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American Factory System before the Civil War Essay

The introduction of the factory system into the United States brought economic prosperity to many urban cities. The factory system increased the market for manufactured goods and export products. This generally caused a population boom in many urban centers such as New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Boston. New methods of transportations were introduced to facilitate the increasing flow of goods and labor among states. Trade with European countries also increased as the number of exports skyrocketed. In essence, the factory system hastened the industrialization process in the United States before the Civil War.

In the South, the factory system for cotton spinning and weaving became firmly established in the United States as a result of the War of 1812. In Europe, textile machinery phased out domestic industries in which the worker owned his tools and implements. In America, however, there was little domestic weaving, and as such, the introduction of the factory system (for weaving) faced little opposition. In 1840, there were about 1200 cotton factories in the United States, operating 2 250 000 spindles. Ring or frame spinning had been invented, power looms were being manufactured in large numbers, and even exported.

The factory system in the United States, unlike in Europe, offered relatively high wages to workers. People from rural areas migrated to urban areas to work in factories. Typical of which was the so-called ‘Lowell factory girls.’ These girls worked in factories, earning an almost equal wages with men, and having ‘special’ privileges (the so-called ‘literary weeks’). In essence, the wide opportunities available in a rapidly developing country gave workers wide ‘preferential’ initiatives.

Factory girls left the mills to marry after three or four years, and child laborers elsewhere usually managed to find some other occupation by the time they reached their majority. In other words, the supply of labor in the factory system was fluid. Unlike a worker in Europe who was generally dependent on the factory system for subsistence, the worker in the United States was generally well-off in terms of wages and available opportunities.

The laborers saw the factory system as a temporary source of income. Many Americans still preferred the old fashion way of farming or engaging in trade. The factory system for them could not be counted as a permanent work. The relatively higher wage level of an ordinary factory worker in the United States is the proof of such claim.

Factory owners preferred a fluid supply of labor in their factories for efficiency purposes. This fluidity of labor was due temporarily to the shortage of labor supply in urban centers. Note that the manufacturing industry of the United States before the Civil War was still at its infancy stage. Moreover, much of American labor was still allocated to plantations in both North and South. Factory owners were forced to raise the wage level of workers above the minimum standard (unlike in Europe where wage levels were generally minimum or below minimum).

There was another reason why factory owners treated their workers with some degree of respect and fairness. The experiences of the Revolution were enough to convince them that maltreating an ‘ordinary’ American would always lead to bloody confrontation. Their fears were not without basis. In 1832, for example, a factory in New York was burned by the workers.

The factory management apparently withheld the salary of some members of the workforce for ‘apparent misconduct of behavior’ while working. This fear was momentarily. The factory owners saw that by increasing wage levels, labor productivity can be increased. This translated into huge profits. The conduct of ‘giving workers just compensation’ (except blacks) became incorporated to American labor practice. As such, one could only cite a very few number of radical/extreme labor movements in the country.

Reference

Morison, Samuel Eliot. 1963. The Oxford History of the American People. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


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