Samuel Slater’s Textile Mill

A few years after the end of the Revolutionary War, a British textile apprentice named Samuel Slater immigrated to the US. Unknown to anyone, Slater was breaking the law and risking hanging.


Arkwright spinning machine

After gaining its independence in 1783, the fledgling United States faced an economic crisis. As colonies, the Americans had been dependent upon imports from England to supply many of their most basic necessities, such as clothing. But with those economic ties now severed, the United States, which was a largely agrarian society, was now forced to rely on its own resources, and desperately needed to build up its own manufacturing base. In response, the US formed a committee under Benjamin Franklin called the Pennsylvania Society for the Encouragement of Manufactures and Useful Arts, which offered cash prizes for inventions or techniques that would help establish and expand an American industrial base.

One of the areas that Franklin was most interested in was textiles. For thousands of years, cotton had been turned into cloth by hand. It was a long and tedious process. First the raw cotton balls had to be painstakingly cleaned of seeds and debris. Then the fibers had to be fluffed up by being rubbed between two wire brushes, a process known as “carding”. Yarn was then produced from the carded fibers. Usually this was done by hand, using a spindle. Wealthier households might be able to afford a spinning wheel. The finished cotton yarn could then be loaded into a loom and woven into cloth.

When the Industrial Revolution sparked in Europe in the 18th century, the textile industry was transformed. A series of mechanical devices appeared which would clean cotton, card it, and spin it into yarn. At first these were cranked by hand: later they were powered by water wheels. A single machine could now produce several times as much product as could ever be done by hand. In water-powered mills, a number of workers operating a series of machines could turn out finished cotton yarn at a rate that astounded everyone. Able to produce huge amounts of cloth quickly and cheaply, the British textile industry came to dominate the world.

Although the United States had extensive cotton plantations across the south, it did not have any large-scale ability to spin this material into cloth. Instead, virtually all of America’s cotton was being shipped to England with the finished cloth then shipped back. The UK’s fabulously wealthy textile mills, in turn, were based on complex machinery that was driven by water power. And England, recognizing that its economic might depended on its technological know-how, had passed strict laws to protect its position of dominance, making it illegal to transfer technology to foreign countries (as the United States now was), and forbidding any British mechanics or skilled machine operators from leaving the UK to work elsewhere.

In the cotton mill town of Milford, England, however, word of the American offer reached a young man named Samuel Slater. Since the age of 14, Slater had been apprenticed to a cotton-spinning factory owned by Jedediah Strutt. Within a few years, Slater had become the plant’s supervisor, and he knew the construction and workings of all the plant machinery, including carding, drawing, and roving machines.

Most importantly, Slater knew how to build an Arkwright water-powered cotton-spinning machine, designed and built by Strutt’s business partner Richard Arkwright. The most efficient spinning machine of its time, the Arkwright, which automatically turned cotton fibers into yarn for making cloth, was state of the art technology and the basis for England’s immense and profitable textile industry. The Americans, Slater knew, would pay well for such knowledge. It was, it could be said, one of the earliest examples of “industrial espionage”.

In 1789, at the age of 21, Slater left for the United States. He knew full well that what he was doing would be considered “treason” by the British government, and he would surely be executed for it.  To protect himself from the English authorities, Slater was traveling in disguise under a false name. Further, he was not carrying any written blueprints or machine plans—instead, over the past few years he had carefully memorized them all and was carrying the complete design around inside his head.

After arriving in New York City, Slater made contact with Moses Brown, who owned a small textile mill in Pawtucket, RI, where the Blackstone River provided convenient water power. Brown had been trying for years to construct his own version of the Arkwright spinning machine, based on what little information he could glean about how it worked. He invited Slater to Rhode Island.

Slater immediately saw that Brown’s machine was unworkable, and began reconstructing the design from memory. By 1793, working with local engineer Sylvanus Brown and machinist David Wilkinson, Slater had completed a textile mill in Pawtucket powered by the water wheel from an old flour mill, the first of its kind in the US, and formed a business partnership with Brown. He also married Wilkinson’s daughter Hannah. She in turn proved herself to be Slater’s equal as a mechanical genius—she invented a machine for twisting two-ply sewing thread and became the first American woman ever to be awarded a patent.

With their pirated Arkwright machinery, Slater and Brown quickly became rich. They opened a second mill in 1798 and then a third. Workers flooded in to Pawtucket to learn for themselves how Slater’s machinery worked, then left to establish mills of their own. By 1809 there were 62 water-powered cotton mills scattered across New England. Meanwhile, word of Slater’s success had filtered back to England, where he quickly earned a new nickname: “Slater the Traitor”.

In addition to his mechanical know-how, Slater also brought with him a working knowledge of how the British mill system was organized for the greatest efficiency and profit. It would become known as the “Rhode Island System”. The factory floor was divided amongst tasks in an assembly-line fashion. Nearly all of the workers were women and children, who worked for lower wages. Raw cotton arrived in 500-pound bales which were ripped apart by a machine called a “breaker”. If necessary, the cotton was cleaned in a Whitney-type cotton gin, then was run through an automatic carding machine. The Arkwright spinning machine completed the process by twisting the cotton fibers into yarn and wrapping the finished product onto bobbins.

But it was not just the machine work that was carefully orchestrated in the “Rhode Island System”—the workers themselves were carefully controlled. The system’s showcase was “Slatersville”, a large mill complex built in 1803. In effect, it was a company town, designed from the ground up for the specific purpose of producing cotton yarn as quickly and cheaply as possible. The Slater mill owned all of the roominghouses where the workers lived, and collected rent from them. The mill also owned all the stores, where factory workers used company scrip to buy food, clothing and whatever else they needed from the company stores. “Undesirable” establishments, such as saloons or gambling halls, were strictly forbidden. The mill owners paternalistically managed every aspect of the workers’ lives, from their churches to their schools.

The “Rhode Island System” was copied by mill owners elsewhere (and by other industries as well). By 1900 the cotton-mill industry would dominate the economy of American cities from Maine to Delaware. The textile industry led directly to industrialization and urbanization, as a massive wave of immigrants arrived from Europe to work in the mills. This in turn would lead to the labor union movement and provoke some of the defining economic and political conflicts of the Gilded Age and Robber Baron America.

The original Slater Mill in Pawtucket continued to produce cotton yarn until 1895. In 1921, the Slater Mill Association, a nonprofit group, bought the mill and began restoring it to its 1835 configuration. Today, the mill is run as a museum, and illustrates the early history of the textile industry. Guided tours take visitors to the house that Sylvanus Brown lived in (which has been moved and reassembled here), the waterwheel, the machine shop used by Wilkinson, and the textile floor of the Slater Mill.

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