The Industrial Revolution that began in Great Britain in the mid-1700s had made its way to America by 1790, despite efforts by the British to keep their technology to themselves. Machinery designed to accomplish work once done by hand signaled the birth of the factory system. New England's textile mills in the early 1800s altered the face of America's labor force to include women and children. The first half of the 19th century also saw the rise of trade unions representing skilled laborers.

Founding of Factory Towns

Samuel Slater, a British mill worker, is usually credited with starting the Industrial Revolution in America. He secretly brought his knowledge of British machinery to America and used it to build his Rhode Island textile mills. Slater employed entire families to work for him, building tenement housing and a general store at the site of his mill, effectively starting the first factory town. A collective of businessmen from Boston followed suit, opening several mills in Massachusetts in the 1820s. The factory system replaced the outwork system, in which craft workers performed separate stages of production in their own homes, and prompted would-be workers to relocate into factory towns.

Ladies at the Loom

Young, unmarried women came from all over New England, and even Canada, to work in the early textile mills of Waltham, Lowell and Lawrence, Massachusetts. Mill work offered women a measure of independence and a chance to earn higher wages than those paid to domestics or seamstresses. Most women came through a connection to a relative or friend already employed at the mills. In Lowell, which by the 1840s was the center of the country's textile industry, the mill women lived in company-owned boarding houses strictly supervised by matrons. The boarders were expected to abide by curfews and codes of behavior. Their workday was long, typically 12 hours, and their only day off was Sunday.

Labor's Littlest Hands

Factory owners viewed children as a source of cheap labor and easier to manage than adults. Poor families often were forced to hire out their children, and by 1818, about 2,000,000 children were in the labor force instead of in school. Young girls worked in the textile mills of Massachusetts and Pennsylvania. Young boys worked nights in New England's glass factories and were actively sought for work in building the Pennsylvania Canal. African American children were hired for the most menial of work, such as sweeping chimneys. The work for many of these children was dangerous, their workday was long, and working conditions were generally unhealthy.

The Seeds of Solidarity

Skilled laborers began organizing into local craft unions during the late 18th century and early 19th century. These unions operated on a local level and their purpose was to set prices for their work, press for safety in the workplace, and eventually push for a shorter work day. There were no organizations for unskilled laborers, such as factory workers, but this did not prevent factory workers from organizing strikes. Rhode Island textile workers went on strike for better working conditions in 1824, and during the 1830s, the women of the Lowell mills went on strike to protest wage cuts.