In England textile factories spread to many

In the Antebellum Era, the Northern part of the United States was revolutionized by a series of innovations, triggering a shift from an agricultural to a commercial economy.

These economic changes sharpened the differences between North and South.

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Diverging Regions

Samuel Slater built the first textile factory in the U.S.

in 1790

Samuel Slater

The Industrial Revolution in America was a century-long process that moved the production of goods from skilled artisans in home business to machines in factories. When Samuel Slater built America’s first textile factory in Rhode Island in 1790, he steered New England on a clear economic path. Then Eli Whitney demonstrated interchangeable parts in 1801, setting off half a century of innovations and inventions in American business and manufacturing.

By 1850, the value of industrial output surpassed the value of agriculture, signaling a secondary commercial revolution – and almost all of it was in the North.Although the society and economies of North and South had been different since the earliest colonial days, these differences became more clearly defined in the Antebellum Era (or the years before the Civil War). The colonial economies had evolved differently thanks in no small part to geography; the climate of the South was conducive to cash crops, while the fast-moving rivers of the North powered machinery. But even while coal started replacing water as an industrial power source and agricultural inventions transformed Western farms, the South seemed to be regressing in terms of technology. Since the invention of Eli Whitney’s cotton gin, the Southern states had become increasingly more dependent on slave labor.

And though there was industry in the South, it formed a relatively small percentage of their economic output.By contrast, with the transfer of large-scale farming to the West, the North came to depend on a commercial economy for their livelihood. The output of goods and services in America increased twelvefold between the turn of the century and the start of the Civil War; two-thirds of these goods and 70% of the workers who made them hailed from factories in the Northeast. Growing transportation networks created a web across the Northeastern and Middle states and connected the North to the West beginning with the Erie Canal and, by mid-century, by railroad tracks. These improvements encouraged even more commerce and population growth, leaving the South increasingly more isolated from the rest of the nation.

Depiction of southern slaves using the cotton gin
Cotton Gin Slaves

19th-Century Inventors and Inventions

The power-driven machinery of New England textile factories spread to many other industries, creating a surge in American inventions and innovations.

In the two decades between 1830 and 1850, the number of successful patent applications nearly doubled. The invention of the sewing machine midcentury meant all that fabric produced in Northern factories could now be sewn into clothing in Northern factories. Steam engines were adapted for all kinds of machinery, including ships and mills and printing presses. Skilled blacksmiths and small forges gave way to the massive furnaces and rolling mills of Pennsylvania.

Even farmers benefitted from machinery such as Cyrus McCormick‘s mechanical reaper and John Deere‘s steel plow.One of the most important patents of the mid-19th century was the process for vulcanizing rubber. This keeps it strong even when heated, and Charles Goodyear‘s rubber was eventually applied in more than 500 different uses and allowed for the development of the automobile industry. Unfortunately for Goodyear, he was a man ahead of his time.

He died a poor man before his inventions became widely used.Another inventor did see the fruits of his labor during his lifetime. An artist named Samuel Morse needed a supplemental income, and after failing to reach his dying wife’s bedside due to a lack of efficient communication, he invented the electric telegraph and Morse code in 1844.

His little side job revolutionized communication, allowing for messages to be passed almost instantly over long distances. Within 16 years, telegraph wires crisscrossed the East Coast and reached as far west as the Mississippi River.

McCormick invented the mechanical reaper and Deere created the steel plow
Cyrus McCormick John Deere

Effects and Consequences of Northern Commerce

Factories and industrialization led to more than just economic differences among the regions; they had profound social, political and demographic effects on the young nation.

The government stepped in to protect fledgling American industries by passing a series of protective tariffs throughout the first half of the century. These taxes raised the cost of imported goods, making domestic goods more competitive. Praised by industrial regions of the nation, tariffs were a disaster for Southern cotton-growers since the tariffs not only raised prices, they also lowered Britain’s ability to buy American cotton. The economic controversy was a more important political issue than slavery at the time, nearly causing a civil war in the 1830s when South Carolina threatened to secede over the so-called ‘Tariff of Abominations.’Industrialization also changed business practices for both owners and workers.

All this new technology was very expensive. Initially, factories were often paid for through business partnerships, but in the Antebellum Era, corporations became more common. After being chartered by a state, a corporation raises capital from many different investors.

Each of them earns a share of the profits while only risking the amount of their original investment.In 1821, Francis Lowell opened a textile factory in Massachusetts and transformed the workforce by hiring females. Lowell’s factory girls were predominantly young, single girls from nearby farms who were supervised by strict matrons and housed in chaperoned dormitories. It was boring work – nearly 70 hours per week – but factory girls earned three times the money they could make as a maid or a cook. As a result, thousands of young women earned their own living and gained a sense of independence not yet common in America. By midcentury, however, a majority of factory girls were lower-paid immigrants.

Single, independent young women worked in Lowell factories
demographics. While the nation’s total population grew by about a third, the population of towns and cities of 8,000 or more increased by 90%. By 1860, about one in seven Americans lived in a city.

Such rapid urbanization caused its own set of problems that you can learn about in another lesson. Even though there were even more dramatic changes to come in the years after the Civil War, the economic and technological changes that took place in the antebellum years set the stage for America to become an urban nation and the world’s leading industrial producer.

Lesson Summary

Let’s review. In the Antebellum Era, differences in the economies of North and South became sharper as the West took over food production and the South became more dependent on slaves and cash crops, while the Northeast focused its efforts on industrialization. Despite farming technology from inventors like John Deere and Cyrus McCormick, by midcentury, America made more money from manufacturing than it did from agriculture.The factory system spread from New England textile mills to other businesses, and a series of inventors and innovators helped revolutionize America, especially in the North.

Charles Goodyear developed the process for stabilizing rubber, called vulcanizing, with applications in hundreds of industries. Samuel Morse invented the telegraph and a code for transmitting messages through it. The changes brought about by Northern industrialization began to divide the country even further when the government passed protective tariffs to support American manufacturing.

New business models like the corporation became commonplace. Francis Lowell began hiring young women from nearby farms to work in his textile factories, heralding a shift of the American workforce from the countryside to the cities.

Learning Outcomes

This lesson should teach you to:

  • Explain why the North and South developed such different economies
  • Identify Charles Goodyear and Samuel Morse as well as name their inventions
  • Summarize why the South disliked the tariffs passed to protect American industries
  • Describe the demographic changes that took place because of the Industrial Revolution
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