Slater Mill and Rhode Island System
Essay by Talya Housman, Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of History at Brown University
On December 2, 1789, Samuel Slater wrote to Moses Brown “a few days ago I was informed that you wanted a managed of cotton spinning, & c. in which business I flatter myself that I can give you the greatest satisfaction…as I have had opportunity, and an oversight, of Sir Richard Arkwright’s works.”1White, G S, and L Woodbury. Memoir of Samuel Slater: the Father of American Manufactures Connected with a History of the Rise and Progress of the Cotton Manufacture in England and America. Philadelphia,1836: 72. [link]
Though this letter sounds like a typical business proposition, this letter defied the British government and changed the course of history in the United States. Richard Arkwright’s spinning frame was the very latest in English technology. It allowed a single unskilled worker to spin 96 threads at once. Back in America, yarn was still homemade by individual people hand spinning cotton, wool, or flax using a spinning wheel. The British guarded the secret of the spinning frame carefully, forbidding the export of textile machinery or even designs for textile machinery. To thwart this secrecy, Slater had carefully memorized details of the Arkwright’s design and travelled across the Atlantic with the plans tucked safely in his head. Like many Americans, Moses Brown, who was the son of a wealthy mercantile family, was desperate to get his hands on these British designs. Brown replied: “we are destitute of a person acquainted with water-frame spinning” and even promised Slater that “if thou wilt come and do it, thou shalt have all the profits made of them.”2White, G S, and L Woodbury. Memoir of Samuel Slater: the Father of American Manufactures Connected with a History of the Rise and Progress of the Cotton Manufacture in England and America. Philadelphia, 1836: 73. [link] After a few false starts and some back and forth negotiation, Samuel Slater succeeded in building the first mill in America to automatically produce cotton yarn. On December 20, 1790, the Slater’s mill cranked out the first batch. Slater’s mill was the first of its kind not only in Rhode Island, but in the rest of the United States.
In order for the mill to churn out yarn at this increased pace, Slater needed a few things. First, his mill ran on water power. The mill’s water-wheel was the heart of its power. This meant that ensuring a steady, reliable flow of water to the mill’s water wheel was vital to the mill’s survival. Slater build dams and ponds to control water speed.
Slater also needed an increased amount of workers. The way Slater managed employees was a model for how future mills organized their workforce. To make yarn as efficiently as possible, Slater created an assembly line where he split the process into a series of steps with a particular person assigned to do each step. Steps were assigned to employees based on age and gender. Slater hired entire families, from able-bodied men and women right down to children, to work in his mill. In order to make it possible for these families to work long hours on little pay, Slater built a town around the mill where workers could live alongside one another and shop at the company store. The town, completed in 1807, was named Slatersville and was home to more than 300 people by 1810.3Rhode Island System of Labor. In Gale Encyclopedia of U.S. Economic History, 3:1139–41. Farmington Hills, MI: Gale, 2015, 1140. This system of towns organized around a mill as a center of employment became known as “the Rhode Island System” and was widely copied across the United States. By 1815 Rhode Island was home to 167 textile mills.4https://worldhistory.us/american-history/the-textile-mills-of-rhode-island.php Vast swathes of Rhode Island once centered around mills including Bristol, Burrillville, Central Falls, Coventry, Cumberland, Lincoln, Pawtucket, Westerly, West Warwick, Woonsocket, and Valley Falls.
Over time, Rhode Island industry faced increasing competition from the Southern United States and the global market, forcing mills to close and the nature of Rhode Island towns and life to change. Although many mills closed their operations, many of the buildings and dams built by Samuel Slater and his successors still stand. Some mill towns like Hope Village and Berkeley Mill Village were turned into historic districts. Many mills were renovated into luxury apartment complexes such as Pocasset Mill, Greystone Mill, and Harris Mill, to name a few. Despite changes in purpose, the urban plans, buildings, and dams of the Rhode Island factory town still define much of Rhode Island’s geography today.
The story of Slater’s Mill demonstrates how broadly the Industrial Revolution changed Rhode Island life. Not only was the mill innovative technology smuggled from England, but the creation of assembly lines, mill towns, and a system of dams and rivers to control water flow fundamentally changed the physical land of Rhode Island as well as the lifestyles and work of Rhode Island’s citizens. The Industrial Revolution’s contributions to Rhode Island and the United States were much more than mere technological advances; they were fundamental changes to the American way of life.
Assembly line: A line of machines and workers assigned a specific task to assemble a complete product. This is in contrast to having a skilled worker complete a product from start to finish
What was so important about Richard Arkwright’s spinning frame? Why do you think someone would want to steal this secret?
How did Slater’s Mill impact Rhode Island?
How would you describe the “Rhode Island System” to a friend?
What caused many Rhode Island mills to close after they had been successful for many years?
- 1White, G S, and L Woodbury. Memoir of Samuel Slater: the Father of American Manufactures Connected with a History of the Rise and Progress of the Cotton Manufacture in England and America. Philadelphia,1836: 72. [link]
- 2White, G S, and L Woodbury. Memoir of Samuel Slater: the Father of American Manufactures Connected with a History of the Rise and Progress of the Cotton Manufacture in England and America. Philadelphia, 1836: 73. [link]
- 3Rhode Island System of Labor. In Gale Encyclopedia of U.S. Economic History, 3:1139–41. Farmington Hills, MI: Gale, 2015, 1140.