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Father Of Our Factory System

July 2024
16min read

Young Samuel Slater smuggled a cotton mill out of England—in his head—and helped start America’s Industrial Revolution

Feats of memory, particularly of the kind of memory derided as “photographic”—Tor all the cornucopias of wealth they sometimes pour over television contestants—are looked down on in modern limes, but they have their role in history. Consider, for example, the story of Samuel Slater. It would be impolite tu call him a spy, lor he would not have considered himself one. Furthermore, he was a man of peace. Yet in his own time this cotton spinner’s apprentice achieved with his prodigious memory an effect as great as or greater than any successful military espionage has brought about in our own. For he successfully transplanted the infant Industrial Revolution, which was in many ways an English monopoly, across an ocean to a new country.

To understand Slater’s feat, one must look back to the economic situation of England and America in the days directly after the Colonies had achieved their independence. If Dritain no longer ruled her former colonies, she clung tenaciously to her trade with them. Thanks to her flourishing new textile industry, she was able to sell large quantities of cotton goods in the United States at prices so low there was little incentive left for making cloth over here by the old-fashioned hand methods. To maintain this favorable dependency as long as possible, England went to fantastic lengths to guard the secrets that had mechanized lier cotton industry, and so effective were these measures that America might well have continued solely as an agricultural nation for years, had it not been for Samuel Slater.

Slater was born in ijliB on Ins family’s properly, Holly House, in Derbyshire, England. His lather, William Slater, was an educated, independent farmer and timber merchant, the dose friend and neighbor of Jedediah Strutt, successively farmer, textile manufacturer, and partner of England’s famous inventor. Sir Richard Arkwright, whose spinning frame had revolutionized the manufacture of cotton yarn. Three years alter Samuel Slater’s birth, Strutt had financed Arkwright’s fat lory at Cromford—the world’s earliest authentic cotton mill—where water power replaced humans and animals in moving the machinery, and where the whole operation of spinning yarn could be accomplished for the first lime automatically under one roof. Within five years Arkwriglu’s mills were cmploying over 5,000 workers, and England’s factory system was launched.

It was in this atmosphere of industrial revolution that young Slater grew up. He showed signs of his future mechanical bent at a tender age by making himself a polished steel spindle with which to help wind worsted for his mother, and whenever he had the chance, he would walk over to nearby Cromford or Helper on ihe Derweni River to see the cotton mills which Strutt and Arkwright owned. In 1782 Strult began to erect a large hosiery factory at Milford, a mile from the Slater property, and he asked William Slater’s permission to engage his eldest son as clerk. Slater, who had noticed the ability and inclinations of his younger son, Samuel, recommended him instead, observing that he not only “wrote well and was gocxl at figures” but was also of a decided mechanical bent.

Thus, at the age of fourteen, Samuel Slater went to live and work with Strutt. When William Slater died shortly afterward, in 1783, young Samuel Slater signed his own indenture to learn cotton spinning as an apprentice in Strutt’s factory until the age of 21.

During the early days of his term the boy became so engrossed in the business that he would go for six months without seeing his family, despite the fact that they lived only a mile away, and he would frequently spend his only free clay, Sunday, experimenting alone on machinery. In those clavs millowners had to build all their own machinery, and .Slater acquired valuable experience in its design, as well as its operation, and in the processes of spinning yarn. Even before completing his term of indenture he was made superintendent of Strutt’s new hosiery mill.

But Slater had become concerned about the chances for an independent career in England. Arkwright’s patents having expired, factories had sprung up every where, and Slater could see that to launch out on his own he would need more and more capital to stay ahead of the technical improvements constantly taking place. His attention had been drawn to the United States by an article in a Philadelphia paper saying that a bounty of £100 had been granted’ by the Pennsylvania legislature to a man who had designed a textile machine. Young Slater made up his mind that he would go to the United States and introduce the Arkwright methods there. As his first step, even before his term with Strutt expired, Slater obtained his employer’s permission to supervise the erection of the new cotton works Arkwright was then starting, and from this experience he gained valuable knowledge for the future.

There were, it was true, grave risks to consider. Britain still strictly forbade the export of textile machinery or the designs for it. With Krance entering a period of revolution which might unsettle the economy of the Old World, it was even more important that the large American market be safeguarded for Hritish commerce. As a result, the Arkwright machines and techniques were nowhere in use in America at the time, and various attempts—in Pennsylvania, Massachusetts. Connecticut. Maryland, and South Carolina—to produce satislactory cotton textiles had borne little fruit. Without Arkwright’s inventions it was impossible to make cotton yarn strong enough for the warps needed in hand-loom weaving.

Enterprising Yankees undertook all kinds of ingenious attempts to smuggle out modern machines or drawings. Even the American minister to France was involved in some of them: machinery would be quietly purchased in England, dismantled, and sent in pieces to our Paris legation for transshipment to the United States in boxes labeled “glassware” or “farm implements.” British agents and the Royal Navy managed to intercept almost all such shipments, however, and skilled workers who attempted to slip away with drawings or models were apprehended on the high seas and brought back. Passengers leaving England for American ports were thoroughly searched by customs agents before boarding ship.

Slater knew of these handicaps and determined to take along nothing in writing save his indenture papers. Even these he was careful to conceal. As the time of his departure drew near he did not reveal his plans even to his family, telling his mother only that he was taking a trip to London. On September 1, 1789, in the warm sunlight of late summer, he cast one last look at the pleasant meadows and orchards of Holly House and set off through the lovely Derbyshire countryside.

In London he decided to spend a few days sight-seeing, inasmuch as this was to be his first and last visit to the capital. Then, alter posting a letter home revealing his intended journey, he boarded ship for New York, assuming the guise of a farmer to escape detection. The role was not difficult for the son of a Derbyshire yeoman, and except for the hidden indenture there was nothing Io link the young man with the cotton textile industry. But he was carrying with him in a very remarkable memory the complete details of a modern cotton mill.

After a passage of 66 days, Slater’s ship reached New York. He had originally intended to go to Philadelphia, but when he learned of the existence of the New York Manufacturing Company on Vesey Street in downtown Manhattan, he showed his indenture and got a job there instead. The company had recently been organized to make yarns and cloth, but the yarn was linen and the machinery, hand-operated, was copied from antiquated English models. This was a far cry from the factories Slater had supervised in Derbyshire, and he was unimpressed.

Fortunately, about this time, the newcomer happened to meet the captain of a packet sailing between New York and Providence. Rhode Island, and from him learned of the interest in textile manufacturing shown by a wealthy, retired merchant of Providence, Moses Hrown, later to become one of the founders of Brown University. A converted Quaker and a man of large imagination and business acumen, Brown had invested considerable cash in two rough, hand-operated spinning frames and a crude carding machine as well as in a couple of obsolete “jennies.” lint all his attempts to produce cotton yarns had ended in failure, and he could find little use for his expensive machinery. Such was the situation when he received a letter from Slater:

New York, December 2d, 1789

S IR ,—

A few days ago I was informed that you wanted a manager of cotton spinning , etc., in which business I Halter myself that I can give the greatest satisfaction, in making machinery, making good yarn, either for stockings or twist , as any that is made in England: as I have had opportunity, and an oversight of Sir Richard Arkwright’s works, and in Mr. Strutt’s mill upwards of eight years. If you are not provided for, should be glad to serve yon: though I am in the New York manufactory, and have been for three weeks since I arrived from England. But we have but one card, two machines , two spinning jennies, which I think are not worth using. My intention is to erect a perpetual card and spinning . (Meaning the Arkwrighl patents). If you please to drop a line respecting the amount of encouragement you wish to give, by favor of Captain Brown, you will much oblige, sir, your most obedient humble servant.


N.B.—Please to direct to me at No. 37, Golden Hill, New York.

Slater’s letter fired the shrewd Quaker’s imagination, and he hastened to reply, declaring that he and his associates were “destitute of a person acquainted with water-frame spinning” and offering Slater all the profits I’roni successful operation of their machinery over and above interest on the capital invested and depreciation charges. His invitation concluded: “If the present situation does not come up to what thon wishes, and, from thy knowledge of the business, can be ascertained of the advantages of the mills, so as to induce thee to come ami work ours, and have the credit as well as the advantage of perfecting the first water-mill in America, we should be glad to engage thy care so long as they can be made profitable to both, and we can agree.”

Tempted and flattered, and assuming that the Providence operation needed only an experienced overseer to make it a success, Slater decided to accept. He took a boat in January, 1790, reached Providence on the eighteenth of the month, and immediately called on Moses Brown.

The two men were in striking contrast. Slater, only 21, was nearly six feet tall and powerfully built, with ruddy complexion and fair hair. Moses Brown, in his soft, broad-brimmed Quaker hat, was well past middle age, of small stature, with a pair of bright, bespectacled eyes set in a benevolent face framed by flowing gray locks. Satisfied from a glance at the Strutt indenture that his young caller was bona fide, Brown took Slater in a sleigh to the little hamlet of Pawtucket. a community consisting of a doxcn or so cottages on both sides of the Dlackstone River, just outside Providence. They stopped at a small clothier’s shop on the river’s bank, close by a bridge which linked Rhode Island and Massachusetts. Here was assembled Brown’s ill-assorted machinery.

Slater took one look and shook his head, his disappointment obvious. Compared to Strutt’s splendid mill this was almost a caricature. He spoke bluntly: “These will not do; they are good for nothing in their present condition, nor can they be made to answer.” Brown urged him to reconsider, to give the machines a try, hut the young Englishman was not to he persuaded. At last, in desperation, the old merchant threw Slater a challenge:

“Thee said thee could make machinery. Why not do it?”

Reluctantly, Slater finally agreed to build a new mill, using such parts of the old as would answer, but only on one condition: that Krown provide a trusted mechanic to make the machinery which Slater would design and that the man be put under bond neither to disclose the nature of the work nor to copy it.

“If I don’t make as good yarn as they do in England,” Slater declared, “I will have nothing for my services, but will throw the whole of what I have attempted over the bridge!” Brown agreed, arranging in addition to pay Slater’s living expenses.

Then the old merchant took his visitor to the cottage of Oziel Wilkinson, an ingenious ironmaster, with whom Slater could board. Wilkinson, also a Quaker, operated a small anchor forge using water power from the river, and there he turned out ships’ chandlery, shovels, scythes, and other tools. As the young Englishman entered the Wilkinson home, his host’s younger daughter shyly scampered out of sight, but Hannah, the elder, lingered in the doorway to look at the stranger. Slater fell in love with her. (Within two years they would be married, and Hannah Slater would later acquire fame in her own right as the discoverer of cotton sewing thread, which she first produced from the fine yarns her husband manufactured.) fn the Wilkinson household young Slater found new parents who helped him overcome his homesickness and encouraged him in the first difficult months.

Part of that winter he spent experimenting with Moses Brown’s crude carding machine, and he was able to improve the quality of cotton fleece it turned out. This, when spun by hand on the jennies, produced a better yarn, but one which was still too weak and uneven to be used as warp in the hand-weaving of cloth. Slater was downhearted; he realized that he must build everything from scratch.

The rest of the winter he spent assembling the necessary materials for constructing the Arkwright machines and processes. He lacked even the tools with which to make the complicated equipment, and he was forced to make many of them himself before any building could commence. Furthermore, without models to copy, he had to work out his own computations for all measurements. One of the most ingenious elements of the Arkwright inventions was the variation in speeds of various parts of the machines. Mathematical tables for these were not available anywhere save in England; Slater had to rely on his own extraordinary memory. Nevertheless, by April, 1790, he was ready to sign a firm partnership agreement to build two carding machines, a drawing and roving frame, and two spinning frames, all to be run automatically by water power. He was to receive one dollar a day as wages, half-ownership in the machinery he built, and, in addition, one-half of the mill’s net profits after it was in operation. Moses Brown had turned over the supervision of his textile investments to William Almy, his son-in-law, and Smith Brown, his cousin, and these two men became Slater’s new partners.

Now, behind shuttered windows in the little clothier’s building on the riverbank, young Slater began to design the first successful cotton mill in America. As he drew the plans with chalk on wood, Sylvanus Brown, an experienced local wheelwright, cut out the parts from sturdy oak and fastened them together with wooden dowels. Young David Wilkinson, Slater’s future brother-in-law and like his father a skilled ironworker, forged shafts for the spindles, rollers for the frames, and teeth in the cards which Pliny Earle, of Leicester, Massachusetts, prepared for the carding machines. Before iron gearwheels and card rims could be made, Slater and Wilkinson had to go to Mansfield, Massachusetts, to find suitable castings. By autumn, working sixteen hours a day, Slater had more than fulfilled his agreement: he had built not two but three carding machines, as well as the drawing and roving frame and the two spinning frames. At last he was ready for a trial.

Taking up a handful of raw cotton, Slater fed it into the carding machine, cranked by hand for the occasion by an elderly Negro. This engine was one of the most important elements of the Arkwright system, for in it the raw cotton was pulled across leather cards studded with small iron teeth which drew out and straightened the fibers, laid them side by side, and formed them into a long, narrow fleece called an “end,” or “sliver.” This was then placed on the drawing and roving frame to be further stretched, smoothed, and then twisted before being spun into yarn on the spinning frame. Before the cotton was run through the cards, the fibers lay in every direction, and it was essential that the carding be successful if the “end” was to be suitable for the subsequent steps. But when Slater fed the test cotton into his machine it only piled up on the cards.

Slater was greatly perplexed and dismayed. The machinery had already taken a long time to make, and his partners were becoming impatient. Slater sensed their growing doubts and knew he would forfeit their confidence if this first trial failed. Yet he had nobody who could check on the correctness of his designs. The Wilkinson family later described his anxiety. Standing before their fireplace, he sighed deeply, and they saw tears in his eyes. Mrs. Wilkinson, noting his distress, asked, “Art thou sick, Samuel?” Slater answered sadly, “If I am frustrated in my carding machine, they will think me an impostor.”

After a number of sleepless nights, Slater determined that the trouble arose from a faulty translation of his design into reality, for Pliny Earle had never before made cards of that description. Slater decided that the teeth stood too far apart, and that under pressure of the raw cotton they fell back from their proper places instead of standing firm and combing the cotton as it moved past. He pointed out the defect to Earle, and together, using a discarded piece of grindstone, they beat the teeth into the correct shape. Another test was made and the machine worked satisfactorily.

The final stage was now at hand. Almost a year had passed in preparation for this moment. Would the machinery operate automatically by water power? That was the miracle of the Arkwright techniques, which gave them their name, “perpetual spinning.” A connection was made to the small water wheel which had been used by the clothier in whose little shop Slater’s new machinery now stood. It was deep winter, and the Blackstone River was frozen over, so that Slater was obliged to crawl down and break up the ice around the wheel. When the wheel turned over, his machinery began to hum.

On December 20, 1790, Samuel Slater’s mill produced the first cotton yarn ever made automatically in America. It was strong and of good quality, suitable for sheetings and other types of heavy cotton goods; soon Slater was turning out yarn fine enough to be woven into shirtings, checks, ginghams, and stockings, all of which had until then been imported from Europe. Good cotton cloth woven at home from English yarn had cost from forty to fifty cents per yard, but soon Slater brought the cost down as low as nine cents. For the remainder of that first winter, unable to get anyone else to do the job, Slater spent two or three hours each morning before breakfast breaking the river ice to start the water wheel. Daily it left him soaking wet and numb from exposure; his health was affected for the rest of his life.

The little mill started with four employees, but by the end of one month Slater had nine hands at work, most of them children. In this he was following the practice in England, where entire families were employed in the mills. Early English millowners had found children more agile and dexterous than adults, their quick fingers and small hands tending the moving parts more easily. Slater, like other pioneer mill-owners dealing with small working forces, was able to maintain a paternalistic attitude toward the young persons in his charge; until the coming of the factory system and absentee ownership, child labor was not the evil it later became. Slater introduced a number of social customs he had learned in the Arkwright and Strutt mills. For his workers he built the first Sunday school in New England and there provided instruction in reading, writing, and arithmetic, as well as in religion. Later he promoted common day schools for his mill hands, often paying the teachers’ wages out of his own pocket.

Proudly Slater sent a sample of his yarn back to Strutt in Derbyshire, who pronounced it excellent. Yet Americans hesitated to use it, preferring traditional hand-spun linen yarn or machine-made cotton yarn imported from England. Within four months Moses Brown was writing to the owners of a little factory in Beverly, Massachusetts, run by a relative, proposing a joint petition to Congress: Why not raise the duties on imported cotton goods? Some of the proceeds could be given to southern cotton farmers as a bounty for upgrading their raw cotton, and some could be presented to the infant textile industry as a subsidy.

Next, Brown arranged to transmit to Alexander Hamilton, secretary of the treasury and already known as a supporter of industry, a sample of Slater’s yarn and of the first cotton check made from it, along with various suggestions for encouraging the new textile manufactures. He reported to Hamilton that within a year machinery and mills could be erected to supply enough yarn for the entire nation. Two months later, when Hamilton presented to Congress his famous Report on Manufactures , he mentioned “the manufactory at Providence [which] has the merit of being the first in introducing into the United States the celebrated cotton mill.”

By the end of their first ten months of operations, Almy, Brown & Slater had sold almost 8,000 yards of cloth produced by home weavers from their yarns. After twenty months the factory was turning out more yarn than the weavers in its immediate vicinity could use; a surplus of 2,000 pounds had piled up. Desperately, Moses Brown appealed to Slater, “Thee must shut down thy gates or thee will spin all my farms into cotton yarn.”

It was at this point that the full force of Slater’s revolutionary processes began to become apparent. To dispose of their surplus the partners began to employ agents in Salem, New York, Baltimore, and Philadelphia, and so encouraging were the sales that it became obvious to them that their potential market was enormous. In 1791, therefore, they closed the little mill and built nearby a more efficient factory designed to accommodate all the processes of yarn manufacturing under one roof. It was opened in 1793. (Now the Old Slater Mill Museum, the building still stands today.)

As of December, 1792, the partners’ ledgers had shown a credit in Slater’s name of £882, representing his share of the proceeds from the sale of yarn spun by his mill. From then on both he and the infant industry he had helped to create prospered rapidly. The factory was no longer a neighborhood affair but sought its markets in a wider world. When the War of 1812 had ended, there were 165 mills in Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and Connecticut alone, many of them started by former employees of Slater who had gone into business for themselves. By this time Slater, too, had branched out; he owned at least seven mills, either outright or in partnership. An important mill town in Rhode Island already bore the name of Slatersville. Around three new cotton, woolen, and thread mills which he built in Massachusetts, a new textile center sprang up which became the town of Webster. Later, his far-reaching enterprise carried him to Amoskeag Falls on the Merrimac River; in 1822 he bought an interest in a small mill already established there, and in 1826 erected a new mill which became the famous Amoskeag Manufacturing Company, hub of an even greater textile center—Manchester, New Hampshire.

President James Monroe had come to Pawtucket in 1817 to visit the “Old Mill,” which was then the largest cotton mill in the nation, containing 5,170 spindles. It had started with 72. Slater himself conducted his distinguished visitor through the factory and proudly showed him his original spinning frame, still running after 27 years. Some years later another President, Andrew Jackson, visited Pawtucket, and when he was told that Slater was confined to his house by rheumatism brought on from that first winter of breaking the ice on the Blackstone, Old Hickory went to pay his respects to the invalid. Courteously addressing Slater as “the Father of American Manufactures,” General Jackson said:

“I understand you 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 which have made so many happy, by a lucrative employment.”

Slater thanked his visitor politely and with the dry wit for which he was well known replied:

“Yes, Sir, I suppose that I gave out the psalm, and they have been singing to the tune ever since.”

By the time he died in 1835, Slater had become generally recognized as the country’s leading textile industrialist. In addition to his cotton and woolen manufactures, he had founded a bank and a textile-machinery factory and had helped promote several turnpikes, including a road from Providence to Pawtucket and another from Worcester, Massachusetts, to Norwich, Connecticut. At his death Moses Brown, who survived him, estimated Slater’s estate at $1,200,000—a remarkable achievement in those early days of the nineteenth century.

The industry Slater had founded 45 years earlier had shown phenomenal growth by the year he died. In 1790 the estimated value of all American manufactured goods barely exceeded $20,000,000, and the domestic cotton crop was about 2,000,000 pounds. By 1835 cotton manufactured goods alone were valued in excess of $47,000,000, and that single industry was consuming almost 80,000,000 pounds of cotton annually. Few men in our history have lived to see such tremendous economic changes wrought in one lifetime by their own efforts.

The social changes which Samuel Slater witnessed and helped to further were even more far-reaching. When he arrived in 1789 America was a nation of small farmers and artisans. By the time he died, and to a considerable extent because of his accomplishments, many artisans had become mill hands.

Three years after Slater’s mill began operations, a young Yale graduate named Eli Whitney, visiting a Georgia plantation, devised the cotton gin, and this, in combination with English cotton mills and American ones like Slater’s in New England, enormously stimulated the cotton economy (and the slave-labor system) of the South. Simultaneously, and paradoxically, Slater and Whitney helped fasten on the North an industrial economy which would defeat the South when the long-standing economic conflict between the two sections flared out at last in civil war.

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