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Samuel Slater Museum in Webster Part 6:

By Richard Cazeault

1785: A convention of some of the future states was held in Annapolis, Maryland. The meeting concerned the rights of navigation that eventually led to a general discussion on interstate commerce.  Attending this meeting, along with James Madison, was Trench Coxe, who was familiar with growing cotton in his back yard and the nature of cotton cultivation in India. He was a political and economic visionary on the relationship between agriculture, manufacturing and commerce.  

Up until that time, very little cotton was grown in the 13 colonies, and none was exported. Coxe thought that this “redundant” plant would grow well in the southern portion of the country and encouraged those areas to try growing it as a viable crop for export to Britain. He also thought that the newly forming U.S. could use cotton internally, if it could ever attain the new advanced technology in making yarn and cloth. Georgia was the first area to try the plant successfully and it rapidly spread to the other southern states. By 1790, the U.S. was producing 2 million pounds of per year. By 1801, the U.S. was producing almost 50 million pounds per year and by 1830, the U.S. was producing the majority of the world’s cotton. Coxe is considered the “Father of Cotton Agriculture” in the U.S. His suggestion laid out the path for Slater's and the U.S.'s future success.

To refresh our history of Samuel Slater:

1789-The United States is formed under a new constitution.

1789-Slater arrived in NYC after an unsuccessful experience in a factory, then traveled on to Pawtucket and became a partner with two Quaker investors (Almy and Brown) to build a cotton spinning mill to make yarn.

1790-Slater builds a card and a spinning frame with 48 spindles in a temporary clothier shop owned by Ezekiel Carpenter on the east bank of the Blackstone River in Pawtucket. This shop included a water wheel driving a woolen fulling (cleaning) process. This wheel would drive the new Slater machines. Within a month, due to the success of the card and spinning frame, Slater would hire nine people, mostly children from ages 7 to 12, to help him. History has a record of these people from Rhode Island that include:

  • Arnold & Charles Torpen, Smith Wilkinson (Slater’s future Brother-in-law) and Jabez Jenks hired the 1st week.
  • Ennise Torpen, John & Varnes Jenks, and Otis Borrows hired in the 2nd week.
  • Ann Torpen was hired in the 3rd week.

Slater’s success in using young children for mill production was accomplished in dividing and simplifying the work. He broke the mill work into very simple steps that children could learn easily. Although shocking today, child labor in a mill was not that far removed from farm life, where children would learn chores as soon as they could walk.

The mill began producing a high quality and strong yarn for weaving. This mill used cotton imported from India. Slater preferred Indian cotton over U.S. cotton because it was of a higher quality at that time. This would change dramatically over the next few years. 

One person running the 48-spindle frame can now make yarn in quantities that formally would take at least 48 people. The mill produced several thousands of pounds of yarn during the course of two years. In the beginning, there was very little market for their production and the operation had to be suspended until the yarn was sold. Eventually the mill would expand to three cards and 72 spindles as demand increased. 

Another one of Slater’s techniques of production was not to build his yarn to order, but to make standard products. By making standard yarn products, he could maximize production and keep the price of his yarn down. This would eventually create a demand in the market place for all the yarn his mill could produce and spur expansion of his mill. Marketing this new product was the key to his success.

1791- Slater, age 23, marries 16-year-old Hannah Wilkinson. He previously boarded with the Quaker Wilkinson Family in Pawtucket.  Although he is an English Protestant, the Wilkinsons allow their daughter to marry outside of her religion. At that time, Hannah’s father and brother were instrumental in helping Slater build his machinery.

1793

  • A new mill, specifically dedicated to cotton production, was built on the west bank of the Blackstone River across from the Carpenter mill. This mill was considered to be “Slater’s First Mill.” The mill would expand with more machinery to increase yarn production. The weaving would be done in private homes on hand looms. The cloth would be returned to the Slater Mill for additional bleaching, dyeing and finishing of the cloth and yarn. Hand loom weavers would be the main providers of making cloth from 1790 to about 1820 because power looms were yet to be made practical. The main design obstacle was controlling the violent reversal of the shuttle. Under power, the looms would shake themselves apart.
  • Hannah Wilkinson Slater became the first American woman to be granted a patent for fine 2-ply thread manufacturing.
     
  • Eli Whitney, originally from Westboro, MA, develops the cotton gin to separate the seeds from the raw cotton.  One man, with the new gin, can do the work of 1000 people. The price of cotton goes down, while the quality of the raw product goes up.  This gives the U.S. Cotton industry a major leg up on their competition, and leads to their world domination of the international market.

1796-The Slaters have their first of ten children.

  • William Slater (1796-1801
  • Elizabeth Slater (1798-1801)
  • Mary Slater (1801-1803)
  • Samuel Slater (1802-1821)
  • George Bassett Slater (1804-1843) Born in Dudley, MA and buried there, after it became Webster, MA.  He would become one of the first Selectmen of Webster.
  • John Slater (1805-1838) Webster’s first representative in the MA General Court.
  • Horatio Nelson Slater (1808-1888) would eventually become the owner of all the Webster Slater Mills.
  • William Slater (1809-1826)
  • Infant son Slater (1811-1811)
  • Thomas Graham Slater (1812-1844) Born in Dudley, MA and buried there, after it became Webster, MA.

1797-The USS Constitution frigate, named by George Washington, is launched in Boston, MA.

1798-Construction begins on Slater’s second mill.

1801-Operation of this new mill begins.

Slater, in partnership with his In-Laws, builds his second mill on the east side of the Blackstone, up river just across the Massachusetts border in what is now South Attleboro. This mill, commonly known as the “White Mill,” is credited with being the first modern cotton spinning mill in the state.  At present, we are trying to find the exact location of this site. The Smithsonian Institute believes the White Mill is located in Massachusetts, while the Department of the Interior places this mill across the river at the site of the old Carpenter Mill.

Up until 1810, when Slater sold his 50% interest to his partners, he was in charge of running both the Pawtucket and White mills.  He ran each mill for $1.50 per day or $3.00 per day total. The $3.00 in 1801 is worth about $55-56 per day today. His average work day during the first 20 years of his business life was about 16 hours per day.

In the next issue we’ll begin write about his 3rd (Slatersville, RI.) and 4th mills (Oxford, and later Webster), and begin delving into Slater’s character.