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The Introduction of the Factory System Previous Next
Digital History ID 3518

 

In 1789 the Pennsylvania legislature placed an advertisement in English newspapers offering a cash bounty to any English textile worker who would migrate to the state. Samuel Slater, who was just finishing an apprenticeship in a Derbyshire textile mill, read the ad. He went to London, booked passage to America, and landed in Philadelphia. There he learned that Moses Brown, a Quaker merchant, had just completed a mill in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, and needed a manager. Slater applied for the job and received it, along with a promise that if he made the factory a success he would receive all the business's profits, less the cost and interest on the machinery.

On December 21, 1790, the mill opened. Seven boys and 2 girls, all between the ages of 7 and 12, operated the little factory's 72 spindles. Slater soon discovered that these children, "constantly employed under the immediate inspection of a [supervisor]," could produce three times as much as whole families working in their homes. To keep the children awake and alert, Slater whipped them with a leather strap or sprinkled them with water. On Sundays the children attended a special school Slater founded for their education.

The opening of Slater's mill marked the beginning of a widespread movement to consolidate manufacturing operations under a single roof. During the last years of the 18th century, merchants and master craftspeople who were discontented with the inefficiencies of their work force created the nation's first modern factories. Within these centralized workshops, employers closely supervised employees, synchronized work to the clock, and punished infractions of rules with heavy fines or dismissal. In 1820, just 350,000 Americans worked in factories or mills. Four decades later, on the eve of the Civil War, the number had soared to 2 million.

For an inexpensive and reliable labor force, many factory owners turned to child labor. During the early phases of industrialization, textile mills and agricultural tool, metal goods, nail, and rubber factories had a ravenous appetite for cheap teenage laborers. In many mechanized industries, from a quarter to over half of the work force was made up of young men or women under the age of 20.

During the first half of the 19th century, unmarried women made up a majority of the work force in cotton textile mills and a substantial minority of workers in factories manufacturing ready-made clothing, furs, hats, shoes, and umbrellas. Women were also employed in significant numbers in the manufacture of buttons, furniture, gloves, gunpowder, shovels, and tobacco.

Many women found the new opportunities exhilarating. Eleven-year-old Lucy Larcom went off to the Lowell textile mill enthusiastically: "The novelty of it made it seem easy, and it really was not hard, just to change the bobbins on the spinning-frames every three quarters of an hour or so.... The intervals were spent frolicking around among the spinning-frames, teasing and talking to the older girls, or entertaining ourselves with games and stories in a corner."

Unlike farm work or domestic service, employment in a mill offered female companionship and an independent income. Wages were twice what a woman could make as a seamstress, tailor, or schoolteacher. Furthermore, most mill girls viewed the work as only temporary before marriage. Most worked in the mills fewer than four years, and frequently interrupted their stints in the mill for several months at a time with trips back home.

By the 1830s, increasing competition among textile manufacturers caused deteriorating working conditions that drove native-born women out of the mills. Employers cut wages, lengthened the workday, and required mill workers to tend four looms instead of just two. Hannah Borden, a Fall River, Massachusetts, textile worker, was required to have her loom running at 5 A.M. She was given an hour for breakfast and half an hour for lunch. Her workday ended at 7:30 P.M., 14.5 hours after her workday had begun. For a 6-day work week, she received between $2.50 and $3.50.

The mill girls militantly protested the wage cuts. In 1834 and again in 1836, the mill girls went out on strike. An open letter spelled out the workers' complaints: "sixteen females [crowded] into the same hot, ill-ventilated attic"; a workday "two or three hours longer a day than is done in Europe"; and workers compelled to "stand so long at the machinery ... that varicose veins, dropsical swelling of the feet and limbs, and prolepsis uter[us], diseases that end only with life, are not rare but common occurrences."

During the 1840s, fewer and fewer native-born women were willing to work in the mills. "Slavers," which were long, black wagons that criss-crossed the Vermont and New Hampshire countryside in search of mill hands, arrived in Rhode Island and Massachusetts milltowns empty. Increasingly, employers replaced the native-born mill girls with a new class of permanent factory operatives: immigrant women from Ireland.

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