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Industrialization and the Gilded Age: 1816–1900

Industrialization in the United States

Causes of the First Industrial Revolution

Industrialization in the United States centered on processing cotton. It began with the introduction of cotton mills and expanded considerably thanks to improvements in transportation and inventions such as the cotton gin and the sewing machine, fueling the First Industrial Revolution.
Since the early 17th century, the economy of the colonies and the United States was primarily based on agriculture. People lived on farms, grew their own food, and produced their own goods or imported them from Britain. With the invention of coal-powered steam technology in the mid-18th century, Britain experienced a sudden surge in industrialization, or the process of converting a society to a socioeconomic order based primarily on industry. Steam-powered machinery made it possible to produce more goods quickly, thus increasing production and profits. The use of machines and factories to mass-produce goods in Europe and the United States in the early 19th century became known as the First Industrial Revolution. The revolution arrived in the United States with Samuel Slater, a British mechanic who immigrated to America. Slater designed the first equipment in the United States to mill, or process, cotton on a large scale in Rhode Island in 1790.
Samuel Slater, father of the American factory, built the first cotton mill powered by water in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. It began producing cotton yarn in 1793. Over 100 such factories would be built in the state. Slater's factory system-dubbed the Rhode Island System-would be emulated by other New England industrialists.
Credit: Courtesy of the Library of Congress, HAER RI,4-PAWT,3--63
Neither the British climate nor that of the Northeastern states was ideal for growing cotton. Therefore, the South became the primary producer of the crop. Producing cotton was labor-intensive. Enslaved persons slowly and painfully picked the cotton bolls and separated the cotton from the seeds by hand.

Less than three years after the first cotton mill went into operation, American inventor Eli Whitney devised the cotton gin, a machine that separated the cotton fibers from the seed pods. The cotton gin did its job so efficiently and quickly that after its introduction, the use of enslaved workers grew rapidly so cotton production could keep up with the speed of processing it. In fact, many of the inventions of the First Industrial Revolution created a high demand for enslaved labor. Thus, cotton and slavery drove the First Industrial Revolution in the United States.

In 1813 Francis Cabot Lowell and his partners found a way to increase the efficiency and output of cotton mills in Massachusetts. Using power looms and the Lowell System, every step in the cotton-manufacturing process took place under one roof. Mill workers were housed and fed in the mill town, thereby adding to the efficiency of the process. Lowell also devised a new business model: selling shares in the company to investors and paying them dividends.

In 1846 the first sewing machine made it easier to produce clothing and other products made with milled cotton. Combined, the cotton gin, the power loom, the Lowell System, and the sewing machine gave birth to America's textile industry.

Advances in transportation facilitated the Industrial Revolution as well. Robert Fulton invented the steamboat in 1807. In 1811 construction began on the Cumberland Road, the nation's first highway. The first railroad line was completed in 1828, just three years after the completion of the Erie Canal. These new railways, roads, and canals allowed manufacturers to transport goods to places far from where they were made.

Because of the region's access to ports, rivers, and canals for shipping, industrialization in the United States began and remained centered in the North. Northern rivers also powered many of the factories. Northern soil is relatively poor for growing crops, so many farmers sold their land to manufacturers, who built factories where farms had once stood. New England also had a concentration of workers in its cities, many of whom left the fields to work in factories.

Causes of the Second Industrial Revolution

The Second Industrial Revolution was marked by the propagation of factories, the application of science to develop innovative technologies and materials, the establishment of corporations, and the use of vast natural resources made available via western expansion.

The Second Industrial Revolution took place in the United States between 1870 and 1900. This phase of industrialization was marked by the rapid adoption of innovative technologies and was made possible by the country's western expansion. The Plains Wars, a series of conflicts between whites and the Plains Indians for control of land that began in the late 1840s, came to an end in the 1870s. The Homestead Act, passed in 1862, encouraged the settlement and development of the American West by promising each settler a 160-acre homestead. This forced Native Americans onto reservations and increased the government's landholdings dramatically. Twenty-five years later, the Dawes Act of 1887 was passed to divide Native American reservation land among members of the tribe while selling the remainder to white settlers and businesses. The law was enacted to steal large swaths of the best lands belonging to Native Americans and create a system for individual Native Americans to sell their plots of land, which were often poor quality or too small to subsist on without adding more land. With the settlers came the railroad. The first continuous cross-continent railroad line in the United States, the transcontinental railroad, was completed in 1869 and connected the country's East and West Coasts. Now people and freight could be moved across the country in days rather than months.

At the same time, scientists were discovering new processes for making iron and steel, extracting gasoline from oil, and generating electricity on a large scale. These discoveries caused manufacturers to shift from steam power to oil and electricity. The changes were facilitated by newly available natural resources. A natural resource is a material found naturally in the environment and often used for economic gain. Iron, coal, and oil were abundant in the West. As a result, the mining and oil refinery industries began to grow.

Other inventions revolutionized American industry by speeding up communications and production. In 1861 the transcontinental telegraph, a device that sent coded messages over wires, connected San Francisco to the East Coast. Eleven years later, Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone. In 1879 Thomas Edison invented the first electric light bulb. In the 1880s meat processors in Chicago and Cincinnati made efficient use of the mechanization of assembly lines. Other industries adopted them to mass-produce products quickly and uniformly.

Manufacturers began building factories in cities whose large populations, swelled by recent waves of immigrants, could contribute to the mass-production of goods. While most industrialization was centered in the North, the expansion of the railroad enabled manufacturers to build factories elsewhere in the country. Large-scale farming and ranching operations in the West provided animals for meatpacking plants in the Midwest. Textile mills sprouted up in the South.

Most factory work involved working on an assembly line. Assembly line workers were assigned to stations where they would perform the same specialized task over and over on a partially completed product delivered to them on a mechanized belt or trolley. Assembly line work required little skill and paid very little because a worker performed only one task. Unlike the different stages of the agricultural process (planting, irrigation, harvest), a factory worker's job was monotonous and continuous. However, the process transformed American industries as well as workers' relationship with the products they made.

Industrialization led to new ways of financing businesses. Costly manufacturing operations were run by corporations, not individuals. A corporation is a legal entity created for the purpose of running a business. It generates needed capital by allowing investors to buy stock, or a small ownership stake in the company in the form of shares. As a company's profitability increases, so does the value of its shares. A profitable company may pay dividends to its investors and thus attract more investors to further increase profitability.

Centers of Industrialization in the United States

Cities like New York, Pittsburgh, Chicago, and San Francisco became centers of industrialization because of their access to a large workforce and their proximity to natural resources and transportation.

Industrialization in the United States had an enormous impact on the nation's cities. Manufacturers built factories in urban areas because their large populations provided a steady workforce. The effect of the factories was to attract even more people to the cities. As a result, American cities grew larger during the Second Industrial Revolution. For example, New York City grew from half a million to 3.5 million residents between 1850 and 1900. Philadelphia's population exploded from 121,000 to over a million in the same time period. During the second half of the 19th century, Chicago became the fastest-growing city in the nation and the largest city in the Midwest. By 1900 over a third of Americans lived in cities.

As during the First Industrial Revolution, proximity to natural resources and transportation dictated which cities became industrialized and populated. In cities located along major waterways, manufacturers used the rivers and ports to bring in natural resources and ship their goods. Pittsburgh sits at the intersection of three major rivers and became a major producer of steel. Chicago's location on the shores of Lake Michigan and along established land routes to the West turned the city into a major commercial hub between the East and the West. Cattle, lumber, and grain shipped in from the West were processed in Chicago and then sent out to the East and beyond. The city became most identified with the meatpacking industry, which took up the entire south side of the city. At the end of the 19th century, Detroit became the nation's center for automobile manufacturing. San Francisco and New York became known for banking and the manufacture of clothing. By the early 20th century, nearly half of all New York City workers worked in the clothing industry, and financing for almost everything in the country was routed through either San Francisco or New York. New York City became a center for international banking.

Industrialization lagged in the South as the region had to rebuild itself after the Civil War. Leaders of the New South understood the need for introducing industry into a region primarily known for agriculture. Birmingham, Alabama, became a center of iron and steel manufacturing. Cotton and lumber mills emerged throughout the South in Virginia, the Carolinas, Georgia, and Alabama.

Industry was a boon to American cities, but it also introduced many problems. Largely unregulated, manufacturers were free to dump waste and release pollution into the air and waterways. The influx of workers and immigrants led to overcrowding and housing shortages. Industrialization brought abundant wealth to manufacturers, but the workers were often paid poorly. Wealth inequality would become a major source of friction among urban dwellers.

Centers of Industrialization in the United States, 1900

By 1900 industrialization in the United States had been underway for over a century. Industrialization and urbanization grew together as many people followed industrial jobs to the big cities.