The English-born American manufacturer Samuel Slater (1768-1835) built the first successful cotton mill in the United States, in 1790.
Samuel Slater was born near Belper in Derbyshire on June 9, 1768, the son of a prosperous yeoman farmer. As a youth, Samuel demonstrated considerable skill as a mechanic, and in school he excelled in arithmetic.
Apprenticeship in the Textile Trade
The Slater farm was located near the river Derwent; the first spinning mill driven by water power was built in Cromford on the Derwent in 1771 by Jedediah Strutt and Richard Arkwright, the inventor of the water-frame spinner. In 1776 they dissolved their partnership, and Strutt took over his own mill in Belper, where Slater began his apprenticeship at the age of 14.
Although the terms of the indenture were harsh and Slater had to work hard, Strutt treated him kindly. Slater learned to operate all the machinery involved in converting raw cotton into yarn. When the machinery broke down—a frequent occurrence since the spinning industry was still in its infancy—he made the necessary repairs.
At the end of his apprenticeship Slater concluded that the best opportunities for advancement in the textile industry were in the United States. Handicraft methods still prevailed there, since no American had yet been successful in constructing a spinning machine, and British law prohibited the export of such machines. In 1789 Slater made his way to London, where he negotiated his passage to America. He told neither his family nor his friends of his plans. According to legend, he sailed from London disguised as a farm laborer, since British law also prohibited the emigration of skilled mechanics.
New Skill to the New World
Within a few days of his arrival in New York City, Slater found a position with the New York Manufacturing Company. He was disappointed, however, because the mill was poorly equipped and lacked access to enough water to provide the necessary power for operating spinning machines. He learned that the firm of Almy and Brown operated a machine spinning mill in Pawtucket, R.I., and wrote to Moses Brown, who had provided most of the capital for building the mill, requesting a job. Slater was hired immediately.
Slater soon became a partner in the firm. His principal responsibility was to design and construct duplicate models of the equipment used in British milling establishments. Brown again supplied the capital. With the aid of a local woodworker, an iron manufacturer, and a general helper, Slater constructed the first practical copies of Arkwright's carders, water-frame spinners, and looms in the United States. The new mill went into operation in December 1790. Slater hired children from the town and surrounding area and trained them to operate the machinery. This was a common practice in both the United States and England. The raw cotton was sent out to local women for cleaning before it came to the mill for carding.
Soon after the mill went into operation, Slater married Hannah Wilkinson. It is said that she was the first woman in the United States to suggest making sewing thread out of cotton. After her death, he married Esther Parkinson, a wealthy Philadelphia widow.
Building the Textile Industry
The mill did not run smoothly at first. There were problems in securing good-quality raw cotton, and often the equipment broke down. More importantly, the shop was unable to produce cotton yarn in sufficient quantities to meet the demand. In 1793 the firm of Almy, Brown, and Slater decided to expand. Picking a site on the Blackstone River, they constructed a new dam to provide the power and built a large mill. They installed three carders and two spinning frames containing 72 spindles. The mill, called the Old Slater Mill, went into operation in July 1793.
Dissension within the partnership over management of the mill convinced Slater to build his own mill. Still maintaining his interests in Almy, Brown, and Slater, he organized a new firm, Samuel Slater and Company, in 1798. His mill, completed in 1801, was the first in Massachusetts to use the Arkwright system. Slater played an active part in establishing other cotton mills in Rhode Island, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire. By 1828 he had been involved in 13 different partnerships concerned with processing cotton. Because of his contributions to the cotton industry in the United States, he is often referred to as the father of American manufactures.
Further Reading on Samuel Slater
The most readable, though somewhat subjective, biography of Slater is Edward H. Cameron, Samuel Slater; The Father of American Manufactures (1960). George S. White, Memoir of Samuel Slater: The Father of American Manufactures (1836; repr. 1967), is a sympathetic contemporary account of Slater's life; it contains numerous primary documents related to early American manufacturing. See also William R. Bagnall, Samuel Slater and Early Development of Cotton (1890), and, for broad background, Perry Walton, The Story of Textiles (1912).