Early National Systems. Slavery and Its American Social Constructs: part 1.

Industrialization of the North–Cotton

The Jeffersonian ideal of the independent tiller of the soil (“Agrarian Republicanism”), not cramped in diseased, polluted cities but exercising economic self-sufficiency and ruling with the patriarchal hand all under his purview. That patriarchal hand meant that the income that might be generated by wife and children, belonged to him, as did the associated laboring bodies. That ideal was most prominently subverted by the Lowell, Massachusetts textile industry. The Textile mills in Lowell were an important innovation in American enterprise on two fronts. The most interesting here was the matter of labor.

Jefferson’s picture of farm women was not altogether accurate, at least in the economies of specialization. Women on the farm regularly added to family income by weaving wool into yarn and clothing and then selling it in village shops, should that outlet exist. In antebellum times, at first in the East where transportation was simplest–ground transport was highly problematic over long distances at the time of Joseph Smith’s birth era and very expensive in comparison to waterways and ships at sea–cotton was far cheaper and more plentiful to Northern textile interests than wool. And that attractive cheapness and bulk was altogether the result of African Slave plantation labor in the American South and then the Old Southwest (Mississippi, Louisiana, and then Texas eventually).

In 1813 Francis Lowell and two partners formed the Boston Manufacturing Company, to outfit water powered looms for the manufacture of cotton textiles. During the previous two years, Lowell had conducted successful espionage in the power loom works of Britain (not allowed pen and paper in the British mills, he studiously memorized all the secret mechanics). After building successful proof of concept mills in Waltham, Mass., Lowell and his ingenious mechanic Paul Moody, set about building a whole town around massive water-powered mills. The town took its name from Lowell, honored posthumously by his surviving partners in 1817.

The question of labor was an important one, and it was resolved not by the importation of Blacks from the South, an initially expensive and then illegal proposition, but by recruiting young women subsequently known by their own choice as the “mill girls.” The women didn’t walk to the mills, they seemingly ran. Being a mill girl meant earning a significant wage ($3 to $5 a week), which was not subject to a father’s taxation or confiscation since the girls (unmarried women) were no longer in the farm economy. Not that mill girls didn’t sometimes contribute to a brother’s education, for example.

Americans held some fear of industry and the nightmare of a large compact oppressed working class in turbulent cramped neighborhoods of filthy cities. Lowell didn’t partake of those fears, largely because its inhabitants were in a way-station to marriage and their own independent households. The mill girls turnover was almost complete every three years or so, exchanging the exhilarating independence (if in a paternalistic structure) for their own family life with its certain restrictions and hoped-for rewards.

Lowell was a marvelous innovation but its massive capital requirements made duplication unlikely. Instead, entrepreneurs like Samuel Slater might start more modest enterprises, recruiting employees from nearby farm families. Slater had a similar paternalistic interest in his mill girls, but since they mostly lived at home, their welfare remained in the hands of their fathers. Women in this system did not achieve economic and emotional independence comparable to the Lowell girls, since their wages fell into the hands of the family patriarch. These more local mills still tended to attract outside capital to the point that given the correct topography they might expand in unprecedented ways. By 1832, textile businesses constituted 80% of the largest corporations in the United States.

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One Response to Early National Systems. Slavery and Its American Social Constructs: part 1.

  1. ricke says:

    Interesting. Thank you.

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