The Rise of the Factory

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The Rise of the Factory


Definition. The word factory eludes precise definition but describes a type of production facility sharing certain charcteristics. In factories employer-owners assembled power machinery, raw materials, and large groups of wage workers under one roof and then coordinated this assembly to apply human and mechanical energy to raw materials in order to produce goods at low cost for market sale. Several of the largest flour mills in America and the federal armories at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, and Springfield, Massachusetts, combined many of these characteristics even before the War of 1812. Yet the flour mills employed few wage workers, and the armories did not produce firearms for a mass retail market. In New England Samuel Slater had since the 1790s produced an immense amount of cotton thread and fabric by combining outwork and factory employment, but unlike the textile mills at Lowell, Massachusetts (which many historians consider the first true factories in America), Slaters operations were not mechanized throughout the production process.


Before industrialization required the punctuality, sobriety, and continuous labor needed to tend to the rhythms of machines, craft workers often mixed work with both drink and leisure. As described by retired artisan David Johnson, they regarded time flexibly: Alphonzo seemed to regard his work as an incidentalp circumstance. When he left the shop he might be expected back the next morning: but there were no special grounds for the expectation. He might drop in the next morning or the next week. He left one Saturday night and did not make his appearance again until the following Thursday morning. On entering the shop he proceeded to take off his jacket as though there had been no hiatus in his labor. His master watched him with an amused countenance to see whether he would recognize the lapse of time. At length he said, Where have you been, Alphonzo? Alphonzo turned his head in an instant, as if struck with the preposterousness of the inquiry, and exclaimed, Me? I? O, Ive been down to Nahant. The case was closed.

Source: Eileen Boris and Nelson Lichtenstein, eds., Major Problems in the History of American Workers (Lexington, Mass.: D. C. Heath, 1991).

Subdivision. In 1815 most of the goods used by an American family were either made in the home or obtained from a local craftsman. One of the first steps in the shift from craft labor or home manufacture to the factory system was the idea of subdivision of labor. One way to increase the efficiency of, for example, shoemaking, was to replace the skilled journeymen who performed all the steps involved in turning raw leather into finished footwear with a larger number of unskilled, lower-paid apprentices, each of whom repeatedly performed only a single step of the process. By increasing the size of their shops and subdividing tasks master craftsment were able to produce more, but they did so at the cost of severing themselves from the rituals and traditions of the artisan world. They became businessmen and entrepreneurs, concerned with expanding production while reducing unit costs, increasing sales, and making the whole process as predictable and profitable as possible.

Sweatshops. Textile mills had long used task subdivision in the form of outwork or cottage labor, in which unfinished materials were distributed to workers (usually women) in their homes, to be completed and returned to the manufacturer. The availability of a large labor pool, consisting primarily of immigrants, in New York City led to the development of the ready-made garment industry. Rather than make shirts individually, master tailors subcontracted the manufacture of sleeves, collars, and other components to piecework contractors, who in turn ran sewing shops in the attics of Manhattan buildings where rents were cheap. These subcontractors would recruit crews of pieceworkers to do the actual work either as outwork in their own homes and boardinghouses or assembled together in the attic sweatshops of the citys garment district. By the mid 1830s New Yorks sweatshops made it the nations largest producer of cheap, ready-made clothing, supplying much of the cotton clothes for slaves in the South as well as pants and work shirts for farmers in the West.

Mechanization. Before the introduction of the sewing machine in 1846 sweatshops could not be considered factories, in that the labor was performed by hand rather than by power machinery. In other industries, however, mechanics and inventors were designing machines that could each perform one of the simple tasks needed to make a finished product. Thus, task subdivision and mechanization often went hand in hand. Power band saws, sewing all transferred skilled hand operations to machinery that could be operated by wage workers with a minimum of training. Reducing the production of complex products to mechanized and subdivided tasks using labor-saving devices to produce interchangeable parts came to be called the American system of manufactures or armory practice a term revealing the origins of the system in the national armories of Springfiled, Massachusetts, and Harpers Ferry, Virginia. Charged with producing guns with interchangeable parts (sso that troops in the field could simply substitute for a broken part instead of losing the use of the gun entirely), Eli Whitney and John Hall used their armory contracts to develop specialized machine tools (each with precise jigs, fixtures, and gauges to ensure uniformity) which carved, cut, bored metal and wood to precise specifications. From the 1810s on, skilled machinists steeped in the armory tradition spread interchangeability and armory practice into several other key American industries, including the making of clocks, guns, and axes.

Lowell Model. Francis Cabot Lowell and his Boston Manufacturing Company began textile production in 1813 using the British factory model, where the spinning, weaving, bleaching, and dyeing of cotton were performed in one location, using as much power machinery as possible. By 1845 just one of Lowells mills could produce in a week more cotton cloth than was produced in the entire country in 1810. While numerous competitors followed Lowells example in building factories along New Englands rivers, the Lowell Mills were for several decades the largest industrial enterprise in America in terms of capitalization, value of production, and number of employees. Because of its ready supply of capital, water power, large population, skilled labor force, good transportation networks, proximity to coal and iron or, and commercial infrastructure of merchants and bankers the Northeast established itself firmly as the nations center of factory growth. When steam power and the railroad made urban factories possible, Northeastern manufacturers further cemented the regions domination of American manufacturing by constructing new plants in New York City, Pittsburgh, Hartford, Springfield, and dozens of cities in between. Nonetheless, by 1850 Western Cities such as Cincinnati and Chicago could boast their ow large mechanized factories producing iron goods, processing grain and meat, and turning out hundreds of reapers and plows for Midwestern prairie farmers.


Thomas Bender, Toward an Urban Vision: Ideas and Institutions in Nineteenth-Century America (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1975);

Alfred D. Chandler, Tbe Visible Hand: Tbe Managerial Revolution in American Business (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1977);

Bruce Laurie, Artisans Into Workers: Labor in Ninettentb-Century America (New York: Hill & Wang, 1989);

Sean Wilentz, Cants Democratic: New York city and tbe Rise of the American Working Class, 17881850 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1984).

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The Rise of the Factory

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