Examining the causes and effects of the market revolution is among the richest fields in American history.
Among the most significant effects of the market revolution was the rise of capitalism in the United States.
Individualism and competition are the core values within a capitalist society. Such values de-emphasize the importance of community or cooperation because, within a capitalist society, market transactions are assumed to occur between individuals working with their own interests in mind. Making a profit is the primary motivating interest within a capitalist society.
The rise of capitalism within the United States carried with it some positive aspects. Most notably, capitalism provided new degrees of flexibility and mobility for laborers that were previously impossible to achieve in colonial American society, which was informed by hierarchy and deference.
The rise of capitalism also had negative aspects. An individual’s pursuit for greater production or consumption could potentially weaken bonds among family members and larger groups. Most often, capitalism replaced these bonds with something else: a relationship between capital and labor. In a capitalist society, capitalists oversee the means of production, which include land, facilities, tools, and (most importantly) labor. Capitalists use that production to produce more capital, which might include investing back into the means of production (i.e. purchasing new equipment or buying more land) and paying laborers.
Significant changes had to happen in order to transform the United States into a market society in which capitalism dictated everyone’s lives. These changes started to occur in the aftermath of the American Revolution in the northeastern United States, a region that had once been the center of the household economy.
Recall that many colonists migrated to New England in search of a comfortable independence. In order to achieve this, labor and trade centered largely on the household economy.
Markets were certainly present in colonial New England and colonists could trade their surpluses for luxury items, but the desire for luxury and wealth did not rule the lives of most colonists. They valued the comforts that the market provided, but they also valued their independence and pre-existing relations with neighbors and family.
Whenever colonists purchased luxury items, it was possible that such goods were produced by hand by artisans, or skilled, experienced craftsmen.
EXAMPLEIn colonial America, people bought their shoes from master shoemakers, who achieved their status by living and working as apprentices under the rule of an older master artisan. An apprenticeship would be followed by work as a journeyman (a skilled worker without his own shop). After sufficient time as a journeyman, a shoemaker could at last set up his own shop as a master artisan. People came to the shop (which was usually attached to the back of the master artisan’s house), and there the shoemaker measured their feet in order to cut and stitch together an individualized product for each customer.
However, changes to the household economy and the artisan system came in the northeastern United States at the turn of the 19th century. By that time, a number of merchants focused greater attention on reducing labor costs by relying on unskilled laborers. To do so, they turned first to the putting-out system, which Great Britain had already employed during its Industrial Revolution.
EXAMPLEIn the case of shoes, a merchant could hire one family (or group of workers) to cut soles into standardized sizes, another group to cut pieces of leather for the uppers, and still another group to stitch the soles and uppers together parts together.
While merchants found the process attractive because it cut down on production costs, members from many farming families were willing participants in the process as well, even if they did not receive very high wages. For much of the year, farmers tended fields and orchards, ate the food that they produced, and sold any surpluses. Putting-out work proved a welcome source of extra income for New England farm families.
Increased economic productivity under the putting-out system — along with growing desires for luxury items — contributed to changing relations among laborers. Traditional relationships that had been common during the colonial period — such as those between a master craftsman and an apprentice — gradually disappeared. In its place came relationships where employers, merchants, or businessmen oversaw employees rather than apprentices, and paid them with cash wages.
In the late 1790s and early 1800s, Great Britain boasted the most advanced textile mills and machines in the world, and the United States continued to rely on Great Britain for finished goods. Great Britain hoped to maintain its economic advantage over its former colonies in North America. So, in an effort to prevent the knowledge of advanced manufacturing from leaving the Empire, the British banned the emigration of skilled workers, or mechanics, who knew how to build and repair the latest textile machines.
Nevertheless, some skilled British mechanics, including Samuel Slater, managed to travel to the United States in the hopes of profiting from their knowledge and experience with advanced textile manufacturing. Slater memorized the workings of the latest water-powered textile mills, and, in 1790, he convinced several American merchants to finance and build a water-powered cotton mill (based on the British model), in Pawtucket, Rhode Island.
Slater’s success inspired others to build additional mills in the area. By 1807, 13 more mills had been established in Rhode Island or Massachusetts. By 1812, 78 new textile mills had been built in rural New England towns. More than half turned out woolen goods, while the rest produced cloth from cotton.
The majority of these mills were small (employing only 70 people on average) and organized laborers in family units, under what came to be known as the Rhode Island System.
Under the Rhode Island system, the father was placed in charge of the family unit, and he directed the labor of his wife and children. Instead of paying the father in cash, the mill provided him “credit” equal to the extent of his family’s labor. Such credit could be redeemed through renting company-owned housing or purchasing goods from the company-owned store.
The Embargo of 1807 and the War of 1812, which cut off British textile imports to the United States, both played pivotal roles in further spurring textile manufacturing in the northeastern United States. In 1813, Francis Cabot Lowell convinced a handful of other wealthy New England merchants to invest in new mill towns. Lowell had toured English mills during a stay in Great Britain. He had memorized the designs for the advanced textile machines he saw in his travels, most notably the power loom, which provided for the mass production of textile fibers and replaced individual hand weavers. In 1814, Lowell and his colleagues — known as the Boston Associates — created the Boston Manufacturing Company and established a textile mill in Waltham, Massachusetts.
The Boston Associates’ mills, which each employed hundreds of workers, were located in company towns, where the factories and worker housing were owned by a single company. The most famous of these company towns was Lowell, Massachusetts. The new town was built near the Merrimack River, north of Boston, on land that the Boston Associates purchased in 1821. Company-owned boarding houses were constructed near the mills to provide shelter for employees.
The Boston Associates preferred hiring individual workers (specifically young women) rather than entire families, for two main reasons. First, the nature of work within the Associates’ mills, which was mechanized and broken down into specific tasks, required individual workers to repeatedly complete the one task assigned to them in the course of a work day.
Second, the New England countryside had produced an oversupply of laborers. The competition that New England farmers faced from farmers now settling in the West, and the growing scarcity of land in population-dense New England, had important implications for farmers’ children. Realizing their chances of inheriting a large farm or receiving a substantial dowry were remote, these teenagers sought other employment opportunities, often at the urging of their parents. While young men could work at a variety of occupations, young, unmarried women had more limited options. The textile mills at Lowell and elsewhere provided one means of employment for the daughters of New England farm families.
In order to persuade parents to allow their daughters to leave home and work at the mill, the Boston Associates established strict rules governing the personal lives of their workers. The women lived in company-owned boarding houses, to which they paid a portion of their wages. They woke early at the sound of a bell and worked a 12-hour day, during which talking was forbidden. They could not swear or drink alcohol, and they were required to attend church on Sunday. Overseers at the mills, as well as boarding-house keepers, kept a close eye on the young women’s behavior throughout the day, and anyone who did not live up to these strict restrictions risked unemployment and eviction.
In 1839, the French engineer and economist Michel Chevalier published his impressions of the rules implemented by the Lowell textile mills in his book Society, Manners, and Politics in the United States:
There is no doubt many workers enjoyed some of the new opportunities that working at the Lowell mills presented. For many of the young New England women who ran the machines in Waltham, Lowell, and elsewhere, the experience of being away from the family was exhilarating and provided a sense of solidarity among them. Though most sent a large portion of their wages home, having even a small amount of money of their own was a liberating experience. Many used their earnings to purchase clothes, ribbons, and other consumer goods for themselves.
The long hours, strict discipline, and low wages, however, soon led workers to organize to protest their working conditions and pay. During the 1830s, female mill operatives in Lowell formed the Lowell Factory Girls Association to organize strike activities in the face of wage cuts. By 1845, they established the Lowell Female Labor Reform Association to protest the 12-hour workday.
Following its organization in 1845, the Lowell Female Labor Reform Association published a series of tracts to expose the poor conditions in the mills. Read the excerpt below, written by an unnamed worker:
The mechanization of formerly handcrafted goods, and the removal of production from the household economy to the textile factory, dramatically increased the output of goods in New England.
EXAMPLEBy 1855, the women working in just one of Lowell’s mechanized mills produced more than 43,000 yards of fabric.
In addition, the success of the Lowell mills prompted the Boston Associates and their competitors to expand.
EXAMPLEBy 1860, 878 textile factories had been built in New England.
However, as the primary sources in this tutorial suggest, the experiences of workers underwent significant changes as production mechanized and relocated to factories.
This tutorial curated and/or authored by Matthew Pearce, Ph.D
Source: Complaint of a Lowell Factory Worker (1845), from Foner, E. (2014). Voices of freedom: a documentary history. p167. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., Derived from Openstax tutorial 9.1, “Early Industrialization in the Northeast,” http://cnx.org/contents/p7ovuIkl@3.32:c6mv6blq@3/Early-Industrialization-in-the Some sections edited or removed for brevity.