If we once grant the principle of the division of labour, then it follows that one man can live only by finding out what other men want.
Arnold Toynbee, 1884 (, 56)
There is a persistent tendency to romanticize the colonial era as a period when unique objects were fabricated by humble craftsmen employing quaint methods rooted in antiquity. It is more accurate to note that the colonial artisans were as determined to put the most recent technological discoveries to practical use as they were to adopt the latest styles for their products. They were generally aware that the knowledge acquired from the emerging sciences, if applied to their craft, could increase their capacity for production and allow time to improve their methods of work in order to produce better products more economically and to search for those new products to manufacture that promised a greater return on their investment of energy and resources.
When Sir Francis Bacon stated in 1620 that the object of knowledge was to change the shape of man’s world, he gave form to the central theme of the industrial revolution. Within two years Bacon’s followers had founded the Royal Society of London, “to promote the welfare of the Arts and Sciences,” and had established a distinction between the acquisition and ordering of knowledge and the application of that knowledge to industry. The impact of that revolution was not lost on the colonies, despite British generalizations that American technology depended but little upon the sober reasoning of science. As early as 1690, private evening schools had been established in New York to teach the apprentices for whom the masters were obligated to provide an elemental education. These schools multiplied as an increasing artisan population sought additional learning, not only in reading, writing, and arithmetic but also in geometry, trigonometry, and many of the more specialized trades.
Most of the master craftsmen of the time were literate and were avid readers of general newspapers and pamphlets. They also sought to further themselves by reading on such subjects as architecture and building, cabinetmaking, ironwork, and the other useful arts. Those who could not afford to build libraries of their own became members of subscription libraries such as those organized by the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia and the Baltimore Mechanics Company. In contrast to the closely guarded mysteries of the European guilds, the American artisans realized that if they shared knowledge freely with one another the general state of industry would be advanced.
Even though the practical application of knowledge was essential for their success, the colonial artisans and gentlemen derived particular gratification from tinkering with machines and other ingenious devices. The challenge of making the forces of nature work for him awakened the restless spirit of the designer, who is forever dissatisfied with things as they are and driven to make them better. In the process, the colonial artisan was transformed into a “mechanick” preoccupied with the methods and processes by whose improvement his energy might be expanded, his security guaranteed, and his prosperity ensured. Moreover, by assigning an increasing percentage of the work through machines to lesser employees, he found time to devote himself to more learning, to experiment with new concepts for products, and to improve his merchandising capabilities.
The gentleman “mechanick” also realized that, if he could apply his knowledge of the sciences and his financial resources to the support and development of manufactures to satisfy human needs and promote comfort and happiness, he could expect a high economic return. One outstanding organization, established in Philadelphia in 1750 for this purpose, was the American Society for Promoting and Propagating Useful Knowledge. Through it and other organizations like it, churchmen, artisans, and wealthy laymen pooled their resources and combined their education, experience, and sense of product potential to refine processes and establish manufactories.
Shipbuilding companies were formed to build sloops, privateers, schooners, and, in particular, “topsail” ships for transatlantic trade. Although at first most of their ancillary parts such as cordage, sails, and metal fittings were imported from England, gradually all of these came to be made in the colonies. By the time of the Revolution almost a third of the British merchant ships were American-built, as were the majority of the ships owned and sailed by the Americans in competition with the British.
The craft of coachmaking serves as an excellent barometer of colonial affluence. The financial and human resources necessary to bring together the artisans in wood and metal needed to construct a carriage and the skilled upholsterers, leatherworkers, painters, and decorators needed to finish it only became available after the middle of the eighteenth century. In short order, however, Americans were building coaches, chariots, landaus, phaetons, post-chaises, curricles, chairs, sedans, and sleighs of all types. Since they could be sold at a lower price than the imported products, they captured a market that had been the special reserve of English coachmakers.
The promise of a ready market for ingenious devices encouraged the invention of many products for manufacture. Surveying instruments and mariner’s compasses were developed by such men as Isaac Doolittle, a New Haven clockmaker. Benjamin Gale was awarded a gold medal by the Royal Society of London for a seeder, drawn by oxen, that could open a furrow, deposit seed and manure, and close it up again in one operation. And Benjamin Thompson, the English loyalist later to become Count Rumford of Bavaria, invented the modern fireplace, the drip coffeepot, and the kitchen range. Thomas Jefferson was fascinated by ingenious products and developed several for his home at Monticello, including a seven-day clock, simultaneously acting double doors, dumbwaiters, and a swivel chair.
Benjamin Franklin stands out as America’s first scientist. While most of his countrymen were preoccupied with acquiring knowledge from abroad, Franklin was generating his own by conducting the definitive experiments with electricity that would bring him international fame. One of his most popular inventions was the “Pennsylvania fireplace” (now known as the Franklin stove), which was manufactured to his specifications by Robert Grace at Warwick Furnace in Chester County. The primary significance of this invention is that it pulled the fireplace out of the chimney, where it had been part of the architecture, and treated it as a portable and therefore marketable appliance. In addition, it employed scientific principles to control the fire and to direct the heated air in a manner that increased fuel efficiency. When the Pennsylvania fireplace was first offered for sale in the Pennsylvania Gazette on December 3, 1741 and promoted with a brochure that might have been America’s first promotional flyer, Governor Thomas offered to give Franklin a colonial patent to guarantee his profit from the invention for a number of years. However, Franklin declined it “from a Principle that has ever weigh’d with me on such Occasions, viz. That as we enjoy great Advantages from the Inventions of others, we should be glad of an Opportunity to serve others by any Invention of ours, and this we should do freely and generously.” (, 419) In a short time, others were manufacturing stoves, as they still do today, according to the design that Franklin refused to patent.
At first glance, it would seem that the expanding interest in devices that saved labor and made life more pleasant was in contradiction to the Puritan ethic that glorified labor almost as an end in itself. In fact, there still seems to be an undercurrent of guilt in the American mind at the easy life that has been made possible by technology. However, toward the end of the colonial era such reservations were set aside in the fervent desire of the colonists to establish a self-sustaining economy in the face of British restrictions. This challenge in the name of patriotism provided the industrial momentum that helped the colonies sever their political ties to England.
At first England was proud of the success of her colonies. Sir Joseph Child, a director and governor of the East India Company, praised the emigrants as a people “whose frugality, industry and temperance, and the happiness of whose laws and institutions, promise to them a long life and a wonderful increase of people, riches and power.” However, within a century the success of the colonists was beginning to attract to America talent and intelligence that could not expand or find free expression in the Old World. In response to such threats, England began to place increasingly severe restrictions on the trade and manufacturing practices of her colonies. Some products were restricted in the number that could be made, and the manufacture of other products was forbidden entirely. Even though England was following the conventional practice of the times in using trade restrictions to protect her home industries, the colonists found such limitations intolerable because, in the midst of great resources and opportunities, they were being treated as second-class citizens and forced to restrict their enterprise in order to protect a fading homeland. It is not surprising, therefore, that the “true cause” of the Revolution would be put forth as having been “not so much that the colonists were denied representation in the central government, or that they were unduly restrained in respect to any liberty of their persons, but rather that their rights to property were continually interfered with, that they were denied the privilege of freely buying and selling wherever and whenever they might see fit, and of following the occupations which seemed to them the most remunerative.” (, 708)
Although the British Navigation Acts were passed in 1650 to restrict competition from Dutch shipbuilders, before the end of the 1600s they were being used to restrict colonial shipbuilding through a ruling restricting transport between the colonies and England to British ships. Later the Navigation Acts were expanded to rule that the colonies must buy only from England those manufactured products England had to sell, and soon they were further strengthened to prevent the colonies from manufacturing any products that were made in England. In addition, by 1696 the colonial governments were being required to report the annual state of their industries to the English Board of Trade in an attempt to divert them from industrial activity. By 1708 the Board of Trade was being warned that the colonists were manufacturing most of the products that they needed, and that if some effective way was not found to stop it, they would carry it further, much to the disadvantage of English manufacturers. Soon some colonies were refusing to make reports, or else reporting a lack of any settled manufacturing. Colonists who did not consider their activities either economically or politically immoral reacted to the restrictive legislation by going underground. It has been estimated that nine-tenths of all colonial merchants and one-fourth of the signers of the Declaration of Independence were involved in contraband trade. At the very moment of the battle of Lexington, John Hancock, the “Prince of Contraband Traders,” was in Boston on trial, with John Adams as his counsel, on charges based on his activities as a smuggler.
The English reacted strongly to what they considered to be unlawful and provocative acts of the colonies. General Thomas Gage summed up the push of the Americans toward economic independence in a letter to Lord Barrington in 1772, advising him that the English must “cramp their Trade as far as it can be done prudentially,” and that “cities flourish and increase by intensive Trade, Artisans and Mechanicks of all sorts are drawn thither, who Teach all sorts of Handicraft Work before unknown in the Country, and they soon come to make for themselves what they used to import.” (, 616)
When the first Continental Congress met in Philadelphia on September 5, 1774, its objectives were commercial rather than political. It was agreed that after 1774 no more products were to be imported from the British Empire and that after September 1775 no products were to be exported to England. A century later, John Leander Bishop acclaimed the courage and wisdom of this position: “… the prohibition of their manufacturers, restrictions upon their trade, and taxation of their industry, were serious counts in the bill of indictment against the mother country. The blow they struck for equal rights … bequeathed us an enfranchised industry and respect for property, without which the useful arts can never flourish.” (, 9) Bishop recognized that the principle of economic freedom for the “useful arts” may have preceded those of religious and political freedoms as foundation stones of the American republic.
The Americans drew unexpected support from the Englishman Adam Smith, whose monumental book The Wealth of Nations—published in 1776, the year of the Declaration of Independence—confirmed in theory what they had already put into action: that freedom of trade must replace defensive national mercantile systems. Smith warned his countrymen about the risk of attempting by law to “raise up a nation of customers who should be obliged to buy from the shops of our different producers, all the goods with which these could supply them.” (, 626) He proposed that enlightened self-interest had the power to reduce labor and trade to their purest relationship, whereby men may compete freely to provide products or services that others need. With all that this implies in terms of economy and quality, the principle of freedom of trade and its corollary, freedom of enterprise, defined the philosophy by which Americans generate products to meet consumers’ needs and desires and then compete openly for their share of the market.
It became inevitable at this point that the practice of design as the organization of means toward predetermined ends would emerge as the essential link between the producers and consumers of the products of free enterprise. Moreover, the counterpoint of the related yet independent philosophies of the patricians and the Puritans created a cultural texture in which each was able to retain its sometimes complementing, sometimes contrasting character.