Slater’s Spinning Mill Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Slater’s mill was the first modern industrial mill in the Americas. It introduced both modern textile- manufacturing techniques and modern business management practices to the fledgling United States.

Summary of Event

On December 20, 1790, the waters of the Cotton industry Blackstone River surging through Sargeant’s Trench in the tiny village of Pawtucket, Rhode Island, began to turn a waterwheel outside Ezekiel Carpenter’s clothier shop. The wheel transmitted power to America’s first successful Textile industry textile machinery built on the Arkwright pattern. A new style of doing business, as well as a great American Industrial Revolution;America industry, had been established. [kw]Slater’s Spinning Mill (Dec. 20, 1790) [kw]Mill, Slater’s Spinning (Dec. 20, 1790) [kw]Spinning Mill, Slater’s (Dec. 20, 1790) Spinning mills Spinning technology Textile industry Machines;textile manufacturing Industrial Revolution;textiles [g]United States;Dec. 20, 1790: Slater’s Spinning Mill[2940] [c]Manufacturing;Dec. 20, 1790: Slater’s Spinning Mill[2940] [c]Science and technology;Dec. 20, 1790: Slater’s Spinning Mill[2940] [c]Economics;Dec. 20, 1790: Slater’s Spinning Mill[2940] Slater, Samuel Arkwright, Sir Richard Brown, Moses Strutt, Jedediah

Both were imported from England, results of the ambitious plans of Samuel Slater and Sir Richard Arkwright. Born in 1768 in Belper, Derbyshire, England, Slater had grown up near the banks of the Derwent, a river that powered the world’s first water-driven spinning mill. In the same year, Arkwright finally succeeded in organizing the elements of cotton preparation for the spinning industry that was destined to change the course of world history. Within the next two years, Arkwright received patents for his various machines and built his first mill.

When one of Arkwright’s partners, Jedediah Strutt, required land and a water privilege to build a new mill in nearby Milford, it was William Slater, Samuel’s father and well-to-do farmer and landowner, who arranged the deal. As a result, Samuel was apprenticed to Strutt for the usual seven-year indenture. Because of his father’s position and his own aptitude, however, Samuel’s apprenticeship was not as a laborer or mechanic but as a trainee in bookkeeping, mathematical calculations, and administration. From Strutt, Samuel learned that the secret to proper management of a water-powered mill was to establish and maintain a continuous flow of materials at the pace at which machines could process them, and to maintain the proper configuration of machines so that no part of the manufacturing process created a bottleneck to hinder that flow.

During this period, England was depending on the American colonies to provide many of the raw materials used in clothmaking; the colonies were not seen as a site for the manufacturing process itself. However, during this period America was acquiring mechanics and a nucleus of small industries centered on shipbuilding. A number of skilled American craftspeople were experimenting in building textile machines, including versions of the Arkwright models. By 1786, two brothers from Scotland, Thomas and Alexander Barr, had produced a carding machine and a spinning frame of the Arkwright design through a subsidy from the Massachusetts General Court, the state’s general assembly. Although most of these early machines were never productively operated, they were placed on display in East Bridgewater, Massachusetts, to serve as teaching models. Merchants in adjoining Rhode Island were among those experimenting in textile manufacturing.

The Slater Mill in 1927.

(Library of Congress)

Meanwhile, in England, Samuel Slater came to the end of his apprenticeship. Seeing that his country was rapidly becoming saturated with textile manufacturers, he determined that his chances for success would be better in the young United States. On September 1, 1789, Slater left Derbyshire for London, and in November he landed in New York. He secured employment immediately with the New York Manufacturing Company in lower Manhattan, but he was soon disillusioned and sought out Moses Brown, a Rhode Island Quaker who had been experimenting for some years, without success, to mechanize textile production.

In January, 1790, Slater inspected the Pawtucket works of Smith Brown, Moses’ nephew, and Moses’ son-in-law William Almy and advised the partners that their machinery was unworkable. After some negotiations and a trial period, Slater signed a partnership agreement with Almy and Smith Brown, persuaded them and Moses to write off the machinery they had optimistically collected, and with other craftsmen either rebuild the machinery or build new units. Among those involved were Sylvanus Brown (no relation to Moses), who cut the wooden parts, and David Wilkinson, who did the metal work, assisted by Pliny Earle, a Quaker from Leicester, Massachusetts, who made the hand cards, and an elderly African American named Samuel Brunius Jenks. By the end of the year, the machinery was installed in Ezekiel Carpenter’s fulling mill.

The next several years were a time of frustration for Slater, who tried unsuccessfully to introduce modern management methods into the new concern. He considered his responsibility to deliver the most yarn possible and that of his partners to develop markets in which to sell this yarn. Slater’s partners, however, were reluctant to manufacture anything until orders had been secured. In 1793, a 49-by-29-foot building containing two floors and an attic was constructed about 20 rods up the Blackstone River from Carpenter’s mill, and there Slater organized the machinery for maximum production. Slater also encouraged narrowing the scope of manufacture so that the mill specialized in producing a great volume of a few basic items, thereby functioning as a wholesale outlet for shops along the entire eastern seaboard. Still frustrated by his partners’ conservatism, Slater in 1797 constructed the White Mill, directly across the river from the Old Slater Mill, in partnership with his father-in-law and several brothers-in-law.

Significance

By 1827, Slater held no fewer than thirteen separate partnerships throughout New England. Soon, some 165 cotton mills were working to full capacity in New England. America had entered the Industrial Age, and Samuel Slater’s contribution fully justified the title bestowed on him by Andrew Jackson, Father of American Manufactures.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gordon, John Steele. “Technology Transfer.” American Heritage 41, no. 1 (February, 1990): 18. Recounts how Slater brought the textile industry to America in the late eighteenth century.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pursell, Carroll W. The Machine in America: A Social History of Technology. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995. This history of the Industrial Revolution includes information about Slater and changes in the American and British textile industries.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rivard, Paul E. Samuel Slater: A Short, Interpretive Essay. Pawtucket, R.I.: Slater Mill Historic Site, 1974. Although brief (twenty-nine pages), this booklet provides a comprehensive interpretive essay on Slater’s role in the birth of the American textile industry.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Thompson, Mack. Moses Brown: Reluctant Reformer. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1962. Contains a chapter on the Pawtucket story, with emphasis on Moses Brown.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ward, Nathan. “1790.” American Heritage 41, no. 8 (December, 1990): 42. Commemorates the opening of the Pawtucket mill in December, 1790. Describes Slater’s role in opening the mill and his adaptation of Arkwright’s spinning machine.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">White, George S. Memoir of Samuel Slater: The Father of American Manufactures. 1836. Reprint. New York: Augustus M. Kelley, 1967. Still the most definitive source of factual information, White’s work assembles and preserves much personal detail, including a wide selection of Slater’s correspondence and other primary documents concerning his life and career.

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