After independence, George Washington encouraged Americans to boycott English products. Communities were self-sufficient. Families grew and spun cotton or wool, which they bartered for cloth from the village weaver—creating a simple economy.
Industrial Espionage (01:45)
American-produced cloth was no match for factory textiles from England. Parliament had passed laws protecting the mill technology, but Samuel Slater brought machinery knowledge to the U.S. to start a new industry in a country with less competition.
America's First Textile Mill (03:40)
Slater found a cotton goods business in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. He convinced owner Moses Brown to replace his crude machinery and worked with machinist David Wilkinson to recreate British textile technology. The Blackstone River provided water power for the operation.
Child Labor (02:47)
Slater hired children to staff his mill, having worked in British textile factories as an adolescent. Factory owners exploited children, forcing them to work under intolerable and dangerous conditions. Slater later hired entire families; parents worked beside children and conditions improved.
Introducing Industrial Time (01:14)
Slater's factory bell determined when workers' days began and ended; America's agrarian lifestyle began shifting toward industry.
America's Industrial Revolution (02:16)
Slater's factory only produced yarn; weavers and hand looms still produced cloth. Prices could not compete with British textiles. Jefferson enacted an embargo in 1807 to protect American vessels during the Napoleonic Wars. Boston merchants decided to enter the textile business.
Lowell Industrial Community (02:55)
The Boston Associates chose a site to develop on the Merrimack River. They built mill infrastructure for a textile factory system that would turn raw cotton into finished cloth.
Lowell Industrial Innovations (01:52)
Learn about automation and assembly line techniques pioneered at the textile mills, including carding and spinning machines and power looms.
The Lowell textile factories were a model for industrial cities. Workers were young farm women searching for better opportunities. Management controlled every aspect of their lives; they lived in company housing and were paid low wages.
Regimented Work (02:35)
Lowell girls' lives were run by factory bells. Management kept wages low through aggressive recruitment campaigns. The "Lowell Offering" featured stories of young women working to save their family farm, but diaries and letters revealed slave-like conditions.
Female Labor Reform Association (03:04)
Lowell mill girls were forced to work 75 hours a week and wages were based on productivity. In 1845, women organized for a 10 hour work day and improved conditions. During protests, management hired poor Irish immigrants—ripe for exploitation.
Industrial strength helped the North to win the Civil War. The post-war South focused on industrializing. Factors in the textile industry's shift to the South included new railroads, proximity to cotton, displaced farm labor, and investors seeking to compete with the North.
New Southern Textile Industry (03:14)
Mills were located in the Piedmont region, where displaced farming families were desperate for work. Learn about poor working conditions. After World War I, factories were over productive; management lowered labor costs by increasing workloads.
Spencer Love (03:15)
Love believed a single company could dominate textiles. He built a modern mill in Burlington that manufactured rayon stockings and dresses. Profits soared but labor disparities grew; workers began organizing and unsuccessfully demanded wage increases.
General Strike (02:36)
In 1934, the United Textile Workers Union organized a 400,000 person walk out. State governors called in the National Guard; violence ensued. High unemployment meant striking workers had little bargaining power and mill owners emerged victorious.
The textile industry prospered in the 1940s and 1950s. By the 1970s, German and Japanese machinery manufacturers had improved technology and lowered labor costs. American companies struggled to compete with cheap labor in developing countries.
Adapting to Globalization (02:32)
In the 1990s, the U.S. textile industry developed computerized manufacturing systems, lowering labor costs and competing with foreign companies. Proximity to the American market enabled rapid responses. Hear a summary of the U.S. textile industry's development.
Credits: Textiles: Birth of An American Industry (01:21)
Credits: Textiles: Birth of An American Industry
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