Born June 9, 1768 (Derbyshire, England)
Died April 21, 1835 (Webster, Rhode Island)
Samuel Slater was often called the founder of the American Industrial Revolution. In 1789 he arrived in the United States from his native England with the construction details of the power looms committed to memory. It was a time when the new American nation was eager to learn the secrets of England's thriving textile industry, but the sale of such information to the former colonies was prohibited by English law. Slater settled in Rhode Island, where he built machines that made cotton yarn and were the first such looms in the country. He went on to launch his own immensely successful textile company, and it made him one of the first industrial leaders in the United States. The Slater mills built along New England riverbanks helped bring an end to England's dominance in the textile industry, but they also forever changed the American economy. During Slater's lifetime America would emerge as a manufacturing powerhouse, and its textile mills were the first large-scale factories to fuel the new economy.
"I understand you have taught us how to spin."
U.S. president Andrew Jackson.
The new textile industry
Born in June 1768, Slater was the son of William Slater, an educated, moderately prosperous farmer in Belper, Derbyshire, England. As a youngster Samuel attended a local school, where he did well in math. William died when Samuel was fourteen, but he had already arranged with a neighbor the contract for his son's apprenticeship. Working as an apprentice (someone who is bound to work for someone else for a specific term in order to learn a trade) was the traditional first step in the path to a career in one of the skilled trades in the eighteenth century. Jedediah Strutt (1729–1797) was a successful hosiery manufacturer who had been the co-inventor of a special attachment to the hand-operated machinery that made stockings. Strutt's device gave the stockings a ribbed pattern that became quite popular in England, and the location of his Derbyshire factory made this kind of hosiery known as "Derby rib" for many years.
In the 1780s, when Slater began his apprenticeship, England had become the leader in international textile manufacturing. The country had numerous distant colonies that provided a source of raw materials and a vast shipping industry to provide the transportation necessary for busy trade. It was a series of mechanical innovations that had made textiles much easier and cheaper to produce, however, and all were the product of English inventors earlier in the eighteenth century. Before then cloth manufacturing had been done by hand, at home or in home-based workshops, and the process was long and required large amounts of labor in return for small profits. The source of fiber was sheep's wool, or plants like flax or cotton. The fibers had to be gathered from the sheep or from the cotton fields and then washed and picked clean of debris. Carding was the next step, which involved the separation of the fibers, and those were then combed, or flattened with a special toothed device. From there the fibers went onto a spinning wheel and were spun into yarn with the help of a hand crank or foot pedal. There were different thicknesses of yarn, with thread as the thinnest type. The yarn then went onto a loom and was woven by hand into cloth. The process took so long that only the rich could afford finely woven cloth; everyone else wore what was called "homespun," which had a rough texture similar to that of burlap.
The dawn of the English textile industry began with John Kay (1704–1780), who created a flying shuttle in 1733 that speeded up the process of loom-weaving. A shuttle is a device that carries threads across the loom, a frame or machine used for weaving thread or yarns into cloth. The flying shuttle allowed a weaver to simply pull a cord and the shuttle shot across the loom by itself. In 1770 James Hargreaves (1720–78) invented a spinning jenny (named after his daughter), which was a spinning wheel with multiple spools. The jenny meant that a worker could produce several skeins of yarn (lengths of yarn wound around a reel) much more quickly. A year earlier an ambitious barber named Richard Arkwright (1732–1792) devised a spinning frame that drew, twisted, and wound the yarn at an astonishing speed. After trying to make an early mechanical version that was powered by a team of horses, Arkwright improved on his own design by creating what was known as the Water Frame, which used a waterwheel to control the movement of the frame. Awkwright used the Water Frame at his mill in Cromford, in Derbyshire, England, which was one of the first factories in the world. Although there had been other enterprises where workers arrived daily for a shift, Arkwright's enterprise was the first to be built specifically to house machinery.
When Slater began his apprenticeship in 1783, Strutt had gone into business with Arkwright to build cotton manufacturing machinery to meet the growing demand across England for yarn. Slater trained there for six years, becoming supervisor of machinery construction as well as a staff manager and skilled repairperson. He was eager to start his own company, but by that time entering the business required a great deal of money to buy the machines and raw materials. However, Slater knew that state legislatures in the newly independent American states were quietly advertising in England for skilled textile machinery operators, and the machines, too, if they could be had. American consumers paid very high prices for English-made cloth after the conclusion of the American Revolution (1775–83), when the American colonists fought England to win their independence.
Unfortunately for Slater, England had laws preventing the export of textile manufacturing machinery, and the wealthy and influential textile mill owners had also persuaded the English government to ban the immigration of skilled textile workers to America. Even sketches for the machinery could not be taken across the ocean. In an effort to reduce their dependence on English cloth, state legislatures in the United States were offering cash bonuses to skilled workers, and Slater decided to try his luck. He began memorizing the layout of the machines, and when he sailed for Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in September 1789, he told English officials at the dock that he was a farm laborer. He did not even tell his family of his plans, instead writing them afterward of his whereabouts. He needed his apprenticeship certificate to get the bonus, and he hid it from authorities in his simple outfit that a humble farmhand might wear.
When he arrived in America, Slater went to New York City and took a job with a textile manufacturing firm there. He was dismayed by the outdated equipment and knew that a textile company would need to have access to a livelier water source to power the Arkwright-style frame he hoped to build. He moved on to Providence, Rhode Island, which had a vast harbor connecting it to the Atlantic Ocean, and a river, the Seekonk. There he met a prominent local businessman, Moses Brown (1738–1836), whose family established Brown University. Brown hoped to enter the textile business with his new firm Almy & Brown. In nearby Pawtucket, Rhode Island, on the Blackstone River, Brown had rented an old fulling mill, where wool was washed before it was spun into yarn. Brown installed as many of the old wooden spinning frames as he could fit inside, but they were inefficient. Slater was disappointed when he saw the old hand-cranked equipment and told Brown that he could build a version of Arkwright's water-powered machinery instead. Brown agreed, and a deal was struck in which Slater would get to keep the mill's profits once it went into operation.
It took Slater nearly a year to build the Arkwright-style frame and connect it to the water source. He lured skilled mechanics away from the nearby shipbuilding yards to help him, and finally in December 1790 his first machine—the first of its kind in the United States—went into operation. Impressed, Brown and William Almy, his son-in-law, took Slater into partnership with them, and they decided to build an entirely new mill from the ground up. This was also in Pawtucket, and became known as Slater Mill. The mill has often been called the birthplace of the American Industrial Revolution.
In 1791 Slater married Hannah Wilkinson, the daughter of a successful Rhode Island nail manufacturer. Hannah had an idea for making sewing thread out of fine cotton yarn and sketched out the process. At the time linen, which was expensive, was the standard for sewing thread. She applied for a patent (a legal document granting an inventor the exclusive right to produce or sell an invention for a certain number of years) from the newly created U.S. Patent Office, established in 1790, and was the first American woman ever to receive one. Hannah's new husband, her father, and her brothers were interested in setting up a business venture with the idea, and they went into partnership together in 1798.
The new firm was called Samuel Slater & Company. Its first mill was near Pawtucket, but the company soon found it needed more workers than were available in the town in order to expand. There was a ready source of labor on New England's farms, where sons and daughters were eager to escape the difficult work, and so Slater sent his brother, John, who had joined him in America, to find a new mill location. John found one in Smithfield, Rhode Island, again on the Blackstone River. There was already a saw and grist mill there used by nearby loggers and farmers. The saw mill cut timber for the building industry, and the grist mill ground corn and other agricultural products prior to sale. The geography of New England was particularly favorable to the establishment of the textile industry, with its many rivers flowing through hilly lands and waterfalls. This meant that most of the rivers flowed downward from their source and offered a ready supply of power for the mills' heavy waterwheels.
Birth of New England's first industry
The site that Slater's brother found was ideal for the new mill, and when it began operations in 1803, it was the largest and most technologically advanced industrial facility in its time. Other company mills would be established in East Webster, Massachusetts, Jewett City, Connecticut, and Amoskeag Falls, New Hampshire. The Amoskeag Falls facility was built on the banks of the Merrimac River, and out of it grew the manufacturing center of the city of Manchester.
Slater's company was a great success, with its mills producing cotton and yarn that were cheaper but just as strong as the English imports. This reduced the demand for English-made textiles and launched the manufacturing era in the northeastern United States. Slater products dominated the cotton yarn market in Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire. His main competitor was Francis Cabot Lowell (1775–1817; see entry), a Massachusetts businessman from a prominent old Boston family. Lowell toured England's textile mills in 1811 and, like Slater, memorized what he saw and reconstructed the machinery back home. Lowell set up his first textile mills in the Boston area in the early 1820s and founded the mill town of Lowell, Massachusetts.
Slater met the heavy demand for labor by hiring child workers. This was a standard practice in many U.S. businesses in those years, and families were eager to have the extra income at a time when there were either no laws requiring children to attend school or ones that were rarely enforced. Children were considered especially well-suited for textile mill work because they had smaller hands and could move about the loom more quickly. The machinery was dangerous, however. Gears and other parts were exposed without any safety devices, and fingers, hands, and even lives were lost to them. Slater tried to treat his young employees better than most New England factory owners, and at his mills they worked shorter hours than was standard in the industry and were provided with decent meals. To lure entire families as a source of labor, Slater provided a ready-made community. He built apartment blocks, schools, churches, and even a company store. Farms in outlying areas, also owned by the company, provided the food. Wages were often paid in the form of credit slips that could be redeemed at the company store, which helped keep Slater's company operating at a profit. His strategy was widely copied in other industries during the Industrial Revolution.
During his lifetime Slater became quite famous in New England and throughout the rest of the nation. In 1833 U.S. president Andrew Jackson (1767–1845; served 1829–37) visited Slater's impressive home in Pawtucket and called him the "Father of American Manufactures." Slater's wife died in 1812, and five years later he married Esther Parkinson, a Philadelphia widow. He had nine children by his first marriage, and several of his sons entered the family business. The Old Slater Mill in Pawtucket, his first project, became a national historic site. When he died in April 1835, Slater owned thirteen New England mills and was reportedly worth one million dollars.
For More Information
Tucker, Barbara M. Samuel Slater and the Origins of the American Textile Industry, 1790–1860. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1984.
Fisk, Karen. "Arkwright: Cotton King or Spin Doctor?" History Today (March 1998): p. 25.
Samuel Slater: Father of the American Industrial Revolution. http://www.woonsocket.org/slater.htm (accessed on July 7, 2005).
Slater Mill: A Living History Museum. http://www.slatermill.org/ (accessed on July 7, 2005).