Rhode Island system of Manufacturing
The Rhode Island system of manufacturing using a whole family, including children contrasted significantly with the Lowell or Waltham system which utilized only young women who were housed in boarding houses. This family focus is still quite visible in the Blackstone Valley landscape where mill villages provided schools, mill housing, churches and stores - all the necessary services for families. Town after town, such as Whitinsville, South Grafton and others demonstrate this community-centered approach which in 1830, 55% of the workforce were children. Although the more highly skilled jobs were dominated by adults and the large influx of immigrants eventually lessened the working burden on children, not until 1938 with the Fair Labor Standards were children protected by legislation which controlled how and when they could work.
As one peruses the various mill landscapes throughout the Blackstone Valley, it is possible to fairly easily assess the time period of most of the remaining mills by the building material used. The Slater mill is only one of a few of the early wooden mills erected in the late 1770s-early 1800s. As owners realized the high risk of fire that occurred frequently in these structures, the mills built of stone became prevalent throughout the 1830s to the 1870-1880s as seen in the Wilkinsonville Mill alongside the Slater Mill and at the Center mill in Slatersville or the Washington mill in North Grafton.
As mills became larger, many the size of football fields, the brick was utilized to expedite construction, increase safety and lower costs. Most of the brick structures scattered throughout the Valley, from the Town Hall in Uxbridge to the Ashton mills to the Rubber mills in Blackstone, were erected during the latter part of the 19th century.
The labor force worked six days a week, 12-14 hours per day in stiffling heat, polluted air, and very noisy conditions. Their personal lives were completely controlled by the factory bell which guided their morning wake-up call, their release from a long day at work, and nearly every aspect of their life. More than 90 cotton mills lined the Blackstone River by the 1840s and the economy was booming, though, sometimes production overshadowed demand. In fact, during the 1850s, a marked depression had lessened the pay and the hours for some employees at the mills, yet within a few years, the high-paced demand for production for Civil War supplies kept the mills operating almost twenty four hours a day.
However, as the demand slowed again the late 1880s-90s, mill owners started looking for options of lowering costs. By the late 1920s-30s, many of the mills had moved production to the South, where labor and power costs as well as cheaper materials, such as raw cotton, were all cheaper. This began the long economic downturn of the Blackstone Valley which, at one time, had more than half of its inhabitants out of work.
Today, however, a new synergy with many working partnerships has captured the American spirit to renovate many of these mills into new uses - from housing to shops to small industries. The story of the American Industrial experience is coming alive as an integral part of American history with tourism dollars expected to be a strong foundation for decades to come. Each planning and growth decision we make in our communities affects how successful this effort will be. Based on the many successes since the National Park Service became involved to tell the story of the American birthplace of the Industrial Revolution, we will once again capture the attention and the hearts of the Nation.
Building a Dam in Glocester, RI
Sawmill in Glocester, RI
Manchaug mills and residences in 1891 taken from postcards of the time.