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The American System of Manufactures

Published onApr 22, 2021
The American System of Manufactures

The spirit of manufacture has taken deep root among us and its foundations are laid in too great expence to be abandoned.

Thomas Jefferson, 1809 ([62], 124)

By 1810, on the eve of the second war with England, the second census of the United States estimated the value of manufactures at $127 million. This was revised by Tench Coxe to at least $172 million, exclusive of agricultural and natural products—better than double the figure for 1790. By this time, as reported by Albert Gallatin, secretary of the treasury under Jefferson, the United States was exporting more than it was importing of many products, and thus could be considered self-sufficient in those areas of manufacturing.

This growing manufacturing prosperity led to increasingly bitter rivalry between the former colonies and England. When England, in her war with France, blockaded the French coast and seized American merchant ships that were attempting to trade with the French, she refused to recognize naturalized American sailors and impressed most of them into naval service. At first Jefferson retaliated by stopping all trade with Europe. This nearly ruined American shipping before the new president, James Madison, changed the regulation to apply only to England. Although the British then lifted their blockade of American ships, word did not reach the United States until after Congress had declared war on England. After a costly exchange of victories and defeats, the conflict was finally brought to a close with the signing of the Treaty of Ghent in 1814.

The unwanted war was not without benefits to the United States. It tested the strength of the young nation, made Andrew Jackson an important political force, and had what appeared to be a beneficial effect on industry and the general economy. By cutting off all foreign imports, it generated a boom in American manufacturing not unlike that to be repeated a little more than 100 years later after World War I. Many stock companies were hastily formed to establish industries of every kind, with the result that native competition for labor and materials pushed wages much higher as raw materials doubled and tripled in value. A hollow sense of prosperity was also stimulated by the inflationary policy of issuing bank notes and treasury bonds with no backup in hard gold or silver. As a result, money was losing value at the same time that prosperity appeared to be increasing. As usual, the public ignored warnings of impending disaster and gloried in the belief that it had achieved a permanent state of prosperity.

The postwar period, however, brought a drastic drop in the demand of the government for products, and when the strong flow of imports began again the buyer’s market that resulted brought on a calamitous drop in prices that ruined many merchants and many of the new manufacturing companies. In 1816, Congress attempted to turn the tide by invoking strong protective tariffs along the lines suggested by Alexander J. Dallas, secretary of the treasury under Madison. Dallas divided American manufactures into three classes that help to define the state of manufactures of the time. In the first class he placed those products that were firmly established and whose production met all or almost all of the demands for domestic consumption. It included cabinetry and woodwork, carriages, weaponry, iron castings, window glass, paper, books, leather products, and hats. For these products Dallas recommended a protective tariff as high as 40 percent. The second class comprised those manufactures whose production was not yet sufficient to meet domestic demands but could be stimulated with the help of a smaller tariff. This class included larger iron manufactures plus shovels, spades, axes, hoes, scythes, nails, pewter, tin, copper and brass manufactures, coarser fabrics, and spirits, beer, ale, and porter. Dallas’s third class covered products whose production was yet so limited as to make the United States almost entirely dependent upon foreign sources. It included the finer fabrics, silk, hosiery, gloves, some hardware, cutlery, pins and needles, china, porcelain and earthenware, and glass holloware. Dallas recommended that tariffs in this class be permitted to rise and fall according to changes in domestic manufacture and expressed a strong sentiment in favor of stiffer tariffs in order to help the weaker companies.

The economic depression was too deep to be easily turned upward again, and not until 1819—after the United States Bank resumed species payment and after the prices of commodities, employment, and industrial activity had been reduced to more logical levels—did the general economic state of the nation begin to improve. The citizens of every state began to organize societies for manufacture, such as the American Society for the Encouragement of Domestic Manufacture, founded in 1816 in New York City, which invited manufacturers, merchants, scientists, and men and women everywhere to cooperate in building American industry. The society, with active assistance from Daniel D. Tompkins, vice-president of the United States, established additional groups in Baltimore, Lancaster, Hartford, Middletown, and other cities in New England and the more western states. In 1817, President James Monroe and past presidents Adams and Jefferson were also elected members of the American Society. In the interest of a healthy national economy, it seemed entirely appropriate at the time for elected officers of the country to lend their personal support to the expansion of manufactures. That same year, the Columbian Institute for the Promotion of the Arts and Sciences was incorporated in Washington. By 1823 over 200 manufacturing companies had been issued corporate charters by New York State, and hundreds of unincorporated companies were also engaged in manufacturing there. By the end of the decade a second New York organization, the American Institute of the City of New York, was established for the purpose of encouraging and promoting domestic industry by conducting exhibitions of machinery and manufactures and maintaining a library and a collection of models.

The New England Society for the Promotion of Manufactures and the Mechanic Arts was organized in 1826 in Boston, and within five years there were some 240 manufacturing concerns active in Massachusetts. In a pattern similar to that of the Conservatoire des Arts et Métiers of Paris and the National Repository in London, the New England Society began to hold exhibitions, and to award prizes to new and useful inventions, machinery, experiments in chemistry, and natural philosophy and premiums for the best specimens of the skill and ingenuity of mechanics, in the halls over Faneuil Market in Boston. The first five sales of industrially manufactured products brought $2 million.

These combines of private citizens uniting in purpose and joining their resources for personal gain and for the economic stability of the nation were the forerunners of the institutions of democratized capital that characterize American industry. It was natural, therefore, that an interest in the art and science of design and engineering should emerge as men found new meanings for words such as machine, engine, mechanics, and manufacture and learned to marshall their experience into systems of knowledge upon which more specialized careers could be built. Information was organized into subject areas for the lecture halls of the institutes, and young men sought out their classrooms as springboards for careers in industry. The concept of design as a means by which a plan for a product could be conceived in the mind and laid out in detail for analysis and evaluation before it was manufactured began to expand the traditional use of the word design beyond artistic composition and decoration.

William Dunlap, in his monumental History of the Rise and Progress of the Arts of Design in the United States (1834), describes the contemporary use of design:

Design, in its broadest signification, is the plan of the whole, whether applied to building, modeling, painting, engraving, or landscape gardening; in its limited sense it denotes merely drawing; the art of representing form. ([28], I, 9)

The progress of the arts in design is from those that are necessary to those that delight, ennoble, refine. Man first seeks shelter from the elements, and defense from savages of his own, or the brute kind. In his progress to that perfection destined for him, by his bountiful Creator, he feels the necessity of refinement and beauty. In this progress, architecture is first in order, sculpture second, painting third, and engraving follows to perpetuate by diffusing the forms invented by her sisters. ([28], I, 10)

The mechanic arts have accompanied and assisted the fine arts in every step of their progress. To the sciences, they have been indispensable handmaids. In all the ameliorations of man’s earthly sojourn, the mechanic and fine arts have gone hand in hand. The painter, the sculptor, the engraver, and the architect, will all acknowledge their obligations to the mechanic arts, and the mechanic will be pleased by the consciousness that he has aided the arts of design in arriving at their present state of perfection. ([28], I, 11)

The line between artist, the designer, and the mechanic was not as clearly defined then as it seems to be now. As noted above, Robert Fulton was an artist before he abandoned painting to apply his knowledge of drawing to illustrating the inventions for which he is best remembered. At about the same time, Paul Revere left engraving and silversmithing to become a manufacturer of church bells, brass cannon, and copper products. In 1795 Revere was elected the first president of the Massachusetts Charitable Mechanics Association. Charles Willson Peale (1741–1827) was at various times a saddler, a coachmaker, a clock- and watchmaker, a silversmith, and a portrait painter. He established a museum of natural history and gave lectures on natural philosophy, and in 1794 attempted to establish a school in Philadelphia for the Art of Designing. And Samuel F. B. Morse (1791–1872) was already a distinguished painter before he invented the telegraph. In 1826 Morse was elected president of the National Academy of Design, an organization that still exists.

Interest in the sciences went beyond the range of earlier societies that had been founded by intellectuals for the exploration of natural phenomena. Such organizations as the American Philosophical Society (founded by Franklin in Philadelphia in 1743), the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (Boston, 1780), the Cincinnati Academy of Arts and Sciences (1799), and the Literature and Philosophical Society of New York (1814) recognized that knowledge acquired by scientific research and experiment could be applied with benefit to the development of manufactures. Furthermore, since the amount of accumulated knowledge had grown too great to be transmitted by apprenticeship, it was inevitable that institutes of specialized education would have to be organized in the United States.

Such institutes were also being established abroad. France had opened the Ecole Polytechnique late in the eighteenth century as a collection of departments of specialized learning. Its founder G. Monge produced the first systematic scientific treatise in 1799, and in 1811 his associate J. P. N. Hachette was the first to apply the methods of solid geometry to the construction of machinery. The first such institute in the British Isles, which was organized in 1800 in Glasgow after a series of lectures by George Birkbeck, was reconstituted in 1824 as the Glasgow Mechanic’s Institute. By 1821 another similar institute had been established as the Edinburgh School of Arts, and it was followed by others at Aberdeen, Newcastle, Manchester, and Liverpool. The first organization to attract popular attention to this important movement in the applied sciences and technology was the London Mechanic’s Institute, established in 1823 at the suggestion of the Mechanic’s Magazine of London for the promotion of useful knowledge among the working classes. Within a year, 23 other institutes had been established in the British Isles. Sir Humphrey Davy, the English natural philosopher, expressed around 1820 the state of mind of many of his contemporaries: “The love of knowledge is a faculty belonging to the human mind in every state of society: and it is one by whom it is most justly characterized—one the most worthy of being cultivated and extended.” ([80], 3) Germany was already operating trade schools by 1817. The first Polytechnic school, patterned after the Paris school, opened in 1825 at Karlsruhe. By the end of the 1820s there were other schools in Munich, Dresden, Stuttgart, and Hanover. Klemm describes them as “the nurseries of a scientifically cultivated technology which vigorously advanced the industrial movement supported by middle class culture.” ([54], 317)

All of the institutes offered series of lectures on the principles of science and the useful arts. Tickets were sold for sessions that met two to four times a week over a period of several weeks. In addition, the institutes maintained scientific libraries and collections of models of machinery, “philosophical” apparatus, and minerals and other curios of natural history. These mechanic’s institutes were the forerunners of the polytechnics of Europe and the institutes of technology that exist today in the United States on an equal level with the universities.

The first American mechanics institutes were founded in 1824 in New York and Philadelphia, and shortly afterwards others opened in Boston, Baltimore, and Troy. These schools were primarily for men, although the Baltimore school offered a course in straw plaiting for young ladies and the New York school opened a school for women in 1830. The New York Mechanics Institute stated its fundamental purpose (somewhat effusively) as “shedding the light of useful science over the paths of the mechanician [and] pouring upon the mind of the young artisan the previous truths of accumulated knowledge.” ([90], 5) Its program included a popular series of lectures in modeling, architectural and ornamental drawing, and machinery.

The second and perhaps the most successful institute in the United States was the Franklin Institute of the State of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia, whose membership was open to the public for $2. Its objectives and operations were quite similar to those of the New York Institute, except that from its outset the Franklin Institute elected to draw no lines separating the various trades and professions. The design and construction of buildings, machinery, and domestic wares and appliances all found a common ground in a search for a common language and similar tools of research and communication. Before the end of the Institute’s first year, its successful lectures had made possible professorships in natural philosophy, chemistry, and mineralogy. In October of 1826 the Franklin Institute held in Carpenters Hall the first exhibition of the products of American industry at which gold, silver, and bronze medals were awarded for outstanding work. It was hoped that “artists and manufacturers of every kind, anxious to display their workmanship, would be willing to pay for the privilege.” ([90], 27) Exhibitions were held annually for some 30 years, and occasionally thereafter, with their main purpose stated as “to encourage and stimulate the industry and ingenuity of American artisans and manufacturers; to introduce customers and producers to one another; to acquaint our merchants with the elements and materials of commerce; and our statesmen and the public with the resources of the country.” ([130], 5)

In 1826 the Franklin Institute offered premiums for, among other products, table knives and forks, flint glassware, a scale beam, a roller for a silversmith, and a smith’s anvil. Another premium was offered for the best-constructed grate, or stove, for burning anthracite coal. The announcement for the grate competition stated that “tastefulness of design, though not a primary object, will be considered, as far as it is compatible with economy.” Another premium offered for the best cabinet secretary and bookcase stated that “regard will be had, in awarding the premium on cabinet ware, to the taste exhibited in the design, as well as to excellence in workmanship.” ([130], 7) As a result of the stimulus provided by such exhibitions and competitions, new products appeared all along the frontiers of technology. The requirements stated for these premiums bracket the contemporary profession of industrial design as concerned with the practical balance of function and economy with convenience and aesthetics.

Thomas P. Jones, the first editor of the Franklin Journal and American Mechanics Magazine, commented somewhat sarcastically in the second issue (February 1826) about the change in status of the arts and sciences: “[They] did not at first attract, as they deserved, the attention of the wealthy and the noble. By them, education was, for a while, despised, as alone becoming the inferior classes of society; and it was deemed the distinctive badge of opulence and high birth, to be among the most ignorant in the land.” ([131], 66) Jones went on to advise his readers that the acquisition of knowledge in the mechanical arts could also lead to power and wealth.

The Franklin Institute considered its two branches of drawing very important to the development of designers and mechanics. One drawing course was essentially freehand drawing as related to the fine arts, including instruction in useful and ornamental drawing. The other course, in architectural drawing, was said to comprise “all the departments of mechanical drawing … connected with various occupations” and to be “necessary to Cabinet-makers, Carpenters, Stone-cutters, and mechanists” so that “they, by their being instructed in a course of geometrical drawing, may acquire a knowledge of designing, relative to their professions, upon sound principles.” ([132], 190) The two methods of drawing were conveniently brought together in 1829, when the Journal described the introduction by Professor Farish of Cambridge, England, of a “new mode of drawing in perspective which is peculiarly applicable to the delineation of machinery, as the proximate and most distant parts of the thing represented which lie in the same plane, are all drawn to the same scale.” The designation isometrical was said to have been given to the method by its inventor. ([133], 429) A number of years later, the Franklin Institute was still concerned about drawing. At the close of the thirteenth annual exhibition, the Franklin Journal observed “with what awkwardness and difficulty do they express their ideas of machines, buildings, furniture and a thousand other objects, merely because they cannot draw.” ([13], 38)

The popularity of the courses offered by institutes in various cities of the young republic are indicative of the importance the average American placed upon practical education as an avenue to success. “A science is taken up as a matter of business,” wrote Tocqueville, “and the only branch of it which is attended to is such as admits of an immediate practical application.” ([86], I, 44) Men now aspired to make their fortunes either by inventing or developing new products for manufacture or by joining one of the growing American industries. In a way, a frontier as dramatic as the West had been opened to Americans by the heady promises of industrialization and the consolidation of the country’s economic position in the community of nations.

In the early eighteenth century, as today, manufacturing enterprises were chartered by government and brought into corporate being by the investors. The shareholders then turned responsibility for the development and direction of the venture over to managers. Success depended on management’s sensitivity to the public’s needs and desires, upon the ingenuity with which they conceived or acquired machinery and organized and operated the manufacturing process, and upon their ability to put together an effective system of distribution and marketing.

The workers in the manufacturing enterprises included immigrants, itinerant laborers, offseason farmers, men, women and even children. Though the end goals of managers and workers were similar, their obligations to industry seemed at times to be antithetic. As Tocqueville wrote: “Whereas the workman concentrates his faculties more and more upon the study of a single detail, the master surveys a more extensive whole, and the mind of the latter is enlarged in proportion as that of the former is narrowed. In a short time, the one will require nothing but physical strength without intelligence; the other stands in need of science, and almost of genius, to ensure success.” ([86], II, 191)

As the contrast between master and workman became more distinct, a new form of aristocracy began to spring up. However, the artistocracy of management did not for the most part possess the spirit of benevolent paternalism that characterized the landed aristocracy of earlier times. Whereas urban and rural artisans had had individual control over their methods of work and the quality of their products, now workers were transformed into laborers—essentially, human elements in a manufacturing process, obliged to contain their physical and mental capacities within strict limits imposed by management. The heart of the factory system was found in the contrapuntal beat of management and labor relations.

Factory managers were obliged to offer high wages in order to ensure a strong flow of labor from the predominantly rural population. In addition, the prospect of good wages served as a powerful magnet for immigration. Wages were also kept high by the availability of land under the Free Homestead Act, whereby workers who were not satisfied with their pay were tempted to strike out for the western territories. Manufacturers were obliged to strive constantly to improve the quality and capability of their machines in order to maintain a profitable balance between the human and mechanical costs of a product. Furthermore, as machines were improved, the quantity of labor required for manufacture was reduced to the same degree that its quality was increased, enabling manufacturers to increase production at the same time as it justified the payment of higher wages.

The workers who elected to remain in the factories also played an important part in the refinement of the machines and processes for which they were responsible. When a worker was assigned to one task in the sequence of manufacture, the act of repetition increased his speed and accuracy, especially if his income was based on quantity as well as quality. The inducement of higher wages encouraged workers to be alert to any refinement in machine or process that would increase production. Alexander Hamilton had been aware of the new approach to manufacturing when he acknowledged the divisions of labor and the extended use of machines as two of the circumstances by which manufacturing could augment the revenue of society.

Many decades would pass before the number of laborers available would so exceed demand that workers would look upon the machine as their competitor rather than as their collaborator. Nor were workers concerned in the early days of manufacture, as were some social philosophers, with the danger of depersonalization. They were not concerned about the fact that they, like the machines they worked with, remained fixed while the product went by, and they were not discomforted by the prospect of being worn out or obsoleted. It was more in keeping with the times to consider work in the factory as a path to success that rewarded the laborer for his allegiance. Alexis de Tocqueville believed that Americans worked harder because they realized that success lay in their own hands. Factory workers were emerging as a new middle class that was not only able to purchase the products of industry but also enlightened enough to demand additional domestic comforts and labor-saving devices. The depersonalization of both workers and products seemed, at least at the time, a small price to pay for the better life in America.

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