- Historic Sites
February 1990 | Volume 41, Issue 1
On April 30, 1789, George Washington took the oath of office as the first President of the United States on the balcony of New York’s Federal Hall, then serving as the new nation’s temporary capitol. Although it was one of the most important moments in his life, Washington, who had ordered up elegant clothes from London for many years, wore a simple brown suit with silver buttons, white stockings, and shoes with silver buckles. The hero of the Revolution had chosen his outfit with great care. Even at the very dawn of the Republic, politicians were conscious of symbolism, and Washington made certain he was wearing a suit made of American cloth, woven in Hartford, Connecticut.
Washington’s purpose was to encourage American manufactures, as industrial goods were called in those days. Certainly they needed plenty of encouragement. Most manufactured goods, and nearly all quality cloth, were imported from Britain. The overwhelming majority of the American people lived on farms and made at home nearly everything they needed, from soap to furniture. They dressed mainly in homespun, a crude, loosely woven cloth made by housewives from yarn that they had, as the name implies, spun themselves. It was not much different from the fabric that had clothed medieval peasants.
Textile weaving is a technology so ancient that it predates history itself, and remnants of woven cloth have been found in the kitchen middens of Neolithic Europe. But over the ensuing thousands of years the technology changed little until the middle of the eighteenth century. Fibers of wool, flax, or cotton were washed and picked clean by hand. Then they were carded to align the fibers, combed to straighten them further, drawn out a little at a time, and twisted into yarn by a spin- die or, from the fifteenth century on, a spinning wheel. Once the yarn was made, it could be woven on a loom into cloth. It was all an immensely labor-intensive process, and only the rich could afford cloth that was much better, to our eyes, than burlap. There was an active market in secondhand quality clothes (good clothes were so expensive and difficult to acquire that people frequently left them to relatives and friends in their wills along with furniture and land).
Then the Industrial Revolution began with the mechanization of the British textile industry. In 1733 John Kay invented the flying shuttle, which considerably increased the speed with which cloth could be woven. Still, the weavers could not work any faster than the spinners could supply the yarn. In 1768 Sir Richard Arkwright invented the water frame, a machine that, using waterpower, could spin many threads at one time. By 1777 Arkwright had two hundred employees in his mill at Cromford, in Derbyshire, and six factories operating elsewhere.
At about that time the spinning jenny greatly increased the speed of home spinning. Other mechanical devices to speed the process of carding and combing came into use. With the great saving in labor costs, the price of quality cloth began to drop sharply and demand soared. An already vast British textile industry grew by leaps and bounds in the last half of the eighteenth century, providing much of the wealth that allowed Britain to rise to superpower status.
Other countries, naturally, wanted in on the action. But as long as Britain could keep the secrets of the wondrous machines that had started the Industrial Revolution, she could keep her lucrative monopoly of cheap, quality cloth. The British government was certainly determined to try. It was illegal to export the machinery or plans for it. People with textile expertise were forbidden to emigrate. British customs watched closely to prevent any unauthorized departures.
With Britain determined to keep her secrets, the nascent United States had only two choices if it was to fulfill President Washington’s hopes and develop a textile industry of its own: The new technology had to be either reinvented by Americans or stolen from Britain. The first alternative was not very likely. While the early spinning machines seem extraordinarily crude to us who live in the computer age, they were the highest of high tech in the eighteenth century. Furthermore, the United States had few, if any, citizens who were even remotely familiar with the intricacies of textile production on a mass scale.
So the technology had to be stolen. Although British newspapers were forbidden to print them, clandestine advertisements were circulated through the textile areas promising big rewards to anyone who could set up working textile machinery in the United States. One person who surely was aware of these offers was Samuel Slater of Belper, Derbyshire, in the very heart of the textile area.
Born in 1768, Slater was apprenticed at the age of fourteen to Jedediah Strutt, the owner of a textile mill in Belper and one of the first capitalists to make a great fortune in the new industrial age. Slater from the first showed a marked talent and interest in mechanical work. Rather than visit his family on Sundays, he would often go to the factory so that he could study the machinery. While still a teen-ager, Slater invented a means of winding the yarn on the spindles evenly and was rewarded by his employer with one guinea—several weeks’ wages for an apprentice.