Industrialization: The Spread of the Factory System

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Industrialization: The Spread of the Factory System


The Conversion to Factory Production. In 1880 Census official Carroll D. Wright reported that of the nearly three million Americans working in the mechanical industries of this country, at least four-fifths were working under the factory system. Large-scale factories, in other words, were replacing artisanal shops and handicraft production. The trend had begun in the early 1800s in the textile industry. Over the 1850s, 1860s, and 1870s the transformation rippled outward to a host of other industries. Surveying the economic landscape, Wright found that factory production methods had overhauled the manufacture of boots and shoes, of watches, musical instruments, clothing, agricultural implements, metallic goods generally, fire-arms, carriages and wagons, wooden goods, rubber goods, and even the slaughtering of hogs.

The Scale of Production. These factories did not yet operate on the scale of modern national and multinational industrial complexes. Even the largest operations, the textile mills of Waltham and Lowell, Massachusetts, were still contained in size and fixed to single locations. The new businesses tended to be privately held: larger factories, mills, or mines were often owned by partnerships or groups of associates, but they were not yet public companies owned by stockholders or run by boards, and capital was generally raised locally, by local entrepreneurs using local banks. Nevertheless, these factories represented manufacturing enterprise on an unprecedented scale. They were new kinds of businesses, structured along new lines: they required substantial capitalization (several hundred thousand dollars for the larger factories, up to as much as $500,000); they employed hundreds of workers, paying them cash or company scrip, at hourly, weekly, or piece-rate wages; and they usually operated under the direction of salaried middle managers. Manufacturing, in other words, was starting to become big business.

Shoe Manufacturing. The conversion of the shoe and boot manufacturing industry that emerged in Lynn, Massachusetts, and other New England towns was fairly typical. Over the early decades of the nineteenth century this industry had taken shape as a series of scattered, small-scale manufacturing operations that combined initial preparation (cutting soles and leather uppers) in numerous small shops with outsourcing of stitching and binding: shop owners would dispatch wagons to make the rounds among local farm families, dropping off materials and picking up finished work. Much of the labor, in other words, was performed in family homes, between the household tasks and farm chores. The spread of sewing machines in the 1850s (which dropped in price over this decade from $75-100 to about $20) began to tranform the industry, encouraging manufacturers to bring stitching into their shops, where they could oversee the labor and increase and regularize their rate of production. By 1860, what the U.S. Census of that year called a silent revolution was unmistakably overhauling shoe-making in Lynn, Natick, and a dozen smaller New England towns. Manufacturers now ran larger shops, several stories high, with cutters and sorters working on ground floors and stitchers (usually women) working on upper floors, as many as three or four dozen in a shop. Steam engines powered the sewing machines; carts on wheeled rails carried materials to and from elevators. Workers labored under the watchful eyes of managers, at regular hours marked by time clocks. Shoemaking had become an industrial business.

The Great Strike. Industrialization established not only a new kind of manufactory, but a new kind of workplace, with sharply different labor conditions and relations. Here too Lynns shoe and boot industry signaled general trendstrends that became sharply clear in 1860 when workers set off the largest strike the nation had ever seen. The Panic of 1857 hit Lynn as it had elsewhere, driving factory owners to make drastic cuts in business, employment levels, and wages. Tensions simmered for a few years, then boiled over in the winter of 1860, when the workers of Lynn and other shoe-manufacturing centers in Massachusetts and New Hampshire struck for higher wages. The workers commenced the strike on Washingtons birthdaya gesture attempting to tie their protests to the traditional, artisinal economic ideals of the early republic. Over the next six weeks, processions repeatedly marched through the city streets, drawing thousands of workers and sympathetic members of the community. On 16 March, at the climax of these processions, a parade of six thousand protesters assembled, including companies of firemen, brass bands, militiamen, and several worker delegations from other towns. Women workers and family members played a prominent role in several of the demonstrations.

The Owners Respond. The manufacturers rounded up replacement labor, and when strikers tried to intimidate incoming scabs, or strikebreaking workers, owners prevailed on the mayor to call up the state militia and police forces from outside Lynn. As these forces entered the city in late February, skirmishes erupted, eventually forcing the militiamen and police officers to withdraw. Through March the strikers resolve remained firm, but into April the movement lost momentum. Some manufacturers agreed to pay higher wages, though they resisted signing new bills of wages, refusing to countenance worker negotiation in setting wage levels. It was a tense kind of truce and, for onlookers, an ominous portent of things to come, as American employers and workers began to adjust to assembly lines, factory wages, industrial capitalist ownership, and organized labor.


When Cyrus McCormick invented and began manufacturing his reaper in a factory in Chicago in 1847, still had to solve the problem of marketingof selling the machine to farmers in the countryside. The reaper cost over $100, a substantial sum for his potential customers; it was a complex piece of machinery; and farmers were initially unfamiliar with the device. For these rea-sons McCormick could not rely on the wholesale-retail network to sell his product; he needed to develop a more aggressive marketing mechanism. Pronouncing to sell, I must advertise, he promoted the reaper in ads in agricultural periodicals, and publicized it at county and state fairs by staging demonstrations and field trials with competing products. He also assembled a team of commissioned agents, assigning each to a specific region, to display new models, make sales, and handle service and repair. Eventually agents set up machinery halls throughout the rural Midwest to showcase the machines. Agents also managed customer credit: chronically cash poor, farmers could buy a reaper in 1849 for $115 in cash, or for $120 with a $30 downpayment, at 6 percent interest. (Payment deadlines were scheduled to coincide with harvest times, when farmers were flush.)

Source: Cyrus Hall McCormick III, The Century of the Reaper (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1931).


Alan Dawley, Class and Community: The Industrial Revolution in Lynn (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1976);

Edward Chase Kirkland, Industry Comes of Age: Business, Labor and Public Policy, 1860-1897 (New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1961).

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Industrialization: The Spread of the Factory System

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Industrialization: The Spread of the Factory System