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.
Slater also showed a talent for directing large enterprises. His job at Strutt’s factory was what would now be called middle management, coming between the owner and the workers, overseeing the mill, and repairing and constructing the machinery. By the time Slater’s apprenticeship ended in 1789, when he was twenty-one, he had mastered all aspects of this new, burgeoning hightech industry.
Freed of his apprenticeship, Slater wanted to emulate his former master and make a fortune in the textile industry on his own. Having little capital, he decided to pursue his self-interest in America, where he knew his talents and skills were in hot demand. Before he left Strutt’s employ, he carefully committed to memory the smallest details of the new spinning equipment, fully intending to use his knowledge of the British textile secrets as a substitute for capital.
Knowing the vigilance of British customs, Slater kept his intentions so secret that he did not even tell his mother of his plans to emigrate until he mailed her a letter from London only a few hours before he boarded ship on September 13, 1789. He listed himself on the manifest as a farm laborer. George Washington could not have known it, of course, but the hopes that had been symbolized by his simple brown suit four months earlier were about to be realized.
Slater arrived in New York on November 18 and soon heard that Moses Brown, a Quaker of Providence, Rhode Island, had some spinning equipment that would not work. Slater wrote him offering his services. Brown, one of the numerous Rhode Island clan for which Brown University is named, replied that he would welcome Slater’s help and offered him all the profits from the machines over and above interest on the capital and depreciation if Slater could make them work. Slater had been right about the demand for his skills. It was a deal he could never have made in England.
When he arrived in Providence, however, and went to examine the inoperable spinning equipment in nearby Pawtucket, he saw that it was beyond hope. “These will not do,” he told Brown; “they are good for nothing in their present condition, nor can they be made to answer.”
Brown could only have been very disappointed, for he had a large investment in what he had just learned was junk. Nonetheless, he persevered. “Thee said thee could make the machinery,” Brown replied in Quaker fashion; “why not do it?”
Over the next twelve months Slater did exactly that, using the plans he had so carefully smuggled out of England in his head. With carpenters and mechanics unfamiliar with textile equipment, it was a struggle, and at one point Slater almost despaired when the carding machine stubbornly refused to work.
Then, on the twentieth of December, 1790, the first cotton mill in the United States, owned by the firm of Almy, Brown, and Slater, went into operation in Pawtucket. Moses Brown soon wrote proudly to Alexander Hamilton that “mills and machines may be erected in different places, in one year, to make all the cotton yarn that may be wanted in the United States.”
Brown was getting rather carried away. Britain, with its large technological lead and many talented textile machinery designers, would continue to dominate the cotton-goods trade for another century. Brown was right, however, that the Industrial Revolution was now under way in the United States. Soon numerous mills were springing up along New England’s many swift-flowing rivers. By the end of Slater’s life, forty-five years later, cotton spinning was a major New England industry, employing many thousands of people. Samuel Slater was a famous, very wealthy, and greatly respected man.
In 1833, two years before Slater’s death on April 20, 1835, President Andrew Jackson toured New England and paid a call on Pawtucket’s most famous citizen. “I understand,” Jackson told him, that “you have taught us how to spin, so as to rival Great Britain in her manufactures; you set all these thousands of spindles to work, which I have been delighted in viewing, and have made so many happy by a lucrative employment.”
“Yes, sir,” replied Slater. “I suppose that I gave out the psalm, and they have been singing to the tune ever since.”
At the end of his visit, the seventh President of the United States bestowed on the man who had been instrumental in fulfilling the hopes of the first President the honorary title of father of American manufactures.