Chronicles of America 

Spindle, Loom, and Needle in New England

The major steps in the manufacture of clothes are four: first to harvest and clean the fiber or wool; second, to card it and spin it into threads; third, to weave the threads into cloth; and, finally to fashion and sew the cloth into clothes. We have already seen the influence of Eli Whitney's cotton gin on the first process, and the series of inventions for spinning and weaving, which so profoundly changed the textile industry in Great Britain, has been mentioned. It will be the business of this chapter to tell how spinning and weaving machinery was introduced into the United States and how a Yankee inventor laid the keystone of the arch of clothing machinery by his invention of the sewing machine.

Great Britain was determined to keep to herself the industrial secrets she had gained. According to the economic beliefs of the eighteenth century, which gave place but slowly to the doctrines of Adam Smith, monopoly rather than cheap production was the road to success. The laws therefore forbade the export of English machinery or drawings and specifications by which machines might be constructed in other countries. Some men saw a vast prosperity for Great Britain, if only the mystery might be preserved.

Meanwhile the stories of what these machines could do excited envy in other countries, where men desired to share in the industrial gains. And, even before Eli Whitney's cotton gin came to provide an abundant supply of raw material, some Americans were struggling to improve the old hand loom, found in every house, and to make some sort of a spinning machine to replace the spinning wheel by which one thread at a time was laboriously spun.

East Bridgewater, Massachusetts, was the scene of one of the earliest of these experiments. There in 1786 two Scotchmen, who claimed to understand Arkwright's mechanism, were employed to make spinning machines, and about the same time another attempt was made at Beverly. In both instances the experiments were encouraged by the State and assisted with grants of money. The machines, operated by horse power, were crude, and the product was irregular and unsatisfactory. Then three men at Providence, Rhode Island, using drawings of the Beverly machinery, made machines having thirty-two spindles which worked indifferently. The attempt to run them by water power failed, and they were sold to Moses Brown of Pawtucket, who with his partner, William Almy, had mustered an army of hand-loom weavers in 1790, large enough to produce nearly eight thousand yards of cloth in that year. Brown's need of spinning machinery, to provide his weavers with yarn, was very great; but these machines he had bought would not run, and in 1790 there was not a single successful power-spinner in the United States.

Meanwhile Benjamin Franklin had come home, and the Pennsylvania Society for the Encouragement of Manufactures and Useful Arts was offering prizes for inventions to improve the textile industry. And in Milford, England, was a young man named Samuel Slater, who, on hearing that inventive genius was munificently rewarded in America, decided to migrate to that country. Slater at the age of fourteen had been apprenticed to Jedediah Strutt, a partner of Arkwright. He had served both in the counting-house and the mill and had had every opportunity to learn the whole business.

Soon after attaining his majority, he landed in New York, November, 1789, and found employment. From New York he wrote to Moses Brown of Pawtucket, offering his services, and that old Quaker, though not giving him much encouragement, invited him to Pawtucket to see whether he could run the spindles which Brown had bought from the men of Providence. "If thou canst do what thou sayest," wrote Brown, "I invite thee to come to Rhode Island."

Arriving in Pawtucket in January, 1790, Slater pronounced the machines worthless, but convinced Almy and Brown that he knew his business, and they took him into partnership. He had no drawings or models of the English machinery, except such as were in his head, but he proceeded to build machines, doing much of the work himself. On December 20, 1790, he had ready carding, drawing, and roving machines and seventy-two spindles in two frames. The water-wheel of an old fulling mill furnished the power--and the machinery ran.

Here then was the birth of the spinning industry in the United States. The "Old Factory," as it was to be called for nearly a hundred years, was built at Pawtucket in 1793. Five years later Slater and others built a second mill, and in 1806, after Slater had brought out his brother to share his prosperity, he built another. Workmen came to work for him solely to learn his machines, and then left him to set up for themselves. The knowledge he had brought soon became widespread. Mills were built not only in New England but in other States. In 1809 there were sixty-two spinning mills in operation in the country, with thirty-one thousand spindles; twenty-five more mills were building or projected, and the industry was firmly established in the United States. The yarn was sold to housewives for domestic use or else to professional weavers who made cloth for sale. This practice was continued for years, not only in New England, but also in those other parts of the country where spinning machinery had been introduced.

By 1810, however, commerce and the fisheries had produced considerable fluid capital in New England which was seeking profitable employment, especially as the Napoleonic Wars interfered with American shipping; and since Whitney's gins in the South were now piling up mountains of raw cotton, and Slater's machines in New England were making this cotton into yarn, it was inevitable that the next step should be the power loom, to convert the yarn into cloth. So Francis Cabot Lowell, scion of the New England family of that name, an importing merchant of Boston, conceived the idea of establishing weaving mills in Massachusetts. On a visit to Great Britain in 1811, Lowell met at Edinburgh Nathan Appleton, a fellow merchant of Boston, to whom he disclosed his plans and announced his intention of going to Manchester to gain all possible information concerning the new industry. Two years afterwards, according to Appleton's account, Lowell and his brother-in-law, Patrick T. Jackson, conferred with Appleton at the Stock Exchange in Boston. They had decided, they said, to set up a cotton factory at Waltham and invited Appleton to join them in the adventure, to which he readily consented. Lowell had not been able to obtain either drawings or model in Great Britain, but he had nevertheless designed a loom and had completed a model which seemed to work.

The partners took in with them Paul Moody of Amesbury, an expert machinist, and by the autumn of 1814 looms were built and set up at Waltham. Carding, drawing, and roving machines were also built and installed in the mill, these machines gaining greatly, at Moody's expert hands, over their American rivals. This was the first mill in the United States, and one of the first in the world, to combine under one roof all the operations necessary to convert raw fiber into cloth, and it proved a success. Lowell, says his partner Appleton, "is entitled to the credit for having introduced the new system in the cotton manufacture." Jackson and Moody "were men of unsurpassed talent," but Lowell "was the informing soul, which gave direction and form to the whole proceeding."

The new enterprise was needed, for the War of 1812 had cut off imports. The beginnings of the protective principle in the United States tariff are now to be observed. When the peace came and Great Britain began to dump goods in the United States, Congress, in 1816, laid a minimum duty of six and a quarter cents a yard on imported cottons; the rate was raised in 1824 and again in 1828. It is said that Lowell was influential in winning the support of John C. Calhoun for the impost of 1816.

Lowell died in 1817, at the early age of forty-two, but his work did not die with him. The mills he had founded at Waltham grew exceedingly prosperous under the management of Jackson; and it was not long before Jackson and his partners Appleton and Moody were seeking wider opportunities. By 1820 they were looking for a suitable site on which to build new mills, and their attention was directed to the Pawtucket Falls, on the Merrimac River. The land about this great water power was owned by the Pawtucket Canal Company, whose canal, built to improve the navigation of the Merrimac, was not paying satisfactory profits. The partners proceeded to acquire the stock of this company and with it the land necessary for their purpose, and in December, 1821, they executed Articles of Association for the Merrimac Manufacturing Company, admitting some additional partners, among them Kirk Boott who was to act as resident agent and manager of the new enterprise, since Jackson could not leave his duties at Waltham.

The story of the enterprise thus begun forms one of the brightest pages in the industrial history of America; for these partners had the wisdom and foresight to make provision at the outset for the comfort and well-being of their operatives. Their mill hands were to be chiefly girls drawn from the rural population of New England, strong and intelligent young women, of whom there were at that time great numbers seeking employment, since household manufactures had come to be largely superseded by factory goods. And one of the first questions which the partners considered was whether the change from farm to factory life would effect for the worse the character of these girls. This, says Appleton, "was a matter of deep interest. The operatives in the manufacturing cities of Europe were notoriously of the lowest character for intelligence and morals. The question therefore arose, and was deeply considered, whether this degradation was the result of the peculiar occupation or of other and distinct causes. We could not perceive why this peculiar description of labor should vary in its effects upon character from all other occupations." And so we find the partners voting money, not only for factory buildings and machinery, but for comfortable boardinghouses for the girls, and planning that these boardinghouses should have "the most efficient guards," that they should be in "charge of respectable women, with every provision for religious worship." They voted nine thousand dollars for a church building and further sums later for a library and a hospital.

The wheels of the first mill were started in September, 1823. Next year the partners petitioned the Legislature to have their part of the township set off to form a new town. One year later still they erected three new mills; and in another year (1826) the town of Lowell was incorporated.

The year 1829 found the Lowell mills in straits for lack of capital, from which, however, they were promptly relieved by two great merchants of Boston, Amos and Abbott Lawrence, who now became partners in the business and who afterwards founded the city named for them farther down on the Merrimac River.

The story of the Lowell cotton factories, for twenty years, more or less, until the American girls operating the machines came to be supplanted by French Canadians and Irish, is appropriately summed up in the title of a book which describes the factory life in Lowell during those years. The title of this book is "An Idyl of Work" and it was written by Lucy Larcom, who was herself one of the operatives and whose mother kept one of the corporation boarding-houses. And Lucy Larcom was not the only one of the Lowell "factory girls" who took to writing and lecturing. There were many others, notably, Harriet Hanson (later Mrs. W. S. Robinson), Harriot Curtis ("Mina Myrtle"), and Harriet Farley; and many of the "factory girls" married men who became prominent in the world. There was no thought among them that there was anything degrading in factory work. Most of the girls came from the surrounding farms, to earn money for a trousseau, to send a brother through college, to raise a mortgage, or to enjoy the society of their fellow workers, and have a good time in a quiet, serious way, discussing the sermons and lectures they heard and the books they read in their leisure hours. They had numerous "improvement circles" at which contributions of the members in both prose and verse were read and discussed. And for several years they printed a magazine, "The Lowell Offering", which was entirely written and edited by girls in the mills.

Charles Dickens visited Lowell in the winter of 1842 and recorded his impressions of what he saw there in the fourth chapter of his "American Notes". He says that he went over several of the factories, "examined them in every part; and saw them in their ordinary working aspect, with no preparation of any kind, or departure from their ordinary every-day proceedings"; that the girls "were all well dressed: and that phrase necessarily includes extreme cleanliness. They had serviceable bonnets, good warm cloaks, and shawls. . . . Moreover, there were places in the mill in which they could deposit these things without injury; and there were conveniences for washing. They were healthy in appearance, many of them remarkably so, and had the manners and deportment of young women; not of degraded brutes of burden." Dickens continues: "The rooms in which they worked were as well ordered as themselves. In the windows of some there were green plants, which were trained to shade the glass; in all, there was as much fresh air, cleanliness, and comfort as the nature of the occupation would possibly admit of." Again: "They reside in various boarding-houses near at hand. The owners of the mills are particularly careful to allow no persons to enter upon the possession of these houses, whose characters have not undergone the most searching and thorough enquiry." Finally, the author announces that he will state three facts which he thinks will startle his English readers: "Firstly, there is a joint-stock piano in a great many of the boarding-houses. Secondly, nearly all these young ladies subscribe to circulating libraries. Thirdly, they have got up among themselves a periodical called 'The Lowell Offering' . . . whereof I brought away from Lowell four hundred good solid pages, which I have read from beginning to end." And: "Of the merits of the 'Lowell Offering' as a literary production, I will only observe, putting entirely out of sight the fact of the articles having been written by these girls after the arduous labors of the day, that it will compare advantageously with a great many English Annuals."

The efficiency of the New England mills was extraordinary. James Montgomery, an English cotton manufacturer, visited the Lowell mills two years before Dickens and wrote after his inspection of them that they produced "a greater quantity of yarn and cloth from each spindle and loom (in a given time) than was produced by any other factories, without exception in the world." Long before that time, of course, the basic type of loom had changed from that originally introduced, and many New England inventors had been busy devising improved machinery of all kinds.

Such were the beginnings of the great textile mills of New England. The scene today is vastly changed. Productivity has been multiplied by invention after invention, by the erection of mill after mill, and by the employment of thousands of hands in place of hundreds. Lowell as a textile center has long been surpassed by other cities. The scene in Lowell itself is vastly changed. If Charles Dickens could visit Lowell today, he would hardly recognize in that city of modern factories, of more than a hundred thousand people, nearly half of them foreigners, the Utopia of 1842 which he saw and described.

The cotton plantations in the South were flourishing, and Whitney's gins were cleaning more and more cotton; the sheep of a thousand hills were giving wool; Arkwright's machines in England, introduced by Slater into New England, were spinning the cotton and wool into yarn; Cartwright's looms in England and Lowell's improvements in New England were weaving the yarn into cloth; but as yet no practical machine had been invented to sew the cloth into clothes.

There were in the United States numerous small workshops where a few tailors or seamstresses, gathered under one roof, laboriously sewed garments together, but the great bulk of the work, until the invention of the sewing machine, was done by the wives and daughters of farmers and sailors in the villages around Boston, New York, and Philadelphia. In these cities the garments were cut and sent out to the dwellings of the poor to be sewn. The wages of the laborers were notoriously inadequate, though probably better than in England. Thomas Hood's ballad The Song of the Shirt, published in 1843, depicts the hardships of the English woman who strove to keep body and soul together by means of the needle:

With fingers weary and worn,
With eyelids heavy and red,
A woman sat in unwomanly rags,
Plying her needle and thread.

Meanwhile, as Hood wrote and as the whole English people learned by heart his vivid lines, as great ladies wept over them and street singers sang them in the darkest slums of London, a man, hungry and ill-clad, in an attic in faraway Cambridge, Massachusetts, was struggling to put into metal an idea to lighten the toil of those who lived by the needle. His name was Elias Howe and he hailed from Eli Whitney's old home, Worcester County, Massachusetts. There Howe was born in 1819. His father was an unsuccessful farmer, who also had some small mills, but seems to have succeeded in nothing he undertook.

Young Howe led the ordinary life of a New England country boy, going to school in winter and working about the farm until the age of sixteen, handling tools every day, like any farmer's boy of the time. Hearing of high wages and interesting work in Lowell, that growing town on the Merrimac, he went there in 1835 and found employment; but two years later, when the panic of 1837 came on, he left Lowell and went to work in a machine shop in Cambridge. It is said that, for a time, he occupied a room with his cousin, Nathaniel P. Banks, who rose from bobbin boy in a cotton mill to Speaker of the United States House of Representatives and Major-General in the Civil War.

Next we hear of Howe in Boston, working in the shop of Ari Davis, an eccentric maker and repairer of fine machinery. Here the young mechanic heard of the desirability of a sewing machine and began to puzzle over the problem. Many an inventor before him had attempted to make sewing machines and some had just fallen short of success. Thomas Saint, an Englishman, had patented one fifty years earlier; and about this very time a Frenchman named Thimmonier was working eighty sewing machines making army uniforms, when needle workers of Paris, fearing that the bread was to be taken from them, broke into his workroom and destroyed the machines. Thimmonier tried again, but his machine never came into general use. Several patents had been issued on sewing machines in the United States, but without any practical result. An inventor named Walter Hunt had discovered the principle of the lock-stitch and had built a machine but had wearied of his work and abandoned his invention, just as success was in sight. But Howe knew nothing of any of these inventors. There is no evidence that he had ever seen the work of another.

The idea obsessed him to such an extent that he could do no other work, and yet he must live. By this time he was married and had children, and his wages were only nine dollars a week. Just then an old schoolmate, George Fisher, agreed to support his family and furnish him with five hundred dollars for materials and tools. The attic in Fisher's house in Cambridge was Howe's workroom. His first efforts were failures, but all at once the idea of the lock-stitch came to him. Previously all machines (except Hunt's, which was unknown, not having even been patented) had used the chainstitch, wasteful of thread and easily unraveled. The two threads of the lockstitch cross in the materials joined together, and the lines of stitches

show the same on both sides. In short, the chainstitch is a crochet or knitting stitch, while the lockstitch is a weaving stitch. Howe had been working at night and was on his way home, gloomy and despondent, when this idea dawned on his mind, probably rising out of his experience in the cotton mill. The shuttle would be driven back and forth as in a loom, as he had seen it thousands of times, and passed through a loop of thread which the curved needle would throw out on the other side of the cloth; and the cloth would be fastened to the machine vertically by pins. A curved arm would ply the needle with the motion of a pick-axe. A handle attached to the fly-wheel would furnish the power.

On that design Howe made a machine which, crude as it was, sewed more rapidly than five of the swiftest needle workers. But apparently to no purpose. His machine was too expensive, it could sew only a straight seam, and it might easily get out of order. The needle workers were opposed, as they have generally been, to any sort of laborsaving machinery, and there was no manufacturer willing to buy even one machine at the price Howe asked, three hundred dollars.

Howe's second model was an improvement on the first. It was more compact and it ran more smoothly. He had no money even to pay the fees necessary to get it patented. Again Fisher came to the rescue and took Howe and his machine to Washington, paying all the expenses, and the patent was issued in September, 1846. But, as the machine still failed to find buyers, Fisher gave up hope. He had invested about two thousand dollars which seemed gone forever, and he could not, or would not, invest more. Howe returned temporarily to his father's farm, hoping for better times.

Meanwhile Howe had sent one of his brothers to London with a machine to see if a foothold could be found there, and in due time an encouraging report came to the destitute inventor. A corsetmaker named Thomas had paid two hundred and fifty pounds for the English rights and had promised to pay a royalty of three pounds on each machine sold. Moreover, Thomas invited the inventor to London to construct a machine especially for making corsets. Howe went to London and later sent for his family. But after working eight months on small wages, he was as badly off as ever, for, though he had produced the desired machine, he quarreled with Thomas and their relations came to an end.

An acquaintance, Charles Inglis, advanced Howe a little money while he worked on another model. This enabled Howe to send his family home to America, and then, by selling his last model and pawning his patent rights, he raised enough money to take passage himself in the steerage in 1848, accompanied by Inglis, who came to try his fortune in the United States.

Howe landed in New York with a few cents in his pocket and immediately found work. But his wife was dying from the hardships she had suffered, due to stark poverty. At her funeral, Howe wore borrowed clothes, for his only suit was the one he wore in the shop.

Then, soon after his wife had died, Howe's invention came into its own. It transpired presently that sewing machines were being made and sold and that these machines were using the principles covered by Howe's patent. Howe found an ally in George W. Bliss, a man of means, who had faith in the machine and who bought out Fisher's interest and proceeded to prosecute infringers. Meanwhile Howe went on making machines--he produced fourteen in New York during 1850--and never lost an opportunity to show the merits of the invention which was being advertised and brought to notice by the activities of some of the infringers, particularly by Isaac M. Singer, the best business man of them all. Singer had joined hands with Walter Hunt and Hunt had tried to patent the machine which he had abandoned nearly twenty years before.

The suits dragged on until 1854, when the case was decisively settled in Howe's favor. His patent was declared basic, and all the makers of sewing machines must pay him a royalty of twenty-five dollars on every machine. So Howe woke one morning to find himself enjoying a large income, which in time rose as high as four thousand dollars a week, and he died in 1867 a rich man.

Though the basic nature of Howe's patent was recognized, his machine was only a rough beginning. Improvements followed, one after another, until the sewing machine bore little resemblance to Howe's original. John Bachelder introduced the horizontal table upon which to lay the work. Through an opening in the table, tiny spikes in an endless belt projected and pushed the work for ward continuously. Allan B. Wilson devised a rotary hook carrying a bobbin to do the work of the shuttle, and also the small serrated bar which pops up through the table near the needle, moves forward a tiny space, carrying the cloth with it, drops down just below the upper surface of the table, and returns to its starting point, to repeat over and over again this series of motions. This simple device brought its owner a fortune. Isaac M. Singer, destined to be the dominant figure of the industry, patented in 1851 a machine stronger than any of the others and with several valuable features, notably the vertical presser foot held down by a spring; and Singer was the first to adopt the treadle, leaving both hands of the operator free to manage the work. His machine was good, but, rather than its surpassing merits, it was his wonderful business ability that made the name of Singer a household word.

By 1856 there were several manufacturers in the field, threatening war on each other. All men were paying tribute to Howe, for his patent was basic, and all could join in fighting him, but there were several other devices almost equally fundamental, and even if Howe's patents had been declared void it is probable that his competitors would have fought quite as fiercely among themselves. At the suggestion of George Gifford, a New York attorney, the leading inventors and manufacturers agreed to pool their inventions and to establish a fixed license fee for the use of each. This "combination" was composed of Elias Howe, Wheeler and Wilson, Grover and Baker, and I. M. Singer, and dominated the field until after 1877, when the majority of the basic patents expired. The members manufactured sewing machines and sold them in America and Europe. Singer introduced the installment plan of sale, to bring the machine within reach of the poor, and the sewing machine agent, with a machine or two on his wagon, drove through every small town and country district, demonstrating and selling. Meanwhile the price of the machines steadily fell, until it seemed that Singer's slogan, "A machine in every home!" was in a fair way to be realized, had not another development of the sewing machine intervened.

This was the development of the ready-made clothing industry. In the earlier days of the nation, though nearly all the clothing was of domestic manufacture, there were tailors and seamstresses in all the towns and many of the villages, who made clothing to order. Sailors coming ashore sometimes needed clothes at once, and apparently a merchant of New Bedford was the first to keep a stock on hand. About 1831, George Opdyke, later Mayor of New York, began the manufacture of clothing on Hudson Street, which he sold largely through a store in New Orleans. Other firms began to reach out for this Southern trade, and it became important. Southern planters bought clothes not only for their slaves but for their families. The development of California furnished another large market. A shirt factory was established, in 1832, on Cherry and Market Streets, New York. But not until the coming of the power-driven sewing machine could there be any factory production of clothes on a large scale. Since then the clothing industry has become one of the most important in the country. The factories have steadily improved their models and materials, and at the present day only a negligible fraction of the people of the United States wear clothes made to their order.

The sewing machine today does many things besides sewing a seam. There are attachments which make buttonholes, darn, embroider, make ruffles or hems, and dozens of other things. There are special machines for every trade, some of which deal successfully with refractory materials.

The Singer machine of 1851 was strong enough to sew leather and was almost at once adopted by the shoemakers. These craftsmen flourished chiefly in Massachusetts, and they had traditions reaching back at least to Philip Kertland, who came to Lynn in 1636 and taught many apprentices. Even in the early days before machinery, division of labor was the rule in the shops of Massachusetts. One workman cut the leather, often tanned on the premises; another sewed the uppers together, while another sewed on the soles. Wooden pegs were invented in 1811 and came into common use about 1815 for the cheaper grades of shoes: Soon the practice of sending out the uppers to be done by women in their own homes became common. These women were wretchedly paid, and when the sewing machine came to do the work better than it could be done by hand, the practice of "putting out" work gradually declined.

That variation of the sewing machine which was to do the more difficult work of sewing the sole to the upper was the invention of a mere boy, Lyman R. Blake. The first model, completed in 1858, was imperfect, but Blake was able to interest Gordon McKay, of Boston, and three years of patient experimentation and large expenditure followed. The McKay sole-sewing machine, which they produced, came into use, and for twenty-one years was used almost universally both in the United States and Great Britain. But this, like all the other useful inventions, was in time enlarged and greatly improved, and hundreds of other inventions have been made in the shoe industry. There are machines to split leather, to make the thickness absolutely uniform, to sew the uppers, to insert eyelets, to cut out heel tops, and many more. In fact, division of labor has been carried farther in the making of shoes than in most industries, for there are said to be about three hundred separate operations in making a pair of shoes.

From small beginnings great industries have grown. It is a far cry from the slow, clumsy machine of Elias Howe, less than three-quarters of a century ago, to the great factories of today, filled with special models, run at terrific speed by electric current, and performing tasks which would seem to require more than human intelligence and skill.