The Roots of American Economic Growth
|Digital History ID 3513|
In the 1820s and 1830s, America became the world's leader in adopting mechanization, standardization, and mass production. Manufacturers began to adopt labor-saving machinery that allowed workers to produce more goods at lower costs. So impressed were foreigners with these methods of manufacture that they called them the "American system of production."
The single most important figure in the development of the American system was Eli Whitney, the inventor of the cotton gin. In 1798, Whitney persuaded the U.S. government to award him a contract for 10,000 muskets to be delivered within two years. Until then, rifles had been manufactured by skilled artisans, who made individual parts by hand, and then carefully fitted the pieces together. At the time Whitney made his offer, the federal arsenal at Springfield, Massachusetts, was capable of producing only 245 muskets in two years. Whitney's idea was to develop precision machinery that would allow a worker with little manual skill to manufacture identical gun parts that would be interchangeable from one gun to another. The first year he produced 500 muskets.
In 1801, in order to get an extension on his contract, Whitney demonstrated his new system of interchangeable parts to President John Adams and Vice President Thomas Jefferson. He disassembled ten muskets and put ten new muskets together out of the individual pieces. His system was a success. (In fact, the muskets used in the demonstration were not assembly line models; they had been carefully hand-fitted beforehand).
Other industries soon adopted the "American system of manufacturing." As early as 1800 manufacturers of wooden clocks began to use interchangeable parts. Makers of sewing machines used mass production techniques as early as 1846, and the next year, manufacturers mechanized the production of farm machinery.
Innovation was not confined to manufacturing. During the years following the War of 1812, American agriculture underwent a transformation nearly as profound and far-reaching as the revolution taking place in industry. During the 18th century, most farm families were largely self-sufficient. They raised their own food, made their own clothes and shoes, and built their own furniture. Cut off from markets by the high cost of transportation, farmers sold only a few items, like whiskey, corn, and hogs, in exchange for such necessities as salt and iron goods. Farming methods were primitive. With the exception of plowing and furrowing, most farm work was performed by hand. European travelers deplored the backwardness of American farmers, their ignorance of the principles of scientific farming, their lack of labor-saving machinery, and their wastefulness of natural resources. Few farmers applied manure to their fields as fertilizer or practiced crop rotation. As a result, soil erosion and soil exhaustion were commonplace. Commented one observer: "Agriculture in the South does not consist so much in cultivating land as in killing it."
Beginning in the last decade of the 18th century, agriculture underwent profound changes. Some farmers began to grow larger crop surpluses and to specialize in cash crops. A growing demand for cotton for England's textile mills led to the introduction of long-staple cotton from the West Indies into the islands and lowlands of Georgia and South Carolina. Eli Whitney's invention of the cotton gin in 1793--which permitted an individual to clean 50 pounds of short-staple cotton in a single day, 50 times more than could be cleaned by hand--made it practical to produce short-staple cotton in the South (which was much more difficult to clean and process than long-staple cotton). Other cash crops raised by southern farmers included rice, sugar, flax for linen, and hemp for rope fibers. In the Northeast, the growth of mill towns and urban centers created a growing demand for hogs, cattle, sheep, corn, wheat, wool, butter, milk, cheese, fruit, vegetables, and hay to feed horses.
As production for the market increased, farmers began to demand improved farm technology. In 1793 Charles Newbold, a New Jersey farmer, spent his entire fortune of $30,000 developing an efficient cast-iron plow. Farmers refused to use it, fearing that iron would poison the soil and cause weeds to grow. Twenty years later, a Scipio, New York, farmer named Jethro Wood patented an improved iron plow made out of interchangeable parts. Unlike wooden plows, which required two men and four oxen to plow an acre in a day, Wood's cast-iron plow allowed one man and one yoke of oxen to plow the same area. Demand was so great that manufacturers infringed on Wood's patents and produced thousands of copies of this new plow yearly.
A shortage of farm labor encouraged many farmers to adopt labor-saving machinery. Prior to the introduction in 1803 of the cradle scythe--a rake used to cut and gather up grain and deposit it in even piles--a farmer could not harvest more than half an acre a day. The horse rake--a device introduced in 1820 to mow hay--allowed a single farmer to perform the work of eight to ten men. The invention in 1836 of a mechanical thresher, used to separate the wheat from the chaff, helped to cut in half the man-hours required to produce an acre of wheat.
By 1830 the roots of America's future industrial growth had been firmly planted. Back in 1807, the nation had just 15 or 20 cotton mills, containing approximately 8,000 spindles. By 1831 the number of spindles in use totaled nearly a million and a quarter. By 1830 Pittsburgh produced 100 steam engines a year; Cincinnati, 150. Factory production had made household manufacture of shoes, clothing, textiles, and farm implement obsolete. The United States was well on its way to becoming one of the world's leading manufacturing nations.