The experience of those employed in the arms industry’s pursuit of mechanized
interchangeable production, in what would later be called by historians,
the “Second Industrial Revolution,” differed significantly from that of factory
workers employed in the manufacture of textiles, in the so-called “First
For both, however, the first half of the 19th century was a time
of rapid change from a rural society, where most people adapted their lives
to natural cycles, to a society in which people responded to factory bells,
where work was the same year round and did not cease at nightfall. Such was
the case at the cotton mills that grew in Lowell, Massachusetts, and at Springfield
Armory in Springfield, Massachusetts. Successive waves of immigrants came
to each to work alongside the indigenous Yankees. All kinds of Yankee, Irish,
French-Canadian, and Polish names, still found in these cities today, slowly
appeared on the pay rolls as the century progressed.
In 1790, the first permanent American cotton spinning mill in Pawtucket,
Rhode Island were established. Four years later, in 1794, the first national
armory in Springfield, Massachusetts, was established. Both factories employed
new technology developed in the Blackstone River Valley where Pawtucket was
located and elsewhere. These two types of industries, however, differed from
each other in important ways.
Producing firearms for the nation’s armed forces in the unhappy event of
war, Springfield Armory created a high-value product for the government.
Its workforce employed highly skilled men and some boys at relatively high
wages. Only during the early 1820’s, when Armory wages fell behind those
being offered by the textile industry for a few years, was this pattern altered.
Workers in the private arms industry soon found themselves also competing
for workers with Springfield Armory. The result was competition for labor
resulting in higher wages. Competition between workers was also fostered
by a system of “piece work” whereby arms workers were paid by the specific
number of products they produced.
With increased mechanization during the period, however, armory workers
experienced, as did the textile workers to an even greater degree, some loss
of control over the work environment. Production machinery increasingly determined
the pace of production. However, wages for arms worker continued high, blunting
limited worker dissent in the 1830s and 40s. Generally, the high scale of
wages allowed workers to afford the purchase or rental of homes in the city
and region. Mill housing, as found in the textile industry, never existed
for arms industry workers though some factory housing was built by some private
arms manufacturers. Work at Springfield Armory was so valued that many men
spent their entire working lives at the Armory, often passing on their position
to family members and friends.
The cotton industry, by contrast to the arms industry, manufactured massive
amounts of low cost textiles for mass consumption. Initially employing a
workforce of nine children between the ages of 7 and 12, the mechanized cotton
industry expanded from Pawtucket to Lowell in the early 19th century
and adults as well as children soon peopled the massive brick and stone mills.
Young women, known as "mill girls", were an innovation of the early
textile industry in New England. Lowell's mill workforce in the antebellum
decades consisted largely of young single women from the farming communities
of northern New England. Most were between 15 and 25, signing on for short
stints that rarely exceeded a year at a time. Overall, they averaged about
three years of employment before leaving the mills for marriage, migration
to the west, other employment, or return to their hometowns.
Dissatisfaction with the work environment was a major reason for leaving
the mills. In the 1830s and 40s, women workers protested against mill conditions.
Their labor movement was not a narrow lobbying effort, but a broad reform
campaign embracing a wide range of issues and underpinned by firm ideals.
In return for monthly cash wages, female workers in Lowell agreed to regulations
that varied little from company to company: work for at least a year live
in a company boardinghouse, attend church. Many worked for a year and went
back to the farm, some repeating this pattern two or three times.