By Sarah Rooker
The Industrial Revolution in America had an impact on Americans that crossed political, economic, and social boundaries. It brought changes in daily living both at home and work, redefined the government’s role in the economy, and changed how Americans communicated and worked with each other. The Connecticut River valley played an important role in the formation of the Industrial Revolution as artisans and mechanics, often spurred on by resourcefulness and isolation, created new tools and new patterns of work in the many mills and shops along the Connecticut’s tributaries.
After the creation of the American Republic, the Connecticut River valley became more integrated into New England’s market systems. Small mills and shops, relying mostly on water-powered machinery dotted the landscape. Advertisements in Windor’s Vermont Journal reveal that by 1790 growing consumerism had reached the region. Stores and shops boasted of carrying English, West-Indian, European, and Irish goods in the form of spices and condiments, coffees and teas, housewares, books, and woven cloth. While the barter and work exchange economy still flourished, cash exchange became more common. Growing commercialism created greater inequality as farmers were stretched to pay cash for goods they had never had before, and new wage-earning laborers sought to make a living.
That agricultural and industrial histories are intertwined can be seen throughout New England in the textile mills that processed both cotton from the south and wool produced locally. The history of Claremont, New Hampshire’s Monadnock Mill mirrors that of perhaps the most famous model of industrialization-Lowell. Founded by the Jarvis family in the 1830s to produce both cotton and woolen goods, the mill first employed local girls, housing them in local boarding houses. This paternalistic spirit, similar to that found in Lowell, was heralded as an example of how Americans, unlike Europeans could industrialize without social conflict. As in Lowell, as production increased and wages decreased, Irish and French-Canadian immigrants replaced the mill girls and looked forward to a lifetime of earning wages and working for someone else.
When the Robbins and Lawrence factory in Windsor, Vermont, created interchangeable parts for their guns in 1851, they caught the attention of mechanics in England who heralded their new technologies as the “American System.” At armories in Springfield, Massachusetts, and at the Colt manufacturing plant in Hartford, Connecticut, arms manufacturers created special purpose machines and highly precise gauges to make interchangeable parts. This meant that guns could be repaired on the battlefield, changing the nature of war. The new “American System” opened the way for many new industries ranging from mass-produced sewing machines to organs. Suddenly, a whole new world was open for consumers.
The railroads brought great change to Vermont. By the mid 1850s, over five hundred miles of track had been laid with the help of Irish immigrant workers. The location of the tracks had a huge impact on the development of Vermont towns delaying the growth of some businesses such as the Barre granite industry or increasing others. Often villages moved their centers downhill to the railroad depot or shifted from one center to another within a town, stimulating real estate speculation and new development. The lumber and cattle industries benefited from new trade with Boston as did farmers, with the advent of refrigerator cars for butter and cheese — escalating the shift from growing wool to dairying. Reaction to the rails was not all positive. Woodstock’s George Perkins Marsh complained about the greed of railroad investors as well as their impact on the environment. In 1864 he published his most famous book, Man and Nature where he argued that every new technological innovation was a threat to the natural world.
With the convergence of steam, faster transportation, and precision manufacturing, the stage was set for bigger business and the accompanying changes in daily life and society. Bigger businesses brought the need for organizational management, large investments, and national markets. The Fairbanks Scale Company in St. Johnsbury is one such example of how businesses grew in the nineteenth century. By the time of the Civil War, they had employed over 1,000 workers and were producing 4,000 scales a month for a world-wide market. Big business often led to philanthropy as was the case with the Fairbanks family. The Fairbanks Museum and the St. Johnsbury Athenaeum are just two recipients of the family’s largesse.
Throughout the nineteenth century, large numbers of Vermonters left the state in search of jobs in industrial areas and new lives in the west. Vermont’s mountains proved quite attractive to urban residents, however, and a new tourism industry grew as officials promoted the state’s agrarian past and healthful environment. The new tourist economy was dependent on both an industrial infrastructure and a rural vision. Managing this dichotomy would become a constant balancing act in the twentieth century.
Thomas Bassett, “500 Miles of Trouble and Excitement: Vermont Railroads, 1848-1861” (Vermont History: 49: 133-54)
Ed Battison, Muskets to Mass Production: The Men & The Times that shaped American Manufacturing (American Precision Museum, 1976)
Brown, Dona, Inventing New England: Regional Tourism in the Nineteenth Century (UPNE, 1995)
Gary Kornblith, ed., The Industrial Revolution in America (Boston, 1998)