Today in History

Today in History: December 20

First American Cotton Mill

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Slater Mill, Southeast Elevation,
Pawtucket, Providence County, Rhode Island.
Built in America: Historic American Buildings Survey/Historic American Engineering Record, 1933-Present

On December 20, 1790, a mill, with water-powered machinery for spinning, roving, and carding cotton, began operating on the banks of the Blackstone River in Pawtuket, Rhode Island. Based on designs of the English inventor Richard Arkwright, the mill was built by Samuel Slater, a recent English immigrant who had apprenticed with Arkwright's partner, Jebediah Strutt.

Slater had departed Britain in defiance of the British law against the emigration of textile workers (which would result in the loss of their mechanical skills and technical knowledge) and left for America to seek his fortune. Considered a central figure in the birth of the American textile industry, he eventually built several successful cotton mills in New England and established the town of Slatersville, Rhode Island.

Prior to the Civil War, textile manufacture was America’s most important industry. The first American power loom was constructed in 1813 by a group of Boston merchants headed by Francis Cabot Lowell for which the town of Lowell, Massachusetts, was named. Soon, textile mills dotted the rivers of New England transforming the landscape, the economy, and the people. Initially, millwork was performed by daughters of local farmers. In later years, immigration became the source of mill "hands" and entire families labored together in the textile mills of New England.

Conditions in Lowell's mills were considered exemplary in 1800s. Nevertheless,  by the early twentieth century, Lowell factories saw a number of strikes, including the first successful mass strike that was led by the Industrial Workers of the World (the "Wobblies") in 1912. Lowell factories, well connected to Boston by canal and railroad, provided an early model for subsequent U.S. corporate and entrepreneurial organization.

Hamilton Canal
Hamilton Canal in Hamilton Canal, Jackson Street Vicinity
Lowell, Middlesex County, Massachusetts,
Jack Boucher, photographer, 1976.
Built in America: Historic American Buildings Survey/Historical American Engineering Record, 1933-Present

Panoramic view of cotton mill
Sparta Cotton Mill
,
Spartanburg, South Carolina, 1909.
Taking the Long View: Panoramic Photographs, 1851-1991

By the 1920s, the South had eclipsed New England in textile production.  The Southern plants in Georgia, Alabama, and the Carolinas, were located closer to the raw materials—that is, the cotton plantations. The system of family labor continued; child labor was an essential component. Textile worker Fannie Miles remembers her transition from farm to factory at the age of nine:

I was just nine years old when we moved to a cotton mill in Darlington, South Carolina, and I started to work in the mill. I was in a world of strangers. I didn't know a soul. The first morning I was to start work, I remember coming downstairs feelin' strange and lonesome-like. My grandfather, who had a long, white beard, grabbed me in his arms and put two one-dollar bills in my hand. He said, "Take these to your mother and tell her to buy you some pretty dresses and make 'em nice for you to wear in this mill." I was mighty proud of that.

"I'm Not Lonesome," December 1, 1938.
American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936-1940

Myrtle Bagwell
Myrtle Bagwell, One of the Youngest Spinners in Spartan Mills, Spartanburg, South Carolina
Lewis Hine, photographer, May 1912.
National Child Labor Committee Collection

Learn more about the American textile industry in the following collections: