American industry grew phenomenally in the first half of the nineteenth century. A series of tariffs enacted by Congress between 1816 and 1828 protected manufacturing, particularly textile milling, from foreign competition. As manufacturing work sites were gradually relocated from the home and small workshop to the factory, the makeup of the labor force changed. The number of artisans and craftsmen declined, and reliance on semiskilled or unskilled workers, including women, to operate machines increased. Just as in agriculture, advances in technology helped boost manufacturing production and increase efficiency. Indeed, the manufacture of such agricultural inventions as the reaper and steel plow became important sectors of the industrial economy.
Technological innovation. Machines for spinning cotton into thread were developed in Great Britain in the eighteenth century, and how they were built and operated were closely guarded secrets. Although the British prohibited the emigration of anyone with a knowledge of their design, Samuel Slater arrived in the United States from England with the plans in his head. In 1790, he established the first American cotton mill in Rhode Island.
“Borrowed” technology aside, Americans made their own inventive contributions to industrial development. Eli Whitney, already famous for the cotton gin, developed machine tools capable of producing parts so precisely that they were interchangeable. Interchangeable parts significantly increased industrial efficiency and cut labor costs. Charles Goodyear developed a process known as vulcanization that made natural rubber stronger (1839). The sewing machine was invented by Elias Howe (1846) and improved on a few years later by Isaac Singer.
Perhaps the most significant American invention of the first half of the nineteenth century was Samuel Morse's electric telegraph, which had its first practical application in 1844. Within twenty years, telegraph lines stretched from coast to coast and ushered in a communications revolution. Combined with improvements in printing, the telegraph was a boon to journalism. The number of daily newspapers in the United States soared from eight in 1790 to nearly four hundred in 1860, and many sold for just a penny.
The factory system. New England's textile industry led the way in developing new forms of manufacturing. The factory system as it evolved in the Northeast had three characteristics—the breakdown of an item's production into phases, the use of machines in all phases of production, and the division of labor. Division of labor meant that a worker performed the task required by one phase of the production, no longer creating the entire product from start to finish. In 1813, the first factory in which spinning and weaving were performed by power machinery all under one roof was established in Waltham, Massachusetts. In Lowell, which was planned and built as a model factory town in 1822, young women made up the majority of the workforce at the mills. The women lived in dormitories or boarding houses provided by the company and worked twelve hours a day, six days a week. Although the women were paid much less than the men, even when doing comparable work, their wages were enough to give them a measure of independence that their mothers and grandmothers never enjoyed. The young women were not a permanent labor force in the mills, however. Most of them worked for only a few years and were gradually replaced by immigrants, mainly Irish men, in the 1840s and 1850s.
Textile manufacturing was the leading American industry before the Civil War and was concentrated in the Northeast because the region's rivers provided both water power and transportation. The cloth produced in New England mills was turned into shirts, pants, and other articles of clothing in smaller factories in New York and Philadelphia. Proximity to raw materials influenced industrial development in other parts of the country. For example, Pittsburgh was a center of the iron industry because it was close to both ore and coal fields, while Cincinnati was an early hub for meatpacking in agricultural Ohio.
The development of the factory system produced tensions. Craftsmen were threatened by manufacturing's increasing reliance on machines and cheap labor, so they began to form trade unions and political parties in the 1830s to protect their interests. Although initially antagonistic toward unskilled workers, the craftsmen often discovered that they were on common ground over such issues as hours, wages, and working conditions. The first general strike in the United States took place in Philadelphia in 1835, when artisans joined with coal heavers to support the ten‐hour workday. A shorter workday was the principal demand of the early trade unions, and most industries accepted it by the 1860s, with the exception of the New England textile mills.