UNITED STATES HISTORY
The Industrial Revolution
*The American Revolution did not just bring the United States
political independence from Great Britain, but also offered the
chance for economic independence as well. Not only could the
United States now trade with all parts of the world, unfettered by
British mercantilist laws, but Americans could now also freely
copy Britain’s industrial revolution, whose secrets had been
carefully guarded against all outsiders, even Britain’s own
*In the 1600s, and especially the early 1700s, new farming methods
were developed in Europe, particularly in Britain. This
Agricultural Revolution allowed a smaller number of farmers to
produce more food more cheaply, which drove many farm workers to
seek other work. Some found work in towns or in small
cottage industries—the beginning of factory work.
*A factory literally means a place where things are made (to
manufacture actually means to make by hand). Many industries
had originally been based in the home, and now more came to be
through the new method of piece-work.
*In piece-work, people (usually women and children) were paid to
make one piece of a finished product, and those pieces were
collected and taken somewhere else to be assembled. It
required less skill and lower pay than having a skilled craftsman
do it. This was the beginning of mass production. It
allowed more people to work, but at lower wages and (it was said)
with less satisfaction, because they did not get to see their
projects through from beginning to end. Adam Smith described
division of labour through the example of pin-making, but the
invisible hand of the laissez-faire economic system he described
made this more efficient and more profitable practise succeed.
*In the 1800s, the development of interchangeable parts by Eli
Whitney expanded the idea of division of labour, as different
workers and even different factories could easily make simple
things that could be used together and assembled by anyone, making
it even easier to break things down into simple steps that could
be accomplished by unskilled labour.
*Cottage industries were threatened by technology, too.
Since 1712 the British had used steam engines to pump out flooded
coal mines (and used that coal to power more engines). In
1769, James Watt patented a new type of steam engine that could
drive machinery, much as water wheels had done in the past.
*These new methods of powering machinery and the new machinery
itself started an Industrial Revolution in Britain. This new
machinery was first used in the textile industry.
*The flying shuttle (invented 1733) allowed weavers to weave so
quickly that spinners could not make enough thread for them to
weave cloth out of. In 1762, Richard Arkwright's Water Frame
let them spin even faster through the application of water
power. In 1764, James Hargreaves's Spinning Jenny began
making thread more quickly—it was basically several spinning
wheels in one. In 1779, Samuel Crompton's Spinning Mule
combined the Water Frame and the Spinning Jenny into one
*Britain now produced the best and the cheapest cloth in the world
and jealously guarded its technological innovations, making it
illegal to share the designs of its textile mills with foreigners,
and actively discouraged the development of industry in its
colonies, intending to keep them as captive markets for its
manufactured goods, and would later discourage the development of
industry in Latin American countries which purchased British-made
*In 1789, though, Samuel Slater, born in Britain and trained in
its textile mills, immigrated to America at the age of twenty-one,
having memorised as much as he could about the machinery he had
seen in Britain. He went to work for a company in Rhode
Island and designed British-style spinning and weaving machinery
for them, which began operations in 1791. He later founded
his own successful company. Andrew Jackson later called
Slater the Father of the Industrial Revolution, while the British
called him ‘Slater the Traitor.’
*The next major innovation in the textile industry was actually
developed in America by a man from Massachusetts visiting the
South named Eli Whitney. At that time, not much cotton was
grown in the South. While long-staple cotton that was easy
to clean and spin was grown in a few places along the coast, the
short-staple cotton that could be grown in many parts of the Deep
South was too much trouble to work with. Its short fibers
could not be spun quite as easily and it was full of seeds that
were difficult to pick out.
*Seeing the potential in short-staple cotton, Whitney developed a
Cotton Engine (or ‘gin’ for short) that could clean and comb
short-staple cotton fifty times as quickly as could be done by
hand. This gave the South a highly profitable crop and gave
the North (and also Britain) a source of fibers for the textile
industry, but it also led to increased demand for slave labour, so
that slavery, which had seemed to be in decline in the two decades
since the Declaration of Independence, suddenly became profitable
again, and, as Southerners sought ever more land in the west to
turn into cotton plantations, the controversy over the spread of
slavery would grow more and more dangerous to the United States.
*With cheap cotton to spin and weave, New England, and later other
parts of the North built more and more textile mills (while the
South invested most of its spare money in land and slaves to grow
*During the Napoleonic Wars, particularly during Mr Jefferson’s
Embargo and then during the War of 1812, American industry grew
rapidly to make up for the loss of British imports. Although
the British dumped cheap goods on the American market after the
Treaty of Ghent was passed, Congress responded with a mildly
protective tariff in 1816, and growing American demand also helped
American industry survive.
*In 1823, a group of Boston businessmen built a textile mill on
the rapid Merrimack River, which was already the site of some
early water-powered industries. In 1826 they incorporated
the community as the town of Lowell, named for one of their late
business partners who had memorized mechanical designs on a trip
*The Lowell mills combined spinning and weaving in one factory,
and later cutting and dying as well, making the major parts of the
cloth-making business better coordinated and more efficient.
Later, the invention of the sewing machine by Elias Howe in 1846
(later improved by Isaac Singer) made sewing easier and clothing
factories even more productive.
*The owners of the Lowell Mills also built company-owned housing,
perhaps creating the concept of a company town, and put their
workers up away from their homes and families.
*Most of their workers were young unmarried women, or ‘Lowell
Girls’ who were excited to be out on their own, happy to earn
their own wages which were about half of what men made for the
same work, but which they kept under their own control, and
relieved to be away from the unending toil of farm work—although
they might work a 14-hour day, at least they got several breaks
and the work did end eventually.
*The families of the Lowell Girls also appreciated that their
lives were closely supervised to preserve their moral
character. After all, most factory girls, at least at first,
only worked a few years in the early twenties before getting
married and taking their place in the cult of domesticity.
*Furthermore, at least at first, factory wages at Lowell were
pretty good (and better than those at other factories that opened
later) as the owners took a paternalistic approach to their
employees, until the Panic of 1837 led to a drop in wages and
increased resentment against the factory owners.
*As economic conditions worsened, many workers began to describe
themselves, especially the children working in the factories, as
‘wage slaves.’ Many turned to the party of the Common Man in
opposition to their aristocratical bosses, voting Democratic in a
world where propertyless workers could now vote.
*This resentment also led to the rapid growth of increase in the
formation of labour unions. The first major one was the
General Trades Union of New York City, formed in 1833, and in the
1830s they began to demand better treatment.
*Striking was illegal in many places, unions were often regarded
as criminal conspiracies, and the good pay enjoyed by skilled
labourers had meant that they had not felt the need to strike
before. In the mid-1830s that began to change, although the
economic problems of the late 1830s and the 1840s led to a decline
in union activity as workers did not dare risk their jobs,
particularly as a rise in immigration meant there was more
competition for work.
*However, 1842 did see an important case in the Massachusetts
Supreme Court dealing with unions. The case of Commonwealth
v Hunt ruled that labour unions were not inherently illegal
conspiracies, although it did not otherwise give them much power
or authority, or recognise any right to strike.
*Despite the problems faced by the American working class, there
was a safety valve: cheap western land meant that people
unsatisfied with factory work could move west and start
over. Furthermore, new technologies also facilitated this.
*The American mid-west contains some of the most fertile soil in
the world. However, this soil was so thick that it stuck to
the wooden or iron ploughs commonly used by Americans, and in the
Great Plains the roots of the thick sod completely snagged the
plough blades and stopped them completely. In 1837, though,
John Deere, an Illinois blacksmith, built a plough of steel.
This stronger, smoother, lighter plough stayed clean in thick
soil, cut through thick roots, and was light enough to be pulled
by horses rather than oxen. This let famers put more land
under the plough, and later opened the Great Plains to farming.
*It was also possible to harvest the crops grown on this extensive
farmland, because of the work of the Virginian Cyrus McCormick,
who, along with his sons, developed a mechanical reaper in the
1830s. These machines were drawn by horses, and cut wheat at
five times the rate that men working with sickles or scythes
could. About the same time, improved (and even combined)
threshing and winnowing machines made it possible to process the
harvested wheat. Machinery to harvest corn was later
*These inventions constituted a new Agricultural Revolution and
expanded commercial farming of food crops significantly, making
food cheaper and farmers richer, although it also began to expand
farmers’ debt, as they bought more land and better equipment to
farm it, so that they had to keep producing more to keep up with
falling crop prices. This cheap food was sold to the
plantations of the South, to the growing cities of the East, and
eventually even overseas.
*Selling food produced in the Midwest was possible thanks to
another revolution, a Transportation Revolution.
*In the 1700s, transportation in the United States was very
slow. It could take weeks or months to travel across the
country. It was faster and more common to travel by water,
and coastal communities in different states had more in common
with each other socially and economically than coastal communities
did with the backcountry towns in their own states.
*Roads in many of the states were maintained by county
governments, with work done by local citizens who were obliged to
work on the roads a certain number of days each year, or pay a
fine. In general, these part-time road-builders were not
very good at it, and many chose to simply pay the fine and
eventually it was just made part of local property taxes or some
other form of tax that did hire professionals to build and
*In the 1790s, though, the privately-owned Lancaster Turnpike
opened in Pennsylvania, connecting Philadelphia with Lancaster, 62
miles away. It was a wide road with a hard surface built by
a private company that made its money back by charging a
toll. Once the toll was paid, a barrier, or pike, was turned
back, giving such roads the name ‘turnpike.’
*This turnpike was very profitable, and in a ‘turnpike boom’
others were built over the next several decades in many
states. Some of these turnpike companies were successful,
others were failures, and investors in them (often including state
governments) found themselves holding worthless bonds. The
American System, had it been implemented, would have built public
roads across the country at the expense of the Federal government,
although the only one built was the National Road (or Cumberland
Road) eventually connecting the Chesapeake Bay with the
Mississippi River. Towns and cities situated along
successful roads often boomed in response.
*Water remained an important mode of transportation, however,
especially after the development of commercially successful
steamboats. Although some early models had been tested in
the late 1700s, it was Robert Fulton (funded by Robert Livingston)
whose Clermont became the first steamboat to make a
profit after demonstrating its capabilities in 1807 by sailing 150
miles up the Hudson River in 32 hours.
*Over the next several decades, steamboats that could travel with
or against the currents and winds with equal facility made
transportation across the United States much easier, and were
particularly important in the West where there were long, wide,
deep rivers like the Ohio, the Mississippi, and the Missouri.
*In regions where there were not large, easily navigable natural
waterways, Americans began to build their own in a ‘canal
boom.’ The longest of these was the Erie Canal, built by the
State of New York between 1817 and 1825 to connect the Great Lakes
with the Hudson River.
*The most influential sponsor of the canal was governor DeWitt
Clinton, so that the canal was sometimes called ‘Clinton’s Big
Ditch,’ but it was much more than that. Its construction
required remarkable engineering feats, including the invention of
concrete that could dry underwater, and raised portions of the
canal like aqueducts that carried the canal over valleys and even
other rivers. After it was completed, the expense of
shipping goods from Buffalo to New York fell to 5% of its earlier
cost. Towns along canals boomed, such as Rochester and
Syracuse in New York and others along other canals elsewhere.
*Of course, it was not possible to build canals everywhere, but in
many places where canals could not go, it was possible to build
railroads. The Baltimore and Ohio Railroad began
construction in 1828 and in 1830, trains pulled by the engine
named Tom Thumb carried the first freight and passengers
to travel by rail in America.
*In New York, ferryboat and steamboat owner Cornelius Vanderbilt
became more influential through his investments in railroads in
New York and elsewhere, becoming one of richest men in America and
having a great deal of political influence through his wealth and
business connections, and owning so many ships that he was
nicknamed ‘The Commodore’ because it seemed like he owned his own
*At first, people worried that vehicles moving so fast—the first
ones went at least 16 miles an hour—could cause health problems
and even insanity in humans, startle livestock in the countryside
so that cows would stop giving milk, and even start fires with the
sparks that flew from their smokestacks.
*Eventually, railroads would cross the United States, although at
first they were slow, uncomfortable, and unreliable by later
standards, with many different gauges making it impossible for
individual trains to travel all that far before transferring their
cargo and passengers to other lines.
*At sea, steamboats eventually came to dominate shipping, because
they were more reliable than sailing ships that depended on the
variable winds, but in the 1840s and 1850s, sailing ships enjoyed
one last golden age, as clipper ships (so-called because they
travelled at such a fast clip) sailed around the world. The
fastest clipper ship on record was the Sovereign of the Seas
which sailed from Honolulu to New York in 82 days in 1853 and, in
1854, set the world sailing speed record which still stands: a
speed of 22 knots (25 miles per hour). The Flying Cloud
followed the route of the California Gold Rush, and set the record
for the fastest sailing time between New York and San Francisco,
completing the trip in 89 days, 21 hours, a record which stood
until 1989. By the 1860s, though, clippers were replaced by
the slower, but simpler, steamboat.
*As people could travel further, they needed to communicate more
easily, but the Nineteenth Century also saw a Communication
Revolution, beginning with Samuel Morse’s telegraph in 1837.
Sending electrical pulses down wires to make clicking sounds in
his dot-and-dash code, Morse’s telegraph could transmit messages
across the country in hours rather than days or weeks, although
his earliest system had a maximum range of two miles. He
expanded this range, however, and in 1844, he sent the famous
message, ‘What hath God wrought?’ from Washington, D.C. to Mount
Clare, Maryland. By 1861, telegraph lines connected the East
Coast with California.
*All these developments combined to form what has been called a
Market Revolution, in which more and more Americans became
involved in the marketplace in some way, rather than being
Jeffersonian yeomen farmers, and businesses became increasingly
important in America, especially large businesses organised as
corporations rather than being owned by individuals. These
could raise more money and limit the liability of their
investors. They also allowed companies to mass produce
things cheaply and sell them around the country, bringing things
that had once been luxuries to many more Americans, but also using
new technology to limit the wages of a growing class of unskilled
workers. The country as a whole was growing richer and more
productive and many--but far from all--individuals were growing
richer with it, living out an American Dream of working hard to
achieve economic independence and even prosperity.
This page last updated Saint Valentine's Day,