence A. Peskin

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Manufacturing, in the Home

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