Britain and Colonial Manufacturing

In the seventeenth century, British authorities’ principal motivation for regulating American production was to retain the American and West Indian markets for British manufacturers. A 1699 law forbade the export of raw wool, yarn, and finished fabrics from the colonies by ship, as well as the transportation of these materials by horse or cart from one colony to another. In fact, few American manufactured goods could compete with British products at this point, although the colonial shipbuilding industry had begun to establish itself as a force.

When it came to the development of American industry, British authorities preferred shipbuilding to the establishment of a colonial textile industry. The board of trade refused to intervene against colonial shipbuilders, when so requested by Thames shipwrights in 1724. The board feared that suppressing colonial shipbuilding would force Americans to develop an export textile business to pay for imports from Britain. British industrialists were also concerned about the lure of America’s high-wage economy for their most skilled workers. The development of American ceramics was pronounced enough that the English pottery magnate Josiah Wedgwood was concerned about both the potential emigration of his company’s skilled craftspeople and the possible loss of the American market.

Britain did not oppose all American manufactures. It did support American industries that complemented rather than competed with British industries or those that filled British needs. For instance, Britain encouraged the colonies to produce naval necessities, such as pitch and turpentine. Policy also could be influenced by different interests. British iron producers attempted to suppress colonial competition, while manufacturers who used iron welcomed colonial supplies.

The Royal Society of Arts, a group founded in London in 1754 that included some American members, particularly encouraged a revival of the old project, going back to the Virginia Company, of an American silk industry. Silk was a product Britain itself could not effectively produce. The society concentrated its efforts on the far Southern colonies, particularly Georgia, where it cooperated with the colony’s proprietors. A group of Italian silk workers was established at a Savannah filature, where the silk cocoons would be wound into thread. Although the workers successfully produced silk thread, the project proved economically unviable and was abandoned by 1771. South Carolina silk was even less successful. The Society had more success in encouraging the development of the colonial potash industry, an effort encouraged by Parliament, which lifted the tariff on American potash in 1751.


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