Industrial Revolution

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Editor: Paul Finkelman
Date: 2006
Encyclopedia of the New American Nation
Publisher: Charles Scribner's Sons
Document Type: Topic overview
Pages: 4
Content Level: (Level 5)
Lexile Measure: 1460L

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The "industrial revolution" is a term coined in the nineteenth century to describe the rapid rise of the modern factory system and the related economic, social, and cultural effects. It is a phrase that to some extent began to fall out of favor in the latter part of the twentieth century as the factory no longer seemed quite so central to western society and as historical research began to question whether the rise of the factory system was quite as revolutionary and rapid as it once seemed. Nevertheless, it remains a useful concept for understanding the great changes of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.


The concept is probably most applicable to late-eighteenth-century England, where the rapidity of the onset of industrialization, particularly in the textile and metal industries, was very much remarked upon by contemporaries. The crux of this revolution was in the transformation from handicraft work performed at home or in an artisan's shop to factory work, performed by wage laborers and characterized by a highly developed division of labor and reliance upon automated machinery, such as the spinning jenny of James Hargreaves (d. 1778), the water frame (an automated spinning machine) of Richard Arkwright (1732–1792), and the power loom of Edmund Cartwright (1743–1823). Initially, this machinery was most frequently powered by hand or water, but as the century progressed, the steam engine of James Watt (1736–1819) became increasingly important. While undoubtedly innovative, these developments built upon a long history of textile manufacture in England reaching back at least to the Norman Conquest of the eleventh century. The seventeenth century saw a marked rise in interest in manufacturing by so-called projectors, who began all sorts of new initiatives. By the first half of the eighteenth century, England had entered a transitional phase variously described by historians as an age of manufactures or as protoindustrialization, during which manufacturing began to be performed much more widely and on a broader scale in large, factorylike settings that, nonetheless, had not yet attained the extent of mechanization and division of labor that characterized the industrial revolution.

The United States lacked this long engagement with manufacturing. Before the American Revolution, most colonists remained content to make money through agriculture and commerce while importing manufactures from Britain. Furthermore, mercantilist legislation such as the Wool Act (1699), Hat Act (1732), and Iron Act (1750) made many forms of large-scale manufacturing illegal. After the Revolution, however, Americans became very interested in ending their dependence on British manufactures for political and economic reasons. Without a rich manufacturing heritage they found themselves at a disadvantage. Often the solution was to rely on skilled immigrants and to steal British technology. Immigrants such as the German glassmaker John F. Amelung (1741–1798), the British cloth dyer JohnPage 222  |  Top of Article Hewson (1744–1821), and most famously Samuel Slater (1768–1835), who smuggled plans for Arkwright's machinery out of England, brought established European technologies to the new nation.

Americans also developed some innovations of their own. They were particularly adept at creating automated machinery, a necessity in a country where labor costs remained relatively high. Oliver Evans of Delaware invented an automated gristmill (1784) that allowed Americans to grind wheat into flour with very little human labor. Jacob Perkins's nail-making machine (1795) automated that process and rapidly drove the price of nails down by more than 60 percent. David Wilkinson cleverly automated the machine shop at Slater's Rhode Island mill, creating instruments such as a power-driven lathe (1794). By the early nineteenth century, precision machine tools allowed Eli Whitney (1765–1825) to develop his system of interchangeable parts, which came to be known as the American System of Manufactures and which opened the door to mass production.

While industrialization was relatively late and derivative in the United States, demand for manufactures was quite high from the colonial period onward. From the first seventeenth-century settlements, Anglo-Americans were highly disposed to purchase fine manufactured goods on the world market, and by the eighteenth century many were avid participants in a consumer revolution that was connected to the increasingly widespread availability of manufactured goods from industrializing England. Additionally, well before the onset of industrialization, Americans were participating in what has been described as an "industrious revolution" characterized by increased household production of agricultural and manufactured goods by families hoping to improve their income in order to purchase new manufactures such as inexpensive, factory-made china. Thus, developments that once were described as effects of the industrial revolution—increased consumption and increased productivity—are now seen to have preceded industrialization in the United States and Europe.


The textile industry followed the industrial revolution model more closely than any other early national American economic sector. Before the American Revolution, virtually all domestic-made textiles were manufactured in the home. With the onset of the Revolutionary crisis and the demonization of British manufactures during the American boycotts, Patriots attempted to construct textile factories in Philadelphia, Boston, and New York City. The Philadelphia project, commonly known as the American Manufactory (1775), was the most successful. It employed several hundred workers, many of them women, to produce wool, linen, and cotton cloth before disbanding due to the British occupation of Philadelphia in 1777. Many new textile factories emerged in the decade following the war in the mid-Atlantic and New England states, including the famous Almy, Brown, and Slater mill (1790) in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. While these early operations all anticipated the modern factory in employing some automated machinery, usually powered by water, they also continued earlier traditions of hiring large numbers of outworkers, usually (although not exclusively) women who spun thread or sewed fabric in their own homes.

Between 1808 and 1830 the textile sector began to industrialize in earnest, prompted in large part by difficulties in importing products during President Thomas Jefferson's embargo (1807–1809) and the War of 1812 (1812–1815). One of the first and largest projects was the heavily mechanized Union Manufacturing Company established in Baltimore in 1808 and initially fitted with between six and eight thousand spindles. It was followed by a number of other sizable textile mills clustered in Baltimore, New England, and western New York. The largest and most famous were the Waltham-Lowell factories in Massachusetts, founded in 1812 by the so-called Boston Associates using technology pirated from England by the merchant Francis Cabot Lowell (1775–1817) and modified by Paul Moody (1779–1831), a skilled mechanic.

The Boston Associates' establishments were the first fully automated, vertically integrated factories in the United States. Their factories at Lowell performed all the functions of textile manufacturing—spinning, weaving, finishing, printing, and packaging—under a single roof housing impressive amounts of water-powered machinery. By 1836 the Boston Associates had invested more than $6.2 million in these establishments.

Although immensely important in the development of American industry, the Lowell pattern was not the only one followed by early national industrialists. In Philadelphia, manufacturers created a different model that came to be known as "proprietary capitalism." Unlike their corporate counterparts in Massachusetts, these individual proprietors invested in numerous smaller, specialized textile firms that lacked the efficiencies of scale of the vertically integratedPage 223  |  Top of Article Massachusetts firms but had the advantage of flexibility, which allowed them to retool rapidly and produce only those products currently in high demand.

Other manufacturing sectors followed still different paths. Iron making was one of the few large-scale colonial industries. By 1775, America's iron foundries produced one-seventh of the world's iron, frequently relying upon the labor of enslaved African Americans. The technology and scale of this industry changed very little during the early Republic, although after 1830 a switch to anthracite coal would have important ramifications. Shoe manufacturing grew very rapidly during the same period in places such as Lynn, Massachusetts, where output rose from 100,000 pairs in 1788 to nearly 1.7 million by 1830. This increase was made possible through increased division of labor and centralization of production under the control of market-oriented merchants. Unlike the textile industry, the shoe industry underwent virtually no mechanization before 1830. Similarly, New York City became increasingly industrial despite a relative absence of mechanized factories. This pattern, sometimes called "metropolitan industrialization," was marked by relatively small manufactories composed of twenty or more workers performing traditional craft processes as wage workers, who generally had less expectation of becoming a master than in earlier generations. But metropolitan industrialization, like early industrialization generally, was difficult to define because it was characterized by diversity rather than typicality.


Although the heaviest industrialization would come later in the nineteenth century, the labor force of the United States was already showing signs of transformation in the early Republic. As late as 1810, nearly thirty times as many Americans worked in agriculture as in manufacturing. By 1840 that ratio had dropped to seven to one. Even more important, as a result of industrialization the nature of those jobs shifted. Earlier, most manufacturing workers labored in small shops within a craft system of masters, journeymen, and apprentices, with some expectation of attaining a "competency," a comfortable living as a master, by the latter stages of their careers. By 1830, laborers more frequently worked for wages within a factory or a larger shop in which the artisanal system was breaking down and in which hopes for advancement were less realistic. In short, a more clearly defined working class was now emerging.

Workers increasingly expressed dissatisfaction with the emerging labor system. In the early 1790s a number of journeymen actions—at least six in New York City alone between 1791 and 1793—protested the declining wages and loss of workplace control already developing as the craft system began to weaken. In the well-known Philadelphia cordwainers' strike of 1805, journeymen who struck against lower wages were imprisoned, charged, and convicted of conspiracy to restrain trade, thereby setting a precedent allowing courts to break up subsequent strikes as illegal conspiracies. Despite this setback, in the 1820s workers began a new phase of intense organization during which they formed workingmen's societies that called for ten-hour days and more educational opportunities for laborers. The unions of the 1820s published twenty newspapers and attracted up to 300,000 members.

Early industrialization also led to important shifts in gender roles. The Boston Associates initially employed women, many of them New England farm girls, as operatives in their mills. Although many of these young women planned to work only a short time before leaving to get married and have a family, they nonetheless came to resent their low wages, typically below those of the lowest-paid male workers, and by the 1830s they, like their male counterparts, began to strike for better pay. Even the women who remained at home saw their roles altered by early industrialization. The home had been the most important workshop for American manufacturing throughout the eighteenth century, but by 1830 home manufacturing was in precipitous decline as the factory began its ascendency. As a result, the role of middle-class women could now be increasingly directed away from producing goods and toward raising children in the more intensive fashion of the Victorian era.

Although the greatest period of immigration would not begin until the 1840s, in the years before 1830 industrialization was already attracting a steady stream of immigrants to the United States. Many early entrepreneurs such as Samuel Slater emigrated to the new nation expressly because they saw an opportunity to profit from the emerging manufacturing sector. Of the fifty-three thousand Irish immigrants arriving in Philadelphia between 1789 and 1806, an estimated 30 to 40 percent were skilled artisans and their families.

Finally, early industrialization also led to an acceleration of urbanization and the growth of the market economy. Some new mill towns quickly became urban centers. The population of Lowell, forPage 224  |  Top of Article example, ballooned from twenty-five hundred in 1826 to more than twelve thousand by 1833. Established population centers such as Philadelphia and Baltimore also grew rapidly. Because early factories were generally powered by streams and rivers, many rural areas were also affected. For example, largely agricultural Oneida County in western New York contained fourteen textile factories by 1832. Rural people there became more closely tied to markets as they purchased factory goods and sold farm goods to factory workers. More generally, the widespread availability of inexpensive manufactured items coupled with better and cheaper transportation of goods in the canal age were important factors in the great market revolution of the early nineteenth century.


Ben-Atar, Doron S. Trade Secrets: Intellectual Piracy and the Origins of American Industrial Power. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2004.

Bezis-Selfa, John. Forging America: Ironworkers, Adventurers, and the Industrious Revolution. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2004.

Dublin, Thomas. Women at Work: The Transformation of Work and Community in Lowell, Massachusetts, 1826–1860. New York: Columbia University Press, 1979.

Licht, Walter. Industrializing America: The Nineteenth Century. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995.

Mantoux, Paul. The Industrial Revolution in the Eighteenth Century. Rev. ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983.

Meyer, David R. The Roots of American Industrialization. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003.

Peskin, Lawrence A. Manufacturing Revolution: The Intellectual Origins of Early American Industry. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003.

Scranton, Philip. Proprietary Capitalism: The Textile Manufacture at Philadelphia, 1800–1885. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1983.

Lawrence A. Peskin

Source Citation

Source Citation   (MLA 8th Edition)
Peskin, Lawrence A. "Industrial Revolution." Encyclopedia of the New American Nation, edited by Paul Finkelman, vol. 2, Charles Scribner's Sons, 2006, pp. 221-224. Gale Ebooks, Accessed 19 Oct. 2019.

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3446700332

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  • Administration of Justice Act (1774),
  • American Manufactory,
  • American System of Manufactures,
  • Arkwright, Richard,
  • Boston Associates,
  • Boston Port Act (1774),
  • Britain
    • industrial revolution,
      • 2: 221
  • City growth and development,
    • industrial revolution,
      • 2: 223-224
  • Class: middle class,
    • industrial revolution,
      • 2: 223
  • Evans, Oliver,
  • Hargreaves, James,
  • Hat Act (1732),
  • Immigration and immigrants: immigrant experience,
    • industrial revolution,
      • 2: 223
  • Industrial revolution,
    • 2: 221-224
  • Inventors and inventions,
  • Iron Act (1750),
  • Iron mining and metallurgy,
    • industrial revolution,
      • 2: 223
  • Labor movement: labor organizations and strikes,
    • industrial revolution,
      • 2: 223
  • Looms, power,
  • Lowell, Francis Cabot
    • industrial revolution,
      • 2: 222
  • Lowell, Mass.
    • industrial revolution,
      • 2: 222
      • 2: 223-224
  • Massachusetts,
    • industrial revolution,
      • 2: 222
  • Massachusetts Government Act (1774),
  • Metropolitan industrialization,
  • Moody, Paul,
  • New York City,
    • industrial revolution,
      • 2: 223
  • Perkins, Jacob,
  • Philadelphia,
    • industrial revolution,
      • 2: 222-223
  • Quartering Act,
  • Shoemaking,
    • industrial revolution,
      • 2: 223
  • Slater, Samuel
    • industrial revolution,
      • 2: 221-222
      • 2: 223
  • Spinning jennies,
  • Steam power,
  • Technology,
  • Textiles manufacturing,
    • industrial revolution,
      • 2: 222-223
      • 2: 224
  • Water frames,
  • Watt, James,
  • Whitney, Eli
    • industrial revolution,
      • 2: 222
  • Wool Act (1699),
  • Work: apprenticeship,
    • industrial revolution,
      • 2: 223
  • Work: factory labor,
    • industrial revolution,
      • 2: 222-223
  • Work: women's work,
    • industrial revolution,
      • 2: 223