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The Eve of the Industrial Revolution Previous Next
Digital History ID 3515


In 1790 most farm families in the rural North produced most of what they needed to live. Except for a few necessities, such as rum, salt, sugar, and iron goods, most products were manufactured within a home. Instead of using money to purchase necessities, families entered into complex exchange relationships with relatives and neighbors and used barter to acquire the goods they needed.

Skilled artisans, assisted by an apprentice or two and an occasional journeyman, produced specialized and luxury goods. Such crafts as blacksmithing, bootmaking, carriage building, leather working, papermaking, and woodworking were performed by hand in a small shop or home. The North's few industries were small. Iron foundries produced just 30,000 tons of iron a year. All of the North's shoemakers produced barely 80,000 pairs of shoes annually.

Between 1790 and the 1820s, a new pattern emerged. Farmers increasingly began to grow cash crops for sale and used the proceeds to buy goods produced by others. The independent artisans of earlier years gave way to an increasingly industrial economy of wage laborers and salaried employees. As late as 1800, less than 10 percent of the labor force was composed of "employees" who worked for wages. A decade later the number of wage-earning employees had quadrupled.

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