Textiles Manufacturing

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Textiles manufacturing appeared in the American colonies as soon as English settlers arrived. The colonies produced small amounts of coarse textile cloth, usually woolen and always homespun, for local use. However, the colonial relationship hindered development of American textile manufacturing. The British government established the colonies as sources of raw materials and as consumers of English-made goods so colonial charters prohibited textile manufacturing. Restrictive regulations and taxes, such as the Sugar Act of 1764 and the Stamp Act of 1765, affected textile production and contributed to colonial discontent. As the Revolution approached, imported cloth became more expensive and difficult to obtain and efforts towards colonial manufacture increased.

Dramatic change in the U.S. textile industry occurred in the late eighteenth century with the introduction of machines. They aided the development of textile manufacturing in the United States, which had been hindered by the high cost of labor and the scarcity of capital. The United States had a ready resource of highly skilled craftsmen to design, build, and improve the machines. Despite British efforts to stop the export of textile manufacturing knowledge and machines, American inventors based their earliest designs on those of the Englishman James Hargreave for the spinning jenny, which he patented in 1770. Jennies, machines to spin thread from fiber, appeared first in Philadelphia in 1774–1775. In the 1780s machines appeared for carding cotton and wool by cleaning and arranging their raw fibers.

the slater system

Rhode Island became the first textile manufacturing center in the United States, with mills established at Providence and Pawtucket in 1789. These new factories overcame initial difficulties with the arrival of the Englishman Samuel Slater in 1789, who had a thorough understanding of the advanced textile machinery used in the English mills in which he had apprenticed. (He claimed to be a farmer to bypass British emigration laws.) Slater built the equipment and the mill, supervised it, and paid half the expenses. His partners, William Almy and Moses Brown, purchased the raw material, had the yarn woven into cloth, sold the cloth, and paid the other half of the expenses. Slater eventually used his financial success and expertise to build his own mills. After the introduction of the mills and the machinery, most U.S. cloth was factory-made rather than homespun.

The mills utilizing the Slater system were located in rural settings where water power was available; they used the Arkwright water frame, which originated in England. Initially, they used poor or orphaned children, ages seven to fourteen, as workers. This system evolved into a family labor system under which housing adjacent to the mill was rented to families. The paternalistic mill owners, usually individuals or family groups, imposed certain forms of conduct upon their worker families, such as church attendance, and often paid in goods at the company store.

Between 1807 and 1810, the number of U.S. cotton mills jumped from fifteen to eighty-seven in what was called "cotton mill fever." This jump coincided with the 1807 Embargo Act, which excluded English manufactured textiles, and the growth in the supply of cheap cotton from the South. Cotton production vastly expanded there following the development of the cotton gin in 1793. By the 1820s the South had become the world's leading supplier of cotton. This cheap and easily accessible supply of cotton facilitated a shift from woolen to cotton products in the early nineteenth century.

lowell, waltham, and industrial growth

Francis Cabot Lowell led a new revolution in U.S. textile manufacturing in the 1820s. The Lowell or Waltham system utilized power looms and limited liability corporations. The first mill in Waltham, Massachusetts, opened in 1814, and later mills followed at a site that became Lowell, Massachusetts. These mills based their system on an integrated production process, new machinery, and methods that required less skill than needed previously. The Lowell-Waltham system integrated the spinning and weaving into one facility. Raw cotton entered one end of the mill and finished cloth exited the other. These mills also focused on the production of cheap cotton cloth in abundant amounts. They used water power that rose upward through as many as four floors through a system of shafts and belts. They mechanized everything that they could mechanize with the power loom and other new machines. Mill owners increased productivity by adding machinery rather than labor or wages.

The process of producing cloth was broken down into its simplest elements so that each worker performed only a single element and each position required less skill than workers had needed in earlier forms of manufacturing. Most of the positions described as unskilled, however, were filled by women who developed dexterity, quickness, keen eyesight, and other skills to work with the machines. But if workers became "too skilled," management increased the number of machines per employee (called a "stretch-out") or increased the machines' operating speeds (called a "speed-up").

The people, both owners and workers, came from outside the locality. Large, capital-intensive corporations rather than individuals or families owned the mills. The owners hired managers to run the mills. The workers were young, unmarried women recruited from farm families. They lived on the mill site and often had to abide by a strict moral code.

By 1839 Lowell, Massachusetts, had outstripped Manchester, England, as the world's leading producer of textiles. Twenty-nine mills there produced one million yards of cloth each week. The Lowell mills used a complex and integrated system that included capital, labor recruitment, supply purchasing, integrated production, and the sale of the finished product. This system provided a model for industrial growth and organization in the United States. The financial success of these mills, and their Boston owners, also provided a source of capital for further industrial growth.

pennsylvania and flexible production

Another center of textile manufacturing emerged in Pennsylvania in the 1820s. While the textile industry had created and shaped Lowell, Philadelphia shaped its textile industry. Proprietary firms or partnerships founded the Pennsylvania mills with small amounts of capital. The owners and workers came from the local communities. The mills focused on specialized items rather than bulk fabrics. Philadelphia became a center of specialized and flexible manufacturing enterprises of all types and sizes that produced woolens, hosiery, carpet, and silks in addition to cotton goods. The flexible firms at Philadelphia held up better during the uncertain financial times of the Civil War and provided an alternative model for industrial growth called proprietary capitalism.

Textile manufacturing coincided with the initial stages of an industrial revolution in the United States. It provided models for later industrial growth and spurred that growth by providing capital and pushing technological developments.

See alsoManufacturing; Work: Factory Labor .


Dalzell, Robert F., Jr. Enterprising Elite: The Boston Associates and the World They Made. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1987.

Dunwell, Steve. The Run of the Mill: A Pictorial Narrative of the Expansion, Dominion, Decline, and Enduring Impact of the New England Textile Industry. Boston, Mass.: Godine, 1978.

Rivard, Paul E. A New Order of Things: How the Textile Industry Transformed New England. Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 2002.

Scranton, Philip. Proprietary Capitalism: The Textile Manufacture at Philadelphia, 1800–1885. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1983.

Tucker, Barbara M. Samuel Slater and the Origins of the American Textile Industry, 1790–1860. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1984.

Linda Eikmeier Endersby