Before the Industrial Revolution, products were made by hand at home. It required skilled labor. If you couldn’t produce your own yarn or cloth, you had to barter or trade with another family who could. Most people didn’t have the money to buy ready-made clothing. When it came to clothing, most people only had a few items of clothing. You don’t have closets or drawers full of clothing you never wear. When clothing got holes it was mended, when you grew out of it, it was given to your younger sibling.
Once upon a time to make cloth, it required a series of processes completed by different people who were highly skilled in a certain part of the process. Most people have seen images of the spinning wheel. Depending on what type of fabric you are making, you would have started out with the raw materials. Sheep’s wool, flax plants or cotton. For wool, the sheep would have to be taken care of, their coats sheared, then the wool would have to be washed and dried. Then it would have to be carded or brushed then taken and spun into thread with a spinning wheel. If you were looking to make fabric out of linen. Flax seeds would be planted and grown. Pulled by hand because the roots were needed as well. It then needed to be soaked in water for days and then dried. Then it had to be hit against a wooden board to break down the fibers, then it was put into a crimper machine to break it down even further. Then it had to be hand pulled through what looked like a metal brush. By the end of that stage it almost looks like hair. Then it would be spun into thread. If you were starting off with cotton, you had to remove the seeds by hand. Each piece of cotton had about 20 seeds. It would take a person an entire day to clean a pound of cotton. Then you would hit the cotton with willow branches in process known as willowing which opened up the fibers. Then you would card or brush the cotton, roll it off the cards and then it could be spun into thread. Once you had the thread, then it would be sent to weavers where they would make large rolls of fabric. People would then purchase the amount of fabric they needed and make their own clothes.
This step by step process was known as the Putting Out System.
You would send out or put out the work to various people who were skilled in that job and then it would be passed on to the next person who could complete it.
Various inventions would decrease the amount of time it took to produce cloth and eventually take away the need for skilled labor.
Eli Whitney’s invention of the Cotton Gin in the 1790s would revolutionize how cotton could be harvested. With the cotton gin, up to 50 pounds of cotton could be cleaned per day. This strengthened the south’s desire to protect and expand slavery and it provided the Northern States with the raw materials they needed for their textile factories.
His system of Interchangeable parts for the creation of muskets (guns) revolutionized the way things were produced. Standardized the process of producing goods, it allowed for mass production, have things be made quickly and parts replaced easily.
Richard Arkwright who started out as a wig maker by trade; Thought he could improve upon the invention of the Spinning Jenny. The Spinning Jenny reduced the time it took to produce yarn or thread, but the thread it produced was weak. With the help of a friend, John Kay, who was a clock maker, he designed what would become known as the water frame. The machine was powered by a water wheel and drastically improved the strength of the thread. Arkwright established a number of factories throughout England.
The factory system was established and England sought to keep the innovations of The Industrial Revolution from Spreading to its former Colonies. They tried to prevent textile workers from emigrating and outlawed taking blueprints of machines. They were successful for a time, but eventually one man was able to create the first factories in The United States
Samuel Slater now, again, perspective matters. Here in The United States, Samuel Slater is often called “The Father of The Industrial Revolution” but in Great Britain he was called Slater The Traitor. In history books, Samuel Slater gets all of the credit, but a new documentary that has been 8 years in the making, is shedding light on HOW Samuel Slater was able to do what he did.
As promised in the opening, We have a special guest with is today, Christian de Rezendes –the director of the Documentary Slatersville which will premier in the Fall of 2021 on Rhode Island PBS is joining us on this episode. Jeananne came across his website with the trailer for the film and reached out to him to see if he would be willing to discuss his project with us.
Samuel Slater was not the only one to build factories. Francis Cabot Lowell went to England and learned about the textile industry. When he returned to Massachusetts, he established the Boston Manufacturing Company. Lowell had big plans but those plans were expensive. He sold shares of his company and raised the necessary funds to purchase the land along the Charles River and the machines needed for the factory. Lowell than needed workers. Unlike other factories who hired men women and children, The Lowell system hired young girls between the ages of 15 and 30. You have to understand that these are young girls who lived on farms. They are used to hard work, many of them, in addition to farm and housework, also took in work in part of the former “Putting Out” system that we discussed earlier. For young girls, their options are limited. For farm families whose income was often uncertain, the idea of having a steady income was very attractive. For families to be comfortable sending their young daughters to work far away at the mills, Lowell and other factory owners like him, built boarding houses. These boarding houses had a matron or female overseer to watch over the girls. The mill girls as they were called had a curfew and were expected to follow a moral code of conduct. The factory owners ensured the workers had access to pianos and libraries. The Mill girls established a newsletter called The Lowell Offering. They often wrote poems, stories and songs. There is a wealth of primary source documents as a result of it. We have a very clear picture of what life was like in these factories. The boarding houses slept at times 6 girls to a room, with girls sharing beds. They were poorly ventilated, they often had about 30 minutes for meals and during their long work day (12-16 hours per day) Factory life was very hard, it was noisy, women and children were whipped for mistakes, it was dangerous, small children would be expected to go into the machines to fix them, they were kept very busy – often having to watch over 4 looms at a time. So while there is access to pianos and libraries, how much time do they actually have to partake in those types of leisure activities. Factory work was hard and it was tedious. Trying to get people to come and work in those factories, this was a job in and of its own. Traveling around and convincing young girls to go and work, convincing their families as well that this was a good idea. Keep in mind, the further a young girl lived from the factory, the harder it would be for her to leave that job. You no longer need skilled labor. You want unskilled labor and with the waves of immigration that the United States will see in the late 1800s, there is an abundance of cheap unskilled labor.
Now, once you have these items produced, how do you get them to the people that want to buy them?
Steam Powered Locomotive
How factory produced items were able to get into the hands of consumers changed as well with the building of railroad tracks and steam or coal powered locomotives. Railroads, which were first introduced in Britain, quickly changed the landscape of transportation for both people and goods. By the 1830s we are seeing the creation of Railroad companies and when we talk about the civil war and advantages of the North, railroad lines will play a role in that. Eventually in the 1860s with the transcontinental railroad, further westward settlement was possible and life on the “frontier” will be made somewhat easier.
Telegraph & Morse Code
Communication wasn’t always as instant as it is today. Ancient civilizations, used smoke signals, lighting of torches, ringing bells to sound an alarm, but when other countries wanted to communicate, they had to send letters on horseback or on a ship. Depending on the distance it would take weeks or months to get the message there and even longer to get a response. This changed in the 1840s with the invention of The telegraph. Samuel B. Morse sent the first message via Telegraph in 1844. In 1866, when the first trans-Atlantic cable was laid down, now the US could communicate with Europe instantly. Using Morse code, which uses a series of dots and dashes for each letter of the alphabet, what use to take weeks or months, now took mere minutes.
Impact of The Industrial Revolution – I often talk about history having these ripple effects. I like to give the example of a single raindrop hitting the surface of the water. The water doesn’t just ripple the surface, but all the way down. All of these seeds are being planted…. the need for unskilled and cheap labor – immigration - there is a reason we want your tired, your poor, young hungry…. We want them to work in our factories…. terrible working conditions and long hours will give rise to creation of labor unions, the need for raw materials and new markets for our factory produced goods - Imperialism - the United States will become an Imperial Power –; new forms of labor and increases in wealth for some will lead to new classes. We will eventually see the working class, an increased middle class and industrial capitalists and large bankers. All of these innovations will lead to the Second Industrial Revolution in the late 1800s. You can even make the connection to unintended effects like with the endowment made by John Fox Slater which provided for the education of Freed men after the civil war and the establishing of the Tuskegee institute.