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The Market Revolution - textile mills and the cotton gin

The Market Revolution, from 1790 to 1850, transformed the U.S. from a farming nation to a wage-earning one. Key inventions like the textile mill and cotton gin revolutionized production. However, this also entrenched slavery. The Industrial Revolution changed how goods were made, impacting society and economy.

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Video transcript

- [Instructor] So some historians have actually said that The Market Revolution is more revolutionary than The American Revolution. Actually, this is a very classic AP-US-history question. Which was more revolutionary: The American Revolution or The Market Revolution? But how could something actually be more revolutionary than The American Revolution? It's because The Market Revolution was a confluence of inventions, changes in the way that the American people did business, and changes in the way that people got goods to market that happened in this period from about 1790 to 1850. So this is kind of a large period of history, and I don't think it's really important for you to have a laundry list of dates of exactly when what thing was invented, but just kind of take in the idea that in the first half or so of the early 19th Century there were many new inventions in both factory work and in transportation and communication, and that how people did business changed a lot. So I wanna take some time to look into all three of these revolutions: The Industrial Revolution, The Revolution in Transportation and Communication, and just the broader Market Revolution. So I know this is a subset of itself, but I'll get to that. And in this video I wanna start out by talking about The Industrial Revolution. OK, so what was The Industrial Revolution? This was, broadly speaking, a revolution in the kinds of machinery that people used to make finished goods. Now, if you think about the early republic in the United States you often think of kind of an agrarian society; and that was how Thomas Jefferson, the author of The Declaration of Independence, really imagined the United States, as a nation of small farmers. But Thomas Jefferson didn't necessarily see all of these revolutions in industry coming. He couldn't anticipate that; and so, in the 1790s, early 1800s, a bunch of new inventions came to the United States that completely revolutionized how things were made. So in this time period the United States kinda slowly begins its transformation from being a nation of farmers to a nation of people who worked for wages, by the hour, and then used the money that they made from that hourly labor to buy the things that they need. So how did this happen? One event that historians often point to is the introduction of the textile mill to the United States. So this fellow here, his name is Samuel Slater, and Samuel Slater was an Englishman who worked in a textile mill. And remember that the United Kingdom was the world's capital of textile production in this time. And they were so jealous of their position as the world's leading textile producer that they even made it illegal to export the plans for a textile mill. Samuel Slater decided that even if it was illegal to export actual plans, it wasn't necessarily illegal to export his brain, so he decided to memorize how these textile looms worked; and this is powered by a water wheel. And then he actually got in disguise, put himself on a ship, and came to Rhode Island to set up a textile mill. In fact, people were so angry that he did this that in his home town he's actually known as Slater the Traitor. So what was new about this? Well, I think the water-wheel aspect is really one of the key innovations here. So instead of being powered by humans or perhaps being powered by animals, now American machinery can be powered by an outside source: so water or steam; and that means that these mills and factories later are going to kinda congregate around sources of power, like rivers for example. So if you've ever wondered why so many American cities are next to rivers, it's usually because they needed them to power mills. So starting in the 1790s, and really into the early 19th Century, there's this slow transformation toward factory labor. And you can see in this image here that a lot of the people actually laboring in these factories were women because young men kind of had a pretty good path forward in life at this time period. They could be farmers, like their fathers; maybe they could learn a trade. But for young women there wasn't necessarily a form of income outside the house, and so a man named Charles Lowell decided to set up a whole series of textile mills in what will be called Lowell, Massachusetts. It's just outside of Boston. And then he primarily employed young women to work in these textile mills. Think partly because young women were associated with working with fabric; women frequently did the spinning and the sewing in the household; but also because women you could probably pay a little bit less than young men for the same kind of labor. So this is kind of a very slow revolution toward individual work. Because as a nation of farmers, most people would have worked in a family unit. And even some of the very earliest factories in the United States would hire family units. It was known as the Rhode Island System. By this time, by Lowell's mills, he started hiring individual workers for individual wages. And the working conditions were pretty brutal. Most women at the Lowell mills worked 12-hour days with no air conditioning, remember, this is long before there's air conditioning, for pretty low wages. I'd say probably about three dollars a week. But despite the pretty harsh conditions, for many of them this was a really good opportunity 'cause this was the first time in their lives they'd ever had any chance to make money of their own, to be away from their families. It's kind of expected that if you were a young woman in Massachusetts you wanted to go work in the Lowell mills. You could go there for a few years of your life, make a little bit of money, and then go back to your hometown, meet someone, get married, start a family of your own. So if kinda makes work for women outside the home respectable. And textile production is going to continue to ramp up in the United States. In the late 1840s a man named Elias Howe invents a really excellent sewing machine. He's not the first man ever to invent a sewing machine. There were versions of them stretching back to think even the 1750s, but Howe's sewing machine brought together a lot of different capacities that made it kinda the best sewing machine. And it will be even further refined by Isaac Singer, who we associate today with the Singer Sewing Machine. And so these massive textile mills really become the backbone of New England commerce. But, they never would have gotten started without another invention, which was the cotton gin. And the cotton gin was invented by Eli Whitney in 1793. And what's important about the cotton gin, so here's the gin, and basically it's kind of a box with some spikes on it that allows you to take these balls of cotton and separate them from the seeds. And separating cotton from the seeds was an extremely labor-intensive process. If you've never held a ball of cotton, it's extremely sticky, so you kinda have to wade through the little bits of cotton, pull out these seeds. It takes forever. And so an average day's work would not produce all that much cotton that was ready for market. Well, Whitney completely revolutionizes this with the cotton gin. These little spikes help separate the cotton seeds from the cotton ball, and revolutionizes how much cotton can be produced by a single person in a single day. Whitney's cotton gin made it possible for a single person to process 50 pounds of cotton in a single day, which is just an order of magnitude more than they were able to do beforehand. This is really interesting 'cause it had kind of a massive human cost in the form of really bolstering the institution of slavery in the American South because when farming cotton was so labor-intensive it really wasn't very profitable; and so the institution of slavery was actually starting to die out a little bit. Before the 1790s people were saying: "Eh, I don't know if it's actually worth it to keep slaves." So if it weren't for the cotton gin, the United States might actually have outlawed slavery considerably earlier than it ended up doing in the 1860s. So it's interesting to note that even though these inventions really changed the fabric of American society, allowed some people to earn money who had never been able to earn money before, it also meant that the institution of slavery was really entrenched in the United States and would only continue to expand until the 1860s. So that's a little bit of a peak into the human cost of The Industrial Revolution. And we'll get more into what some of those costs were and what some of the benefits were in the next video.