Beginning of a New Era

Baltimore Sun

Jonathan Beckerman

Dec 10, 1850

There are not many people who write for fifty years like I have. I will admit that starting out I was not expecting to, yet somehow I have managed to spend my life writing about these “factories”. This being said, there are worse things to write about, I have been lucky enough to be given a window into the lives that would otherwise be a mystery to me. I was allowed to see the benefits and drawbacks of the system that has taken over our United States of America.

Now we are poised on the brink of a revolution, not like any other we are experienced so far in our growth as a nation. We watch as a system is forced to change, in both positive and negative ways. We watched a new style of life impose itself into America, and now that very same system is facing changes that could affect all of us here in the United States. I speak, of course, about the infamous “Factory System”. It is taken over our jobs, in many ways making our way of life better, giving jobs to people who would not usually get them and producing things previously impossible and at dramatically lower cost. Then it started to be tainted by competition, money and politics. Now we are staring down a transition period where we also have to change. I have spent fifty years of my life studying the complexities and dynamics of the factories here and I hope to be able to have closure on such a broad topic.

Philadelphia hat factory

The factory system has been in decline for quite a few years, since the 1830’s even the biggest names like Francis Lowell with the “Lowell System” and Samuel Slater in the “Waltham-system”. From the `1830’s-40’s there was an economic depression that deeply affected many industries in the United States, especially the factories (1). This lead to a litany of problems with the existing system. Earlier, there had been at least moderately decent conditions for the predominantly female worker, however, this has all changed. The costs of good wages, good housing and a quality diet was more than the owners were willing to pay. This lead to a 25% cut in wages, and the lowering of standards for the workers in the factories (3). The Irish potato famine, of the mid 1840’s, only worsened the situation, and caused huge amounts of immigrants to come over. This produced a huge number of Irish immigrant workers to the United States. This influx of cheaper labor forced the workers out of the positions they held and let the factory owners produce cheaper products to undercut the market for products produced by the factory system. This led to a phenomenon that had never been seen before: starting 1840 through 1850 the amount of manufactured goods made in the industrial factories equaled the amount of agricultural goods produced (1). This was the start of events that would only help make the system that much more prominent in the lives of Americans, but this was ever changing. One of the largest factors in this changing dynamic has been incorporating new technologies into the workplace. The numbers of inventions is increasing exponentially in a manner never seen before.  There are six new inventions that play some of the biggest roles in dramatically altering our factory operations. The first, and most well known, is steam power. The steam engine powered machinery let factories produce things more quickly and reliably because they did not have to rely on water power. This also meant corporations and governments could transport goods at a much higher speed than previously possible. Steam power completely changed nearly every aspect of life in the United States, not just the industrial side of the economy. A second is the turret lathe. This interestingly named invention is arguably the most important of all the other inventions on this list. This is the design that allowed uniform parts to be made, and was used to create interchangeable parts of any different machine. This made it possible to have each part of a machine created to a standard then allowing mass production, versus having each hand made (2). It also enabled rifling the inside of gun barrels that was one of the greatest innovations in weapon history (3). The next two are similar, the universal milling machine and the universal grinder. The universal milling machine is self explanatory, being a machine that made the milling of grains orders of magnitude easier and the universal grinder that was used for very precise parts and was used to make many different machine parts as well as firearms parts (2). The fifth invention was vulcanized rubber, it might not seem like this would affect the United States and its economy, but most definitely did. Its invention in 1839 led to a litany of products being able to be made (1). The final innovative product that helped revolutionize the American economy, was the sewing machine designed in 1846. This allowed there to be a great speed increase in the production of cloth. It could also be used in tandem with the universal milling machine and was one of the many peice of the new factory system that help it change so much. This swing was so drastic that by the 1840’s there was better technology in the United States than in England. It was an explosion of American innovations that was truly astonishing, in 1830 the number of patents was 544 but by the 1850’s there were over 4 thousand (4).

Slater water-powered mill

There were not just new innovative technologies and new immigrant workers, there was also a push from the American workforce for better rights and to better the standard of living. In the 1840’s and on people started asking questions about the length of the work day and the ethics of child labor (1). Watching as a bystander, I would say there are benefits and drawbacks to the change in the factory system, but no matter what the overall effect, it will forever have an impact on our great nation. I have seen families have their way of life taken taken from them and others have been catapulted to the best economic times of their lives. It is in keeping with the true american spirit and work ethic. I would like to be able to  see where this ever evolving system goes and how it continues to grow, because there will always be a drive to better itself. I can picture an America drive by the working class, where owners and laborers work together to carry the U.S. economy, but that is just a dream. Driven by the entrepreneurs of America I have no doubt that we will always be able to better our country, economy and standard of life, if we are willing to work for it.

  1. Brinkley, Alan. Unfinished Nation. 6th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2010. Print, ch. 10





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