English Background . In 1769 British inventor Sir Richard Arkwright devised a mechanized system for spinning cotton into yarn, using multiple spindles. Since this machine was soon adapted to be driven by water-power, it became known as the “water frame.” The frames were connected by pulleys and gears to a large wooden wheel, which was turned by water rushing through a channel. This adaptation brought about a monumental change in the efficiency of work: powerful natural forces could be harnessed to do the work of many animals or men. The water frame, unlike its predecessor, the “spinning jenny,” was too large to fit in a worker’s cottage, and it required a source of moving water. As a result textile production began a transition from a cottage industry to a factory system. With these innovations England completely dominated the world textile market. Having lost the American colonies, the British government intended to keep the United States at least economically dependent, and guarding this technology became an important part of British policy, with severe restrictions on the export of any technology, tools, or secrets related to textile production.
Industrial Revolution and America . A few Americans saw that the new nation would need to develop its own textile industry in order to become fully independent of England. Alexander Hamilton’s industrial community at Paterson, New Jersey, had failed by 1795, but perhaps an American textile industry could succeed with imported British experts attracted by financial bonuses. Lured to America by such incentives was Samuel Slater, a twenty-one-year-old English textile mill foreman with a particular genius for the intricate mechanical workings of textile mills. After working with antiquated hand-operated machinery in New York, he heard about the wealthy Rhode Island merchant Moses Brown, who was looking for an Englishman familiar with the Arkwright machinery. Brown had set up some experiments in cotton spinning on the Blackstone River, but lacked the expertise to build a large-scale, mechanized mill. In 1790, with Brown’s financial backing, Slater reproduced a wa-terpowered Arkwright textile mill from memory in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. This first mechanized textile mill in America was a great success, and soon waterpowered
mills were in use all over New England. By 1815 there were 167 cotton mills in Rhode Island alone.
Boston Money . Brown was an unusual man. Though his family had grown wealthy in the slave trade, Brown was uncomfortable with this brutal but lucrative business and wanted to invest his fortune elsewhere. Other New England shipping barons normally picked safe investments, often investing in British industries or American distilleries. But when the embargo of 1808 and the War of 1812 bottled up Boston Harbor, the city’s wealthy shipping leaders became desperate and decided to put their money into the new textile factories. Their capital investment propelled the next phase of industrial development, which would use water power not only to spin the cotton yarn, but to drive power looms to do the actual weaving.
Waltham System. In 1814 a group of Boston merchants, including Francis Cabot Lowell, built a new brick mill on the Charles River at Waltham, Massachusetts. This mill was the first to house all phases of cotton textile production under one roof. The Boston investors were now becoming industrialists, in uneasy partnership with a new generation of “mechanics” who designed, built, and maintained the machinery. The aristocratic Lowell could not have succeeded without the brilliant working-class mechanic Paul Moody, who with his power loom and other innovations did as much as anyone to create the “Waltham System.” This system would be further expanded with the creation of larger and more technologically advanced mills at Lowell and Lawrence, Massachusetts, and at Manchester, New Hampshire (where the Amoskeag Mill complex would eventually stretch for a full mile along the Merrimack River).
Social Changes . Some early American manufacturing leaders, such as Moses Brown (who later endowed Brown University), believed that they could do better than their British counterparts in the treatment of workers. British industrialists seemed to care little for the social or educational needs of the workers crowding their factories. The people in the labor force at Waltham and other textile mills were as significant to the Waltham System as the power loom. The mills drew large numbers of young, educated, and industrious women from nearby farms. These female mill workers became a trademark of the New England textile industry. The factories were well lighted and surrounded by neat rows of board-inghouses where the women lived during their year or two at the mills. The women were often paid better wages than schoolteachers and went to the mills to save for a dowry or to earn money to help their families. Nevertheless, this economic success came with a social price. Instead of working in the comfort of their families and neighbors, they would now, in the words of a Vermont farmer, leave “home, friends, and paternal guardianship, to throng to the factories of Manchester, Lowell and An-dover, where they are shut up for thirteen hours a day, where they are allowed but ten minutes to eat their dinners, and are forced to sleep in brick pens rather than comfortable rooms, exposed … to the thousand temptations of a crowded city; a promiscuous population and ill-chosen associates, and without home, friends or counselors, wearing life to decay, and weaving themselves shrouds whilst earning a gown.”
Transformation . The Industrial Revolution transformed the architecture and social structure of the small town in America. Now the factory, situated on a river with clusters of millworker cottages around it, dominated the town. The factory, not the church, was at the center. While some of these “factory villages” with their redbrick mill buildings were beautifully designed and constructed, some became industrial cities, resembling in all their grim poverty the overcrowded, ugly, crime-ridden industrial centers in Britain that Thomas Jefferson had warned against. “The mobs of great cities,” Jefferson wrote, “add just so much to the support of pure government, as sores do to the strength of the human body.” But the goal had been achieved: cloth from Waltham factories nearly drove British imports out of the market. The revolution in textile production was just as important as the technological advances in steam transportation or precision manufacturing. All these factors contributed to America’s new economic independence.
Russell Bourne, Invention in America (Golden, Colo.: Fulcrum, 1996);
Noel Perrin and Kenneth Breisch, Mills and Factories of New England (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1988);
"Textile Mills." American Eras. . Encyclopedia.com. (March 21, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/textile-mills
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