The Rise and Fall of the American Textile Industry

Posted by PITHOCRATES - July 2nd, 2013

History 101

Inventions and Innovation gave the United States a Burgeoning Textile Industry

The American textile industry was founded by businessmen.  And inventors and their inventions.  Not by any labor movement.  For before there could be a labor movement there first had to be industry to employ laborers.  And laborers weren’t creating these industries.  They were just selfishly waiting for others to do this so they could get a job in them one day.

We may never know which came first.  The chicken or the egg.  But we do know which came first when it comes to industries and laborers.  The mind came first then the muscle.  Rich people with a keen eye to judge a good investment.  Businessmen and entrepreneurs unafraid to take a risk.  And who will throw their body and soul into their business.  Then the non-risk taking people come along.  The laborers.  Who have no skin in the game.  Who wait until the minds come together to create something in which they can apply their labor.  And get a paycheck.

Samuel Slater built cotton mills in New England (1800ish).  Slatersville Rhode Island, the town he established, bears his name.  Francis Cabot Lowell and Paul Moody created a more efficient power loom and a spinning apparatus (early 1800s).  Elias Howe invented the sewing machine (mid 1800s).  And the lock-stitch.  Throw in a few more inventions, some improvements on past inventions and some innovation and you have a burgeoning U.S. textile industry.

The Luddites went about England smashing the Machines of the Mechanized Textile Industry

Cloth-making used to be a labor-intensive activity of highly skilled artisans.  For those who had the money to afford the costly clothing they made.  Many could not.  And made their own clothing in the home.  Women would spin fiber into yarn.  And weave the yarn into cloth.  Which was very labor intensive.  Allowing only a meager production of clothing for the family to wear.  Which meant a lot of darning for worn out clothing.  Hand-sewing patches to cover holes.  Sewing ripped seams back together.  And sewing together rips and tears.  Until the clothing was so worn that it couldn’t be darned anymore.

It is hard to fathom how important this was during early America.  A time of a mini ice age.  In the north the winters were long and they were cold.  This homemade clothing may not have been pretty.  But it could keep you from dying of exposure in those brutally cold winters.  The mechanization of the textile industry changed all of that.  Smart inventors and business owners used machines to automate the cloth-making process.  Allowing less skilled people to operate smart machines.  Producing more clothes for less.  Bringing the cost of clothing down.  So anyone could afford to buy clothing.

Of course, this did not make everyone happy.  As those machines replaced the need for highly skilled artisans.  Who demanded high prices for their craft.  Allowing only the rich to afford their wares.  They didn’t like these machines cutting into their high wages.  And did something about it.  A group of people called ‘Luddites’ went about England smashing the machines of the mechanized textile industry (1811-1817).  Hoping to force a return to the old ways of making clothing.  By skilled artisan.  Where only the rich could afford to buy clothing.

Unions have Exported Entire Industries to Emerging Economies to Escape Soaring Labor and Regulatory Costs

Just as the textile industry was modernizing and mechanizing two seamstresses formed the first all-women’s labor union in 1825.  The United Tailoresses of New York.  Protesting 16-hour workdays.  And the lack of a living wage.  Strikes followed.  The Lowell, Massachusetts, mill women’s strike in 1834.  The Manayunk, Pennsylvania, textile strike in 1834.  The Paterson, New Jersey, textile strike in 1835.  And the Llowell, Massachusetts, mill women’s strike in 1836.  In 1844 women formed and ran the Lowell Female Labor Reform Association.  Then more strikes.  The Cohoes, New York, cotton mill strike in 1882.  The Fall River, Massachusetts, textile strike in 1884.  The Augusta, Georgia, textile strike in 1886.  The Fall River, Massachusetts, textile strike in 1889.  In 1890 New York garment workers won the right to unionize.  Close their shops to nonunion workers.  And fire any nonunion workers on the payroll.  In 1900 the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union was founded.  In 1901 the United Textile Workers was founded.  Then came the New York shirtwaist strike in 1909.  Massachusetts passed the first minimum wage law for women and minors in 1912.  Then came the Lawrence, Massachusetts, textile strike in 1912.  Giving us the walking picket line.  Then the Paterson, New Jersey, textile strike in 1913.  The Amalgamated Clothing Workers union was founded in 1914.  Then the Fulton bag and cotton mill strike in 1914.  The Passaic, New Jersey, Textile Strike in 1926.  And so on.

The Luddites hated the machinery of the modern textile industry.  As they didn’t like the idea of replacing many highly skilled and well-paid artisans with automated machinery operated by fewer low-skilled laborers.  So they tried to smash the automated machinery.  To try and save their jobs.  Which the labor movement was happy to see go away.  For they would rather pack as many low-skilled laborers into those Dickensian factories as possible.  For the more members they had in their unions the more powerful they were.  And the more they could demand from the business owners.  They demanded a lot, too.  Higher wages, shorter hours and better working conditions.  So much so that the cost of labor rose while productivity fell.  Throwing the door open to foreign competition.

The big labor movements used their friends in government to protect their generous union contracts.  By passing pro-union legislation.  And placing tariffs on imported textile goods.  Keeping clothing prices high.  So business could earn enough to pay those generous union pay and benefits.  But this left these businesses uncompetitive in the world’s markets.  Which they wanted to sell in.  For it wasn’t only Americans that wore clothes.  Those union contracts increased labor costs so much that businesses found it hard to remain in business let alone remain profitable.  So they started leaving the United States during the 20th century.  Which is why today there is no U.S. textile industry.  Because of the high cost of labor.  And costly regulatory policies.  Where is the textile industry today?  In the emerging economies.  Where labor and regulatory costs are lower than in America.  While the standard of living for those employed in these factories are often higher than their fellow countrymen.  Which is what unions have often done in the United States.  Create good jobs in emerging economies.  By exporting entire industries from the United States to these emerging economies.  Where they can escape soaring labor and regulatory costs.

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