Shipbuilding Industry

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The shipbuilding industry played a critical role in the economic and political development of early America. From the arrival of the first colonists to the formation of the new nation, America relied on the sea for subsistence, transportation, commerce, and communication. The necessity of maritime travel demanded a strong shipbuilding tradition.

early development

The first vessels built in the colonies were small craft for local travel and fishing. Sponsors of the new colonies sent shipwrights from England to build ships, as most of the colonists did not know anything about their construction. While most vessels of the early seventeenth century were small, a few larger ships were built for transatlantic crossings.

As the colonies grew, the need for supplies from England and communication with the rest of the empire increased. Different regions became known for specific exports. The southern colonies produced agricultural products like tobacco, cotton, rice, and indigo. The middle colonies, such as Maryland and Pennsylvania, exported flour, wheat, and corn. New England traded fish, furs, and timber, but initially British merchants did not actively seek these products. Without a desirable commodity, the New England colonies soon found difficulty in attracting English ships for trade. Specie, or currency, was hard to come by, and colonial merchants were unable to obtain credit from their British associates. With little purchasing power, the colonists could not trade for manufactured goods from the mother country.

These difficulties in New England provided the impetus for the development of the shipbuilding industry; born out of necessity, it rapidly became an important facet of the economy. Several early building sites rose to prominence, including Salem and Boston in Massachusetts; New London and New Haven in Connecticut; and Newport, Rhode Island. Shipbuilding in the middle colonies lagged slightly behind, but it was well established in New York City and Philadelphia by 1720. In the south, where British merchants regularly sent vessels to trade for agricultural goods, the industry was much slower to develop and did not become significant until the late eighteenth century.

Local shipowners and merchants in Britain represented the major market for colonial vessels. Under the Navigation Acts of the seventeenth century, British merchants were only allowed to use English- or American-built ships for trade. Because of the ready availability of timber, American vessels were usually less expensive than those built in England, making them popular with British shipowners.

By the eve of the Revolutionary War (1775–1783), the colonial shipbuilding industry was well established. While values are difficult to determine because of the nature of available records, scholars have estimated that at least one-third of the British merchant fleet at that time was American built. Americans were selling approximately 18,000 tons (a measurement of vessel size or capacity) or £140,000 worth of vessels each year to Britain, out of a total production of about 40,000 tons per year.

shipbuilding in the new nation

The onset of the Revolutionary War meant major changes for the shipbuilding industry. Its fate was closely tied to the success of shipping and trade in general, so when British blockades and the dangers of war brought shipping to a near standstill, American shipbuilding suffered as well. After the Revolution, shipwrights soon found that their best market was no longer available; under the British Navigation Acts, American ships were now excluded from legal use by British merchants. To assist the ailing shipbuilding industry, the new American government implemented regulations, including tax breaks, that favored American-built ships. In addition, trade soon resumed between the two nations and reached an alltime high in 1807.

During the period following the Revolution and into the nineteenth century, Boston, New York, and Philadelphia remained top shipbuilding sites. The development of larger shipyards in these cities allowed some builders to receive national attention for their work, including Henry Eckford, Adam and Noah Brown, Christian Bergh, Stephen Smith, Donald McKay, and Isaac Webb. Locations in the Chesapeake also began to rise to prominence, particularly Baltimore. In the South, shipbuilding remained a minor industry.

Critical developments for the industry during this period included the invention of steam-powered ships and the creation of a network of inland canals. Although side-wheel steamboats were in operation on the East Coast by the 1790s, their use did not become practical until Robert Fulton's designs of 1807. The western river steamboat, with its rear paddle wheel, was not commonly used until the 1820s. The utilization of steam power, which allowed vessels to travel upstream, and the construction of inland canals opened up the interior of the country to water transportation and provided a new direction for the shipbuilding industry.

At the peak of trade in 1807, political upheaval caused another major disruption in shipbuilding. In response to harassment by Britain, President Thomas Jefferson placed an embargo on all trade with that country, hoping to resolve the conflict by economic means rather than by force. When these measures failed and war was declared in 1812, dangers at sea and the dramatic decrease in trade brought the shipbuilding industry to a virtual halt. A few shipwrights were able to find work building privateers and naval vessels, but many remained unemployed. According to U.S. Bureau of the Census statistics, in the years preceding the war from 1801 to 1807, the shipbuilding industry was producing an average of 110,000 total tons per year. At an estimated value of $55 per ton, annual sales would have averaged over $6 million. During the war, annual production fell to a mere 30,000 tons.

The shipbuilding industry was quick to recover after the war, however, with an average of 100,000 tons being built each year through the 1820s. With most American cities located on the sea or on rivers, the nation still depended heavily on maritime activity for food, transportation, and trade. Western expansion made shipbuilding as essential as ever to provide steamboats, barges, and passenger ships to reach new regions of the nation. Shipwrights remained focused on small-scale carpentry and carefully handcrafted vessels, leading to a high demand for quality ships. By the end of the 1820s, the industry was poised to begin the golden age of America's merchant marine from 1830 to 1860.

organization of the industry

From the colonial period to the early nineteenth century, the organization of the shipbuilding industry remained fairly static. Most shipwrights built vessels only after receiving an order, although occasionally they built on speculation. To purchase a vessel, a colonial merchant chose a shipwright, and after they had agreed on the size and type of the ship, a written contract was signed. Payment was usually made in installments, with part of the cost paid up front as cash. To amass the total capital needed for the construction of a new ship, investors purchased shares ranging from one-half to one sixty-fourth of the vessel's cost.

After the contract was signed, the master shipwright would plan the vessel's design based on what the merchant wanted and then purchase the supplies. A variety of tradesmen were needed to complete a ship, including additional shipwrights, joiners, caulkers, painters, sawyers, carvers, and plumbers. For the most part, these tradesmen worked "freelance," taking temporary jobs as they became available. In some cases, trained free blacks and slaves filled some of these roles in the shipyard, most often working as caulkers. Escaped slaves, such as Frederick Douglass, could later use these skills to earn a living as free men. Work in the maritime industry, either on the wharves or at sea, provided free African Americans with a much greater degree of equality and pay than most other jobs available to them in the early nineteenth century. Shipwrights were trained by an apprenticeship, usually from four to seven years in length, followed by temporary work until the shipwright found a permanent position or had the opportunity to purchase his own yard. Entering the industry was relatively easy for the prospective master shipwright, as little capital was needed. The only requirements were a small plot of land located near the water, a set of tools, and the necessary timber for a vessel. Except for perhaps a small supply of seasoned wood, timber was usually purchased as needed for orders. Shipyards tended to be small throughout this period, and because vessels were built by hand, production was generally low. By 1820, a successful yard completed between two and five oceangoing vessels a year, measuring from two hundred to three hundred tons each.

See alsoForeign Investment and Trade; Shipping Industry; Steamboat; Transportation: Canals and Waterways; Work: Artisans and Crafts Workers, and the Workshop .


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Hutchins, John G. B. The American Maritime Industries and Public Policy, 1789-1914. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1941.

Labaree, Benjamin W. et al. America and the Sea: A Maritime History. Mystic, Conn.: Mystic Seaport, Museum of America and the Sea, 1998.

Kellie M. VanHorn