What a Tangled Web We Weave —Threading Together the Sociopolitical Fabrics of the American Textile Industry
Written for “Material Histories”
Critics: Jonah Rowen
The growth of the manufacturing sector within New England and Northeastern America is widely recognized as being paramount to the economic and social development of the United States. The communities that developed around textile mills (Lowell, New Bedford, etc.) and their associated waterways typologically correspond to some of the first instances of a localized, corporate, live-work system in the country, and arguably were pivotal to the introduction of factory life to America. The period associated with the flareup of growth tied to textile manufacturing (from the beginnings of industrialization up to its subsequent collapse) generated a poignantly diverse stock of new dwelling types. Consequently, due to the massive sociocultural shifts spurred by the textile industry, it is no wonder that the scholarly historiography of the American, industrial complex in relationship to textile production has traditionally focused on the textile manufacturing capacities of New England.
Nevertheless, despite the traditional narrative of the indomitable hegemony of the Northern, manufacturing sector regarding textile production due to factors such as geography, available technology, and necessity, the reality is much more complex, and tracing the esoteric patterns of labor, politics, and capital in relationship to the industry offers a fascinating history of domestic capital flight in the early-Modern era. In fact, notwithstanding Northern supremacy in this sector, in the nineteenth century, regional shifts in capital investment and the contrasting, political environments fostered between the North and the American South led to a precipitous regression in textile production in the traditional, industrial epicenters of the Northeast in favor of the flourishing and fertile textile industry of the American South, “the land of low wages, laissez-faire, and high profits.”1 By looking at the history of legislation, capital and property management, and unionization in the history of textiles, a narrative that further elucidates on the favorable, sociopolitical conditions that have historically enabled the production of textiles could be averred. Additionally, by looking at these overarching, economic and sociopolitical conditions in relationship to the novel, architectural conditions produced by the corporate, industrial landscapes of textile towns (conditions that generated a seamless, efficient, and holistically-integrated chain of capital management and production), an incredibly rich, nuanced narrative testifying to the historic resilience of the American textile industry, the myriad, interrelated processes that facilitated it, and the architecture it engendered that simultaneously allowed it exist could be read.
To totally comprehend the systems at play in the genesis of the American, textile industry, it is necessary to examine the technological milieu that was inseparable and concurrent in its development. The abrupt shift towards the industrialization of the textile production process was initially made possible by inventions such the famous spinning jenny and the water frame in the late 18th century. The textile industry was among the earliest mechanized industries in the nascent republic, and novel systems and models of production and labor allocation were first implemented here. The introduction of the water frame, powered by the natural flows of water in turbulent rivers and streams, and capable of spinning around 128 threads of cotton at a time, is particularly notable in architectural discourse as it disrupted the previous, more labor-intensive, decentralized, cottage-system of textile production, and was seminal in the propagation of the factory system throughout the American Northeast. The water frames enabled the creation, structuring, and organizing of a “factory system based on the use, first, of water power and later of the steam power that was soon to revolutionize it,” and the subsequent expansion of this system created a positive feed-back loop of production within the industry that “encouraged the growth of mills, so that more mills, more power, waterwheels, steam engines, spinning machines, machinery manufacturers, machine-tool manufacturers were needed in ever-increasing numbers.”2 The effects of the industrialization of the textile industry and the establishment of the factory system via the implementation of contemporary technologies such as the water frame can be read on the scales of both architecture and urban planning: in the former, the direct application of novel technologies and their integration with natural systems (water flows) led to the design of the textile factory as embodying the building as machine; in the latter, the search for suitable sources of water throughout the countryside to power the labor requirements of the factories led to the establishment of corporate, textile towns where new models of urban planning were expressed to accommodate for the sudden relocation of human capital.
Both phenomena pioneered the process of mass production in the textile industry, greatly increasing the scale of manufacturing and requiring additional immense resources (human and natural). The issue of scale and planning for the nascent, prototypical, corporate towns was first addressed in America via the so-called “Rhode Island System” of textile mill management, which was conceptualized and designed to emulate the characteristic patterns of familial life within an archetypical, New England village. The creators of the Rhode Island system first attempted to employ the mill with young women and children (some as young as seven years old) from the surrounding countryside; however, that idea was deemed impossible to realize due to the close-knit dynamics of the New England family. To accommodate for this paradigm, entire families were relocated to work within the mill, where they were (fortuitously for the proprietors) closely supervised – company-owned housing was provided nearby. Additionally, company stores were provided as well as company-sponsored schools that educated children in the basics of reading and writing – amenities that may have not been attainable beforehand for the workers in their previous homesteads. The fact that entire families were relocated no doubt provokes questions of architecture and town planning, as new frameworks, residences, and communal necessities were required to serve an adjusting labor force. Here, an architectural framework for the establishment of an efficient, textile industry can be discerned, and the narrative of the evolution of that framework proves incredibly insightful in understanding the dynamics of the textile industry itself. The Rhode Island System is notable in that it sets up the basics of a dialect between architecture and textile production that one sees repeatedly over the course of the history of the American textile industry, one that was evolved and later perfected in management frameworks such as the Waltham-Lowell system.
In contrast to the aforementioned Rhode Island System, the Waltham-Lowell system introduced the utilization of a vertically integrated system, where proprietors were granted complete control over all aspects and phases of textile production. This system operated in stark contrast to the mills of Rhode Island, “where most firms were run by families or individuals, possessed less capitalization, and were smaller than those of Lowell.”3 This immense amount of control over the entire process of textile production minimized interference from outside forces, and permitted a rapid, unfettered increase in manufacturing. Spinning, weaving, dying, cutting, etc., were now completed in relative cohesion in a seamless process within a single plant – the correspondent architecture created for this process embodied the concept of architecture as machine.4 This is most clearly visible in the section of an archetypical, Lowell, textile mill, where control of power from initial flows of water and the transfer of that harnessed power from machine to machine via of a complex system of parts betrays an incredible understanding of efficiency:
Water was funneled from the canal down into the mill through an intake known as a penstock. The water from the higher level fell, turning the turbine, and then returned to the river or to another canal via lower level tunnels called tailraces. Power was then transferred upstairs through the complex series of gears, wheels, and belts shown. Eventually the power turned the overhead line shafts on each floor. Individual leather belts running on pulleys connected each individual textile machine to the line shafts.5
That an architecture responded to these necessities and accommodated for hundreds of power lines, seamlessly integrating each process such that one powered another to maximize efficiency of textile production, is a lucid example of how architecture was both a necessary force in the production of textiles and simultaneously assisted in creating a positive feedback loop that enabled textile manufacturing (requiring more factories and more mill towns and more human labor) to rapidly expand at heretofore unseen scales.
The rate of manufacturing and expansion of the Waltham-Lowell system occurred so precipitously that an entirely localized supply of labor at the time would have been impossible in New England; to accommodate for this need, the mill proprietors hired young women and girls from the surrounding countryside (the infamous “Lowell mill girls”), thus provoking the questions of both housing and town planning. The mill girls initially lived in company boarding houses that were densely populated and densely placed within each mill town; the boarding house, in tandem with the social separation of a young woman from her family, effectively operated as both a social condenser and as an instrument of social control. There, all women were supervised by their superiors, and under corporate paternalism and their strict schedules, were compelled to comport themselves in manners deemed suitable by the company:
The boardinghouses were the centers of social life for women operatives after their long days in the mills . . . The community of women operatives, in sum, developed in a setting where women worked and lived together, 24 hours a day. Given the all-pervasiveness of this community, one would expect it to exert strong pressures on those who did not conform to group standards. Such appears to have been the case.6
That architecture, in combination with social isolation and the sociocultural milieu of the time, was able to contribute to the control of an isolated, marginalized labor force at the time is indicative of industrial architecture’s vital role in the establishment of the textile economy. Additionally, the corporate paternalism established by the severity of both space and time (“Furthermore, the work schedule was such that women had little opportunity to interact with those not living in company dwellings. They worked, in these years, an average of 73 hours a week . . . there was little time to spend with friends ‘off the corporation’”) was tempered by the provision of a variety of amenity spaces.7 In mill towns such as Lowell and Waltham, one could find relatively sophisticated amenities – such as stores in which allocated, corporate credit could be used to purchase goods; coffeehouses; churches for myriad, Christian denominations; various entertainment spaces such as theaters; etc. – that were provided to support the livelihood of the girls and recreate the image of a true city. Despite the incredible rigidity of their working schedule, corporate paternalism, heavy working conditions, and relatively large distances from their homes and families, the Lowell mill girls continued to seek employment within these corporate towns to earn more money than they could previously, and to experience a cultured, urbane life in “the city.”
In addition to constructing, furnishing, managing the mills and their human resources, the proprietors of the mills essentially controlled all real estate and development, and in acting as the developer for all building, corporations instinctively imposed repetitive designs on factories and housing schema that were intended to maximize total efficiency – “housing in front of each set of factories was within walking distance, major streets were developed from extant thoroughfares, and new streets were laid out in grid fashion among the factories. Between the improved canals, public and commercial sites were also established.”8 As a largely omnipotent and unsupervised landholder, the corporation acted as a de facto planning agency that determined what lands would be sold for private and industrial usage, and the textile companies were largely permitted to devote themselves simultaneously to manufacturing and controlling the community's land use, private real estate, and the location of factories with their adjacent housing. Due to the mass amounts of corporate and private development enterprises partaking in the continual planning of the mill town, land speculation was fostered that was “sufficient for the emergency of a wide range of services, heretofore common only in settled urban areas.”9 The remarkable amount of jurisdiction and authority granted to the textile mill companies in both the management of their land and their employees allowed them to create an immensely resilient system of architecture, urban planning, and property and capital management that both sustained the welfare of the company and, in the long run, allowed the company to continue existing and continue exerting dominance over the production of textiles and the lives of their laborers.
Nevertheless, over time the sustainability of the system approached levels of precariousness in the Northeast; as competition grew in the domestic, textile industry and wages declined, strikes began to occur; after increased worker unionization, and legislation from state governments working against child labor practices, the system proved unprofitable and collapsed in the North. However, the textile manufacturing industry was not totally annihilated, as the contrasting, political environments fostered between the North and the American South led to a migration of textile production from the Northeast to a flourishing and fertile textile industry within the American South, “the land of low wages, laissez-faire, and high profits.”10 People in small, southern towns are said to be steeped in traditional values; they obey their superiors unquestioningly, and were hesitant to unionize. For wealthy industrialists looking to relocate their mill towns to a permissive and compliant market, the South was a “region overflowing with ‘docile’ labor – it was a place where state and local governments were amenable to the will of manufacturers” and embraced them as a method to revitalize the economy of a devastated, postbellum area of the country.11 Because of this docility, many corporate institutions began imagining the South as a place to escape the state regulations imposed by the state and from the demands of legislative and unionized institutions. The Waltham system of factory mills mentioned previously was arguably perfected in the American South, and the sociopolitical and cultural climate that fostered the system allowed it to exert paternalistic primacy over contemporary political conditions and state-level legislation.
The Waltham-Lowell system, despite retaining its overarching systems and management structure (as well as its need for resources), demonstrates a notable resilience to sustain an textile industry by its capacity to evolve and accommodate to the turbulent period between the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (when textile corporations began to settle in the postbellum South en masse), these changes could particularly be seen in the urban planning of the new, Southern, mill towns, such as Shawmut in Alabama.12 Like other comprehensively planned, company mill towns in the Northeast and South, Shawmut was influenced by and demonstrated the prevailing planning principles and concepts of its contemporary epoch: “designed in 1907 by an unidentified landscape architect, Shawmut bears the imprint of the City Beautiful movement, with its dominant axis, tightly controlled, geometric street pattern, and more generous house setbacks.”13 The layout of the town highlights with relative clarity the processes of production central to the vitality of the town and the power relationships between workers and managers within a prototypical, Southern mill village. A single principal axis organizes the spaces of the village. Beginning at the cotton warehouse, and running through the three-story factory, where all production of cloth took place, the axis continued and moved across a public circle fundamental to the town (which was intended to be the focus of community life in Shawmut), before materializing itself as a wide, central avenue. This avenue, drawing attention with its landscaped medians rigorously punctuated with magnolia trees, hosted the homes of the mill supervisors and superintendents. Amenities such as “the village school, Baptist and Methodist churches” – note the adaption of the religious amenities to the Christian denominations prevalent in the region – “a motion picture auditorium, and a hotel/cafeteria” were arrayed around the circle to reasonably center it as the focus of the public, while housing for the general population of workers was situated on streets radiating from the epicenter of the circle and subsidiary streets connecting those rays.14
Shawmut's design unmistakably establishes the primacy of the mill as the economic engine that drives the village and additionally emphasizes the importance of the mill managers, living directly opposite the mill on the far side of the circle. That the power structure of the mill could still be enforced via architecture and urban planning, despite changes to time and place, indicates the resilience of the textile corporations’ systems of manufacturing and their continued ability to control their labor force. The provision of contemporary urban planning and germane amenities to the town demonstrates the corporations thought processes that seemingly acknowledge the pivotal role that space planning plays in the construction of their own, internal societies, and the success of the town against external factors and forces was more or less dependent on the corporations capacity to placate their labor force via architecture and its services (i.e., providing a “good,” “urban” lifestyle otherwise not bestowed elsewhere).
As previously noted, the manifested power that the urban planning and architecture of the mill town engendered was so influential that it was capable of manipulating legislation and politics to assure the continued survival of the textile manufacturing system, this is particularly visible in the context of debates on child labor at the time. One major factor in the relocation of textile companies from their original mill towns situated along the riverbanks of Massachusetts to Alabama was a cheap and malleable source of labor; at the time, unlike Massachusetts, Alabama lacked state legislation mandating the minimum age for hiring children, and the practice of employing children well under the age of ten, “whether officially on the payroll or as ‘helpers’ to parents or older siblings” at Southern Textile mills was relatively commonplace, as indicated by the vociferous debates between anti-child-labor law forces within the state and the powerful institutions favoring such a practice.15 The correspondent architecture of the textile mill towns itself became a principal component of the debates, with numerous lobbyists representing various textile mill companies espousing the positive impacts of the mill town, “the beauties of the village, the library and the church built by the company,” on the entire families that often found themselves employed by textile corporations.16 This is extremely notable, as it demonstrates the way in which the institution framework of the corporate village, its capitalistic agenda, and the sociocultural façade upon which it predicates itself (in this case, domesticity), coalesce to promote the agenda of the textile industry. In fact, the failed passing of a 1901 child labor and education bill through the Alabama legislature had been predicated on the textile sectors successful argument that “child-labor regulation would be a bane to the lives of families who worked in [the] Alabama City mill, since ‘the whole family had to work in order to get a decent living.”17 Wealthy and impoverished Alabamians alike maintained that the textile mills acted as public benefactors that allowed for economic well-being and supported the livelihoods of entire families, “for the overwhelming majority of textile operatives, the labor of children was essential for familial economic stability, and, therefore they viewed favorably mill owners who gave work to all family members” as well as relatively favorable domestic and environmental conditions in the form of the maintained, stable corporate mill town.18 The legitimating image of worker dependency was additionally reinforced by the structure of the mill towns, in which the owners often “founded and administered the town, built churches, hired ministers, rented houses inexpensively, organized sports teams, dispatched doctors and public health nurses, and constructed utilities and amenities” that would otherwise have been available.19 Thus, for those who entered the corporate system, it always made sense to be grateful for the mills given the lack of opportunities elsewhere and support it despite the harsh conditions that may have been deleterious to their families and personal welfare.
In the history of industrialization in the United States, the production of cloth and textiles plays an essential and critical role; what is particularly noteworthy about the industry is how new models and paradigms of architecture, planning, and systems were applied in order to maintain efficiency (via the rigorous design of the factory and the placement of buildings), control and placate a mercurial labor force (via the provision of urbane, communal amenities, an and the establishment of new stocks of housing), and provide the overarching system the capacity to persevere against forces that may threaten to diminish its power. Over two centuries, the rise and fall of the textile industry in the United States can be interpreted as a struggle in the capacity of the system (articulated over time in various, novel forms of architecture), to maintain its own agency and its paternalistic control over its workforce. This is visible in the eventual influence that a “perfected” Waltham-Lowell system began to exert over local politics in the South, where a potent combination of architecture, planning, and a particular sociocultural milieu ultimately was able to manipulate state-level legislation that would have been devastating to the economy of the textile mill. Indeed, it should not be taken as a coincidence that the textile industry in the whole of the United States collapsed precipitously after the passing of laws against child labor (ergo, when external forces were so great the system was no longer able to adapt), with textile markets moving to less developed economies. In reading the overarching, economic, architectural, and sociopolitical narratives that were engendered by the corporate, industrial landscapes of American, textile towns, a fascinatingly nuanced history attesting to the historic resilience of a niche sector of the economy could be observed, and an understanding of these interrelated processes that assisted in facilitating it provides a novel understanding of a timeworn industry.
1English, Beth. A Common Thread. (Athens, Georgia) University of Georgia Press. 39.
2Hills, Richard L. “Sir Richard Arkwright and His Patent Granted in 1769.” Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London. (London, United Kingdom). Royal Society. 254
3Well, Francois. “Capitalism and Industrialization in New England, 1815-1845.” The Journal of American History. (Oxford, United Kingdom). Oxford University Press. 1341.
4Refer to Image 1.
5“Transverse view of Manville Company’s No. 3 Mill, Manville, RI, 1874.” nps.gov. https://www.nps.gov/nr/TWHP/wwwlps/lessons/21boott/21visual1.htm (accessed May 1, 2018).
6Dublin, Thomas. “Women, Work, and Protest in the Early Lowell Mills: ‘the Oppressing Hand of Avarice Would Enslave Us.” http://invention.smithsonian.org/centerpieces/whole_cloth/u2ei/u2materials/dublin.html (accessed May 1, 2018)
7Dublin, Thomas. “Women, Work, and Protest in the Early Lowell Mills: ‘the Oppressing Hand of Avarice Would Enslave Us.” http://invention.smithsonian.org/centerpieces/whole_cloth/u2ei/u2materials/dublin.html (accessed May 1, 2018)
8Candee, Richard M. “New Towns of the Early New England Textile Industry.” Perspectives in Vernacular Architecture. Vernacular Architecture Forum. 42.
9Candee, Richard M. “New Towns of the Early New England Textile Industry.” Perspectives in Vernacular Architecture. Vernacular Architecture Forum. 42.
10English, Beth. A Common Thread. (Athens, Georgia) University of Georgia Press. 39.
11English, Beth. A Common Thread. (Athens, Georgia) University of Georgia Press. 39.
12Refer to Image 2.
13Blythe, Robert W. “Unravelling the Threads of Community Life: Work, Play and Place in the Alabama Mill Villages of the West Point Manufacturing Company.” Perspectives in Vernacular Architecture. Vernacular Architecture Forum. 137-138.
14Blythe, Robert W. “Unravelling the Threads of Community Life: Work, Play and Place in the Alabama Mill Villages of the West Point Manufacturing Company.” Perspectives in Vernacular Architecture. Vernacular Architecture Forum. 138.
15English, Beth. A Common Thread. (Athens, Georgia) University of Georgia Press. 71.
18English, Beth. A Common Thread. (Athens, Georgia) University of Georgia Press. 85.
19Leiter, Jeffrey. “Continuity and Change in the Legitimation of Authority in the Southern Mill Towns. Social Problems. (Oxford, United Kingdom). Oxford University Press. 541