The Textile Mills of Rhode Island

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Historic Slater Mill in Pawtucket, Rhode Island.

From the early 1800’s to the Great Depression of the 1930’s, much of the South’s cotton was sold to Rhode Island, where textile mills dominated the urban landscape.

While agriculture was the priority of the early Rhode Island settlers and continued to play an important role in the economy, textile production was the industry that shaped the young state and its communities. When technology advances enabled the United States to compete with the established textile manufacturers of Europe, it wasn’t long before the South’s cotton production had ready customers in New England.

Rhode Island and Massachusetts in particular had conditions ideal for the textile industry’s development – a growing society looking to diversify and find new investments, and a good supply of the water courses needed in those early days to power the mills.

The Importance of Cotton

Cotton has been used as a clothing fabric since ancient times. Historically however, the manufacturing process was labor intensive, making it an expensive garment fabric next to homespun wool and linen. That was until a succession of inventions were implimented in the 18th century. In 1769 Englishman Richard Arkwright invented a machine that would spin cotton into yarn. Then in 1794 Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin, which had further impact on the industry by reducing the cost of cleaning the raw cotton before spinning took place.

Until the War of Independence the South’s cotton was mostly shipped to Britain. When the Industrial Revolution arrived largely as a result of improvements in manufacturing technologies, costs of production went down at the same time as demand from expanding British domestic and colonial economies was increasing.

It wasn’t long before the emerging industrial nobility of the northern United States saw the opportunities that a home-based textile industry would bring. American cotton was good quality, and the slave labor used on all the large plantations made it cheap to grow.

Having lost the American colonies, Britain at least hoped to keep them economically dependent, and she guarded her industrial secrets jealously. America needed the technical expertise of British manufacturers, and in 1789 English textile mill foreman Samuel Slater was lured to Rhode Island, where he was able to build a modern mill from memory.

Textiles Mills Prosper in New England

Slater’s Mill was a great success, and by 1815 Rhode Island had 167 textile mills producing goods from cotton. While these early mills were generally small, they became the center of their communities, with many self-sufficient villages forming and growing around them. Women and children provided most of the labor, forced by circumstances into the factories to supplement declining returns from farming.

The Civil War disrupted cotton exports due to a combination of Union blockades and Confederate attempts to use the commodity as a bargaining tool for foreign support. While Europe looked elsewhere, in Rhode Island demand remained high. Despite strenuous Confederate efforts to prevent cotton falling into enemy hands, large amounts were smuggled north and the mills kept working.

The Decline of the Textile Industry

The latter part of the 19th Century saw an increase in awareness of social issues surrounding mill operations. Conditions were still very poor for the predominantly female and child workforce. By the early 1900’s children were still working 54-hour weeks and less than half the state’s school age population was getting a proper education.

Cotton prices continually fluctuated, and so did the fortunes of the Rhode Island textile mills and their communities. The First World War created another textile boom, but it was to be the last. By the 1920’s competition from other countries, new fabric materials and a general slowdown in world economies all contirbuted to depressing the industry. Efforts to reduce production brought worker discontent and debilitating industrial disputes further hastened the decline. By 1930 over 25% of Rhode Island’s textile mill workers were unemployed.

Rhode Island Textile Mills Today

Today the Rhode Island textile industry is limited to a small number of modest operations where skilled workers keep unique machinery going to satisfy niche markets. The heritage left by the industry is well preserved in a number of places, and many imposing mill buildings still stand. Some are disused, some are employed for a variety of other productive purposes and some have been converted into impressive apartment complexes.

Over time the mill villages of Rhode Island have been absorbed by urban expansion, but much evidence remains. as well as the fine mill buildings still standing, elaborate Victorian houses, company houses and stores, and former village centers still exist to indicate where many of these early communities began.

Reference:

  1. D’Amato Donald A, Coventry Celebration, A Pictorial History, Donning, Virginia Beach, 1991