More than anyone, Samuel Slater pioneered the making of modern Rhode Island. This so-called Father of the Factory System was the catalyst for the economic transformation that gave Rhode Island its salient characteristic – an industrial order that dominated the state’s economy from the early nineteenth century until the dawn of the present postindustrial era. Slater, with his brother, John, also established the iconic Rhode Island factory mill village of Slatersville, which became a model for industrial villages nationwide. Large-scale local manufacturing, jumpstarted by Slater, spawned urbanization, and attracted an immigrant workforce that eventually became ethnoculturally and religiously diverse.
Slater himself was an immigrant. He was born in 1768 in Belper, a Derbyshire town in the north-central area of England. He was the fifth child of eight in a farm family presided over by his father, William, and his mother, the former Elizabeth Fox. At age ten, he began work at a cotton mill owned by Jedidiah Strutt on the Derwent River, a facility that utilized a water frame pioneered by Strutt’s partner, Richard Arkwright. On January 6, 1783, after the death of his father in a farming accident, Samuel became formally apprenticed to Strutt, from whom he gained a thorough knowledge of Arkwright’s revolutionary water-powered machinery and where he had a role in supervising the erection of one of Arkwright’s new factories in the Derwent Valley.
In 1789, as Slater observed his twenty-first birthday and indenture to Strutt ended, this ambitious and technically proficient young man sought to leave the laboring class and become a textile entrepreneur. America, rather than stratified England, provided this opportunity. Also in 1789, the U.S. Congress passed its first act for the encouragement of manufacturers, and Pennsylvania offered a bounty to “which man will bring us English models [of textile production.]” Despite the legal ban against exporting such technology from England, including a heavy fine and twelve months’ imprisonment, Slater thoroughly grasped both the plans for Arkwright’s machinery and Strutt’s managerial practices and defiantly set out for America on September 13, 1789, allegedly disguised as a farmhand. Sixty-six days later, he arrived in New York, where he soon became aware of Providence merchant Moses Brown’s activities, attempting to expand his family’s manufacturing business from iron and candles to include cotton textiles.
In partnership with his cousin Smith Brown and his son-in-law William Almy, Moses Brown had acquired a former fulling mill in 1789 at Pawtucket Falls, the last drop of the Blackstone River on its course to Narragansett Bay. In August of that year, this trio had also purchased a thirty-two-spindle frame, but its operation proved unsuccessful in making yarn sufficiently strong to be used by their looms. In late 1789, news of Moses Brown’s incipient venture reached the recently arrived Slater via the captain of a coastal packet from Providence. On December 2, Slater wrote to Brown to offer his expertise. In this missive, he expressed his intention “to erect a perpetual card and spinning” machine, a code phrase that indicated that Slater could reproduce the Arkwright patents. Brown immediately responded that he was “destitute of a person acquainted with water-frame spinning” and thus was prepared to make Slater a generous business offer “to come and work ours and have the credit and advantage of perfecting the first water mill in America.”
Slater responded eagerly and arrived in the North Providence village of Pawtucket within a month. Here, he discovered a heterogeneous collection of ill-made machines that he found of little use, so Slater and several woodworkers and mechanics, including Sylvanus Brown, Plinney Earl, Oziel Wilkinson, and David Wilkinson, along with the help of a Black laborer and former slave Samuel Primus, constructed machinery based on the Arkwright plans. Slater, who stood over six feet and weighed well over two hundred pounds, did some arduous work.
In April 1790, with some of the reconstruction completed, Moses Brown withdrew from the business and prepared a three-way partnership agreement for his son, Almy, and Slater, giving Slater a one-half interest in the venture. All work on the revamped project was completed by the autumn of 1790. After some discouraging failed attempts, the three eighteen-inch carding machines and a complex array of drawing and roving machines, winders, and two spinning frames with seventy-two spindles began to operate harmoniously, with nine children working the frames. On December 20, 1790, cotton yarn was spun by waterpower for the first time in America.
Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton cited Slater’s mill in his famous 1791 Report on Manufacturers, wherein he observed that “the manufactory at Providence has the merit of being the first in introducing into the United States the celebrated cotton mill, which not only furnishes materials for the manufactory itself but for the supply of private families for household manufacture.” Gradually, almost imperceptibly at first, from this achievement, Rhode Island began a metamorphosis away from its agricultural and maritime economy that would alter not only its economic but also its political, constitutional, and social complexion.
Slater taught his partners how to manage the business profitably by efficiently coordinating materials, machines, labor, and record-keeping, using the techniques taught to him by Arkwright and Strutt. According to some economic historians, these management procedures were at least as critical to this venture’s success as Slater’s technical knowledge and skill. Slater’s management and organizational style, called “the Rhode Island System,” drew on his English experience, as did the decision of this devout Episcopalian to employ young boys and to establish Sunday school Bible classes for them at Pawtucket and in his other mill villages. These Sunday schools for his youthful workers were the first in America.
Paternalistic child labor was not frowned upon in Slater’s time, even by such pious Quakers as Moses Brown and Oziel Wilkinson. Because children were already accustomed to rigorous farm work, the mills continued a long-standing attitude that children should help their families if they could. The poor children Slater recruited enhanced Slater’s economic status and their own families.
In 1793, Slater and Sylvanus Brown built a new, larger mill nearby, more suited to their expanding operations. Today, that surviving structure, called Old Slater Mill, is the centerpiece of the Slater Mill National Historic Site. Five years later, Slater split from Almy and Brown and formed Samuel Slater and Company in partnership with his father-in-law, Oziel Wilkinson. That enterprise eventually developed additional mills, initially in Massachusetts (the first of which was the so-called White Mill just across the Blackstone River in what was then Rehoboth). One of the most important developments in his expanding empire, however, was the arrival of his younger brother John, who emigrated from Derbyshire in 1803, bringing with him information about the new spinning mule and other more recent technical developments in this cradle of the English textile industry. Working again with Almy and Brown, Samuel and John established the first planned industrial village in the United States on the Branch River in present-day North Smithfield, Rhode Island. They proudly called their creation Slatersville. By 1813, this model mill village contained 5,170 spindles, the largest aggregation on any site in America.
Over the next two decades, Samuel, his sons, his in-laws, and his associates opened the mills in Wilkinsonville, Oxford, Dudley, and Webster, Massachusetts (Slater created the latter town); in Jewett City and Hopeville, Connecticut; at Amoskeag Falls, New Hampshire; in the village of Central Falls on the Blackstone River; and in Providence, where he constructed one of the nation’s earliest steam-powered mills in 1827. His achievements were so impressive that Presidents James Monroe and Andrew Jackson visited Slater at his Pawtucket mill to pay him homage.
Slater’s “Rhode Island System” of mill operation relied not only on children and adults from poor rural families but also on a number of young boys from the middle class, who sometimes entered the factory to gain the skills to become machinists, managers, and even mill owners. Slater-trained mechanics spread his technology throughout the Blackstone Valley and beyond. Slater’s system was also characterized by on-site management by an owner-partner, a village setting, and limited capitalization. It differed from the pattern known as the Waltham System, later developed by Francis Cabot Lowell, that preferred young middle-class women living in chaperoned dormitories, used the corporate form of business organization to become highly capitalized, was usually city-based and emphasized integrated mass production from cotton to cloth.
The Wilkinson family of Pawtucket helped Slater in various ways, not the least of which was to furnish him with a wife. In 1791, he married Hannah Wilkinson, who bore him nine children; together, the couple would raise six boys, with one other son and two daughters dying in infancy. Shortly after their marriage, Hannah invented a type of cotton sewing thread superior to the customary linen fiber. This innovation enabled her to become, in 1793, the first American woman to be granted a patent.
Five years after Hannah’s death from consumption in 1812, Samuel married Esther Parkinson, the widow of a friend. They had no children. Esther and others have left assessments of Slater that were distilled into an estimate of his character by the writers of the commemorative volume The Cotton Centennial, 1790- 1890: “In manner, he was quiet, unassuming, and modest; in character honest, conscientious, and of the strictest integrity; in conduct exact, punctual, decisive, with indomitable perseverance and energy.” Samuel Slater had a commanding presence.
After business reversals in an 1829 financial panic, Slater rebounded, mainly because of the intervention of Moses Brown. Despite declining health caused by digestive ailments, by 1835, Slater had founded, purchased, or partially owned sixteen firms, thirteen of which were textile mills, and he was the founding director of Pawtucket’s Slater Bank. Then, at age sixty-six, he died at home in his mill village of Webster, Massachusetts, where he was laid to rest. Samuel Slater left to his surviving wife and family an estate that far exceeded $1 million and to Rhode Island and America an industrial legacy that has shaped their histories.
Samuel Slater was inducted into The Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame in 1965.
For additional reading:
Rhode Island’s Founders: From Settlement to Statehood, by Patrick T. Conley, History Press, 2021.
Samuel Slater’s Mill and the Industrial Revolution, by Christopher Simonds, Silver Burdett Publishing.