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Textile Industry (Cotton)
Gale Encyclopedia of U.S. Economic History. Ed. Thomas Riggs. Vol. 3. 2nd ed. Farmington Hills, MI: Gale, 2015. p1321-1323.
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Textile Industry (Cotton)

The textile industry encompasses the manufacture of yarn and fabric, as well as products made from these materials. In the United States, as in Europe, it began as a cottage industry composed of individuals who spun yarn and wove fabric in their homes or in small workshops. In the late eighteenth century the American textile industry was revolutionized by Samuel Slater (1768–1835), a British textile worker who immigrated to the United States in 1789. The following year, in Rhode Island, he constructed the first successful water-powered spinning machine that converted cotton to yarn. Slater also employed the factory system, which had been devised in Britain. Goods were mass produced with power-driven machinery, and each worker focused on a particular part of the manufacturing process as opposed to creating the entire product. These changes helped the United States evolve from an agrarian society to an industrial nation, sparking the first American Industrial Revolution (1790–1860). Textile production remained an important part of the U.S. manufacturing sector until the late twentieth century, when low-cost imports from China and other countries decreased the profitability of domestic production. By the early twenty-first century many U.S.-based textile companies had closed their doors for good or had moved their production overseas to take advantage of inexpensive labor.

In the early eighteenth century Britain underwent its first industrial revolution. It developed efficient machinery and a factory system that enabled it to mass produce consumer goods, such as guns and textiles. Wanting to protect its industrial advantage, Britain banned such technology from being exported to other countries, and it prohibited textile workers from emigrating. In 1789 Slater, disguised as a farmer, sailed to the United States. He found work with American textile manufacturer Moses Brown (1738–1836), who hired him to construct spinning machines based on the Arkwright model, a water-powered machine invented in the 1700s by Englishman Richard Arkwright (1732–92). In 1790 Slater completed construction of the first successful spinning machine in the United States and, with Brown's backing, opened a cotton mill in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. Business flourished, and he constructed an additional mill in Rhode Island, as well as others in Massachusetts and Connecticut.

When Slater opened his first mill, he adopted the British factory system, but he was unable to persuade farmers in the area to do factory work. Instead, Slater's first employees were children, often as young as seven or eight, who earned as little as 25 cents per week. All wages would go directly to the head of each household. As families began to rely on their children's earnings, many moved closer to the mill. Slater constructed villages around the mills to house families and established a labor system based on gender and age. Once families of workers were established in mill villages, owners were generally guaranteed a steady supply of workers. This became known as the Slater, or Rhode Island, system. Hundreds of manufacturers throughout New England and the Mid-Atlantic states followed Slater's example and mode of operation.

As technology progressed during the early nineteenth century, another factory form, known as the Lowell system, emerged within the textile industry. In 1813 American industrialist Francis Cabot Lowell (1775–1817) introduced the use of water-power looms at his Boston Manufacturing Company in Waltham, Massachusetts. Created in 1785 by British minister, poet, and inventor Edmund Cartwright (1743–1823), the power loom automated the weaving process, which previously had to be outsourced to individual weavers working from their homes. Lowell's implementation of the power loom in his mills centralized the spinning of yarn and the weaving of

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The United States is a global leader in cotton production. This photo shows cotton stored in modules, awaiting ginning, which separates the cotton fibers from the seeds.

The United States is a global leader in cotton production. This photo shows cotton stored in modules, awaiting ginning, which separates the cotton fibers from the seeds. DAVID SUCSY/GETTY IMAGES

cloth under one roof. The majority of employees working on the looms were unmarried young women; they proved better able to operate the complicated machines than children. The women often lived in boarding houses built by the company. Due to the large-scale, incorporated nature of these ventures, often characterized by professional management (as opposed to one owner-manager of the mill), historians have typically labeled the Lowell system as the first form of big business in the United States. Because the Lowell mills could produce more than smaller factories operating under the Slater system, Lowell employees made almost 50 cents per day, while women and girls employed in other mills throughout New England, particularly in Rhode Island, made roughly 33 cents per day.

In 1829 Great Britain forbade the United States from trading with British colonies in the Caribbean. This reduced U.S. foreign exports and hurt many of the country's industrial sectors, which contributed to a general economic downturn. The textile industry responded to decreasing profits by cutting employees' wages. In 1834, after experiencing a 25 percent wage decrease, more than 800 young women in the Lowell mills went on strike.

This was one of the first forms of collective action taken by industrial workers. In response, mill owners hired French, Canadian, Italian, and Irish workers to replace the native-born labor force. Disputes between labor and management over the employment of immigrant workers resulted in more strikes and riots during the 1840s. These conditions, combined with the economic depression of 1836–44, weakened the U.S. textile industry, and labor won few victories during these years.

For much of the nineteenth century the Northeast was the center of U.S. textile production; cotton, wool, linen, and thread output in this area steadily increased over the decades. In the 1880s, however, cotton mills became the symbol of the New South, and mill towns sprang up in the Piedmont region from Virginia to Georgia and into Alabama. Textile mill owners in New England started establishing locations in the South to take advantage of fewer labor laws and cheaper labor. Small firms focused on small-scale production and paternalistic practices by the owners, similar to the approach used by Slater years earlier. Mill agents and superintendents controlled these Southern mill towns, with the company providing jobs, houses, food, clothing, and goods. The Page 1323  |  Top of Articlework force, which was mostly white, was drawn from the countryside, and conditions were harsh. Attempts were made in the 1880s and 1890s to organize Southern mill workers, but strikes were ineffective due to the generally poor conditions of the national economy.

In the early twentieth century conditions in the textile industry continued to be precarious, particularly in the North. In 1912 and 1913 the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW)—which was composed of textile and other factory workers—organized major strikes in Patterson, New Jersey, and Lawrence, Massachusetts. However, labor remained unable to make a major impact: if labor grew too powerful in one area, the mills simply moved to another location with cheaper labor. The introduction of synthetic fibers such as nylon and rayon also affected the industry, as fashion designers—and ultimately consumers—began choosing these new, less expensive fabrics for their clothing and other textiles. In addition, there was increasing international competition—particularly from Japan. Many U.S. manufacturers responded by shutting down production or moving south. By the 1920s New England textile towns had fallen into a depression.

The U.S. economic collapse known as the Great Depression (1929–39) effectively removed the textile industry from a central place in U.S. manufacturing. During World War II (1939–45) the industry experienced a brief boost in profits as the need increased for domestic production of goods related to the war effort, including parachutes, nets, and uniforms. New mills emerged to fill the void left by those that had closed, and existing mills were able to hire more workers. After the war ended, however, the industry resumed its decline. Between 1950 and 1960 more than 400,000 textile workers lost their jobs, and nearly 700 U.S. textile mills closed. The availability of cheap imports began to replace domestic textile manufacturing. In 1973 more than 2.4 million people were employed within the textile and apparel industry; 10 years later the number had decreased to less than 2 million. The textile industry was able to remain a player in the South's manufacturing sector during the 1980s, when almost 75 percent of U.S. textile workers were employed in Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and South Carolina.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, in an effort to combat the import of foreign textiles and protect domestic production, textile manufacturers pushed the government for stricter import controls. Several textile import restriction bills were passed by the U.S. Congress, but both President Ronald Reagan (in office 1981–89) and George H. W. Bush (in office 1989–93) vetoed the bills because such legislation conflicted with the nation's longstanding policy of lowering global trade barriers. By the late 1990s the number of textile and apparel workers had dropped below 1.5 million as more mills were shuttered. Many textile factories struggling to survive had begun outsourcing production to countries such as Mexico, Pakistan, and China, all of which had fewer labor laws and cheaper labor. During the early twenty-first century inexpensive imports and globalization continued to displace textiles produced in the United States. By 2012 fewer than 400,000 people worked in the industry, and the majority of U.S. mills were closed.


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Source Citation   (MLA 8th Edition)
"Textile Industry (Cotton)." Gale Encyclopedia of U.S. Economic History, edited by Thomas Riggs, 2nd ed., vol. 3, Gale, 2015, pp. 1321-1323. Gale Virtual Reference Library, Accessed 23 Aug. 2019.

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3611000899

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