The Industrial Revolution: Its Influence in America


By Allen C. Guelzo, Ph.D., Gettysburg College

The Industrial Revolution made people realize the productive potential of machines, factories, and the new workers, who were known as operatives. In the 1820s, the American Republic felt its impact. How? What changes did it bring in the American Republic?

Women working at textile machines  at the American Woolen Company, Boston.
Factory-based cotton textile manufacturing made an impressive start in America in the 19th century, and its success continued in the 20th century. (Image: Everett Collection/Shutterstock)

Surprisingly, it took almost 50 years from the time the spinning jenny was invented in England until factory-based cotton textile manufacturing became a major force in the American economy. Part of this was due to the disruption of Atlantic commerce and commercial contacts due to the Napoleonic Wars, then, on top of the wars the embargo, and then the War of 1812.

This time lag was also due to the conscious obstructionism of the British, who had developed the mechanical technology that undergirded the Industrial Revolution. They were extremely protective of the machine designs that were making the British the industrial giants of the European world. They simply forbade the export of industrial technology or industrial plans. Sometimes, even the departure of operatives who might be able to spill those secrets could be obstructed or restricted.

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Industrial Revolution Begins in America

In 1789, an English operative named Samuel Slater slipped out of England under the pretense of being only a farmer, and emigrated to Rhode Island. There, with financial backing from two Rhode Island merchants—Moses Brown and William Almay—Slater rebuilt from memory the machinery for cotton-spinning that he had learned and used in England. He then housed it in an old mill building in Pawtucket.

Using only nine workers, he proceeded to spin the republic’s first cotton thread. The southern cotton that Moses Brown supplied for spinning was of poor quality, and it cost a lot of money. That meant that there was little available profit to be had from it, and little available capital to borrow and build a larger operation.

Boston Manufacturing Company, 1813-1816, Waltham, Massachusetts.
Francis Cabot Lowell set up the Boston Manufacturing Company after the War of 1812. (Image: Unknown author/Public domain)

However, with the end of the War of 1812, Francis Cabot Lowell—a Boston merchant whose import-export business had been wrecked by the embargo and the War of 1812—organized the Boston Manufacturing Company. He got the financial backing up to $100,000 from a loosely knit group of Boston merchants known as the Boston Associates. With this, he built the first large-scale American cotton textile factory beside the Charles River at Waltham, Massachusetts.

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The Waltham Mill

Like the traditional sawmills and gristmills of the past, the Waltham mill was powered by a water wheel. That was where convention stopped, because the wheel of the Waltham mill powered an assembly of the latest English cotton-spinning technology: mules, power looms, and trestles. Lowell had built the technology from his memories of a fact-finding trip to England from 1810 to 1812.

Lowell was not content merely with building a cotton-spinning mill. He successfully gathered under one roof all the vital parts of textile manufacturing—from spinning the yarn to printing colors and patterns on the finished cloth—all of this in a single integrated system.

Lowell’s Waltham mill opened in December 1814, and within two years, it was returning a whopping dividend of 12.5 percent to the Boston Associates who had invested in it.

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The Merrimack Manufacturing Company

In 1822, Lowell’s partner, Paul Moody—with financial backing from the Boston Associates amounting to $600,000—organized the Merrimack Manufacturing Company. That company built an even more successful mill operation at Chelmsford, Massachusetts, which is about 25 miles north of Boston on the Merrimack River. There, the river fall of 32 feet promised an unlimited source of waterpower for the mill.

The new Merrimack operation multiplied the lessons learned at Waltham. Instead of building a single mill, Moody built a complex of mill buildings, which would open up cotton textile production on an unprecedented scale.

To make arrangements for the workforce, the Merrimack mills set out to recruit a peculiar new workforce: young, single, New England females between the ages of 16 and 30. What these women exchanged by leaving the farm for the mill was a revolution in labor, time, and discipline. From the long and uneven rhythms of agricultural production, the new female mill workers quickly learned to adapt themselves to the demands of a clock, beginning work at 7:00 a.m. and continuing till 7:00 p.m., six days a week.

Mill Women of Merrimack Boarding Houses

As an added enforcement for that discipline, the mill women would live at the mills in company boarding houses under the watchful eye of a company matron. She would take down the name of anyone who was habitually absent from public worship on the Sabbath, or known to be guilty of immorality.

An 1850 drawing of the Merrimack Manufacturing Company (also known as Merrimack Mills) in Lowell, Massachusetts.
The female workers of the Merrimack Company used to live in the company-run boarding houses. (Image: Unknown author/Public domain)

Building company-run boarding houses avoided the accumulation of slums and tenements around the mills, things that were already making the names and the neighborhoods of British factories stink.

Moreover, the mill women would be encouraged to use a mill library and attend mill lectures by Harvard professors. Their wages were from two dollars and 50 cents a week to three dollars a week, which was a lot of money in an age when a rural seamstress might expect to see only 90 cents a week for her work.

Twenty-five hundred workers, 85 percent of them female, began working in the Merrimack mills in 1822. By 1850, the mill population had grown to 33,000 people. The town of Chelmsford, recognizing the future when it saw it, changed the town name to Lowell.

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Monetary Success of the Americans

Samuel Slater, who had arrived penniless in America in 1789, died in 1835, leaving an estate of $690,000. Between 1816 and 1826, the Boston Manufacturing Company paid out annual dividends to its stockholders at a rate of 18.75 percent.

By 1850, the 15 Boston families who made up the original group of Francis Cabot Lowell’s associates controlled one-fifth of the cotton textile output of the entire nation. These families had also diversified into buying up 30 percent of the stock in Massachusetts railroads and owning 40 percent of the bank stock of Boston’s banks.

This is how the Industrial Revolution changed the landscape of the American Republic.

Common Questions about the Influence of the Industrial Revolution’s America

Q: Who was Francis Cabot Lowell?

Francis Cabot Lowell built the first large-scale cotton textile factory in America beside the Charles River at Waltham, Massachusetts.

Q: What lesson did the Merrimack Manufacturing Company learn from England’s factories?

The Merrimack Manufacturing Company built boarding houses to avoid the accumulation of slums and tenements around the mills, which had made the neighborhoods of British factories stink.

Q: Who was Samuel Slater?

Samuel Slater was an operative in England. He escaped to America in 1789 and set up the machinery for cotton-spinning in an old mill building in Pawtucket, Rhode Island.

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