5 People in History That Advanced American Manufacturing

Every industry has that small group of people that are considered the pioneers, the people that made strides that greatly affected or even created parts of the industry. American Manufacturing has been around for over a hundred years and many people affected its course and deserved to be honored, however here are five individuals whose actions changed the industry for the better and have even created precedent today. 

Samuel Slater

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Because of his work as a spinster’s apprentice in England, Samuel Slater had insider knowledge of how factories worked. So when he came to the United States in 1790, he made the first factory completely from his memories of factories in England. The factory produced yarn, which was made from 72 spindles that were powered by foot peddles that nine children worked. Shortly after, the nine children were replaced by water power. The factory still stands today.

He later went into business for himself, developing a family business with his sons.  He eventually owned thirteen spinning mills, and developed tenant farms and company towns around his textile mills establishing himself as the “Father of the American Factory System ” In the UK he was called “Slater the Traitor”  because he brought British textile technology to America, modifying it for United States use. He is now considered as the “Father of the American Industrial Revolution.”

Frances Cabot Lowell

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Frances Cabot Lowell, Nathan Appleton, and Patrick Johnson, who founded the Boston Manufacturing company built the first integrated textile mill, wanted to run their factories in a way that they could avoid the “evils” of British manufacturing. Lowell hired young, unmarried women from farms to work 12 hour days, 6 days a week. However, they also paid them triple the standard pay for domestic service. These women were supervised by matrons to hold them to a moral code, however they were also excited by their first taste of independence. One that they didn’t experience on the farms they worked at initially.

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At the height of the Industrial Revolution, Lowell recruited over 8,000 women for their textile mills. They made up an enormous 75% of the mill workforce in the United States. They came to be known as the Lowell Mill Girls.

Lewis Hine

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In 1908 Hine became the photographer for the National Child Labor Committee (NCLC).  Using his camera as a tool for social reform, his photographs were instrumental in changing the child labor laws in the United States. Over the next decade, Hine documented child labor and the conditions they had to work in.  At the time, the immorality of child labor was intentionally hidden from the public and photography was seen as a serious threat to the industry.

Hines was frequently threatened with violence or even death by factory police and foremen. In order to enter the mills, mines and factories, Hines was forced to take on disguises, like fire inspector, postcard vendor, bible salesman or even an industrial photographer making a record of factory machinery. His bravery led to several investigations by the NCLC into the working conditions for child workers in factories. 

Ella May Wiggins

A spinner in America Mill No. 1 with five children and no husband, Ella May Wiggins carved a place in history when she joined the Gastonia Textile Strike of 1929. She became famous for her the ballads she wrote including “The Big Fat Boss,” “Two Little Strikers,” and most-famously “The Mill Mother’s Song.” She coined them as “strike ballets” that took melodies from hillbilly songs that talked about tragedy.

“The Mill Mother’s Song” condemns industrial capitalism and criticized the industry for not allowing mother to have time to care for their children or pay them a decent wage.

Now listen to me, workers,
Both women and men,
We are sure to win our union,
If all would enter in.

Her message for fairness and a mother’s work affected many beyond her immediate reach. Politically, Wiggins actively traveled to Washington, D.C. to testify about labor practices in the South. In a time of racial tension, Wiggins believed in organizing African-Americans along with white.  She was able to influence her local NTWU branch to vote to admit African-Americans to the union.

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Henry Ford

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In 1914, Henry Ford introduced an unprecedented plan that received responses that ranged from genius to reckless. The profit sharing plan was simple, any worker over the age of 22 was eligible to receive five dollars a day for an eight hour work day. All the workers needed to do was prove that they were going to use the money wisely and not recklessly. Ford’s reasoning was that the plan would help the company retain workers, which would lower costs and boost productivity. He was correct. Between the years of 1914 and 1916, the company’s profits doubled.

Thought it may not sound as impressive when put in 1914 numbers, if adjusted for inflation, workers were being paid about $118 dollars a day, which works out to $14.25 per hour. However, Ford found that worker morale was correlated to efficiency and productivity, a correlation that still holds today.


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