Politicization of Manufacturers

Although colonial manufacturers had always had to reckon with the British government’s insistence that home industries not be harmed by colonial ones, the question of manufacturing was even more politicized during the decades before the American Revolution. Repressive British legislation, such as the Townshend Acts, was answered with a series of nonimportation movements, designed to discourage Americans from paying for British goods and to encourage American manufactures. In 1767, a Boston town meeting coupled a call to lobby Parliament to repeal the acts with a call for American authorities to provide bounties for domestic manufactures. This call was heard from many other quarters as well.

The effort to promote American manufacturing in the decades before the Revolution took many forms. In New England and Pennsylvania, there was an attempt to revive and expand domestic spinning. Ministers, newspaper proprietors, and local societies for the promotion of arts sponsored spinning bees and competitions for young women, often imbued with a patriotic flavor. More than sixty spinning parties were reported in local New England newspapers in the 1760s. These meetings usually took place at ministers’ houses and were put forth as examples of women’s patriotism.

Harvard students flaunted their patriotism by appearing at commencement in outfits entirely American in origin (although America had always produced much of its own clothing). Patriotic colonists in New England, New York, and Pennsylvania were encouraged not to eat lamb, so as to increase the supply of wool. The duty on the importation of paper also led to efforts to encourage the gathering of rags for use by colonial papermakers.

Other efforts to strengthen American industry were on a larger scale and organized on a more capitalistic basis. The earliest surviving American porcelain was made at Southwark in Philadelphia from 1770 to 1772 by the firm of Gousse Bonnin and George Anthony Morris. Bonnin, the leader of the venture, the American China Manufactory, associated his enterprise with American liberty and patriotism, pointing out that Philadelphians were spending 15,000 pounds a year on imported porcelain. He recruited English workers and produced soft-paste porcelain in the manner of the English Bow factory. The firm’s failure may have been due to a deliberate effort to sabotage it by dumping British and Dutch porcelain on the American market, although labor difficulties also contributed to its woes. Despite the efforts of Bonnin and other ceramicists, American ceramics were still not of the quality to compete with Wedgwood and other leading British producers efforts to duplicate Wedgwood’s popular creamware or queensware in America were unsuccessful and imports continued to dominate the market.

There also were several attempts to address the needs of American shipbuilders for sailcloth and cordage by encouraging Americans to raise hemp. The Society for the Promotion of Arts, Agriculture, and Oeconomy (also known as the New York Society of Arts) was founded in New York in late 1764 by merchants of the city’s patriot faction. It focused principally on the development of linen manufacture. The Society succeeded in employing 300 people in the industry and attracted the unfavorable notice of the Board of Trade.

Philadelphia’s American Philosophical Society was less successful in its alliance efforts with Philadelphia merchants and the Pennsylvania legislature to promote the silk industry. The society also requested that clays be submitted to it to determine the best deposits for different kinds of ceramics, offered premiums for rags for papermaking, and supported one of the few American glassmakers attempting to make a superior product, Henry William Stiegel. Stiegel founded a glassworks at Manheim, Pennsylvania, in 1768. He planned to manufacture the highest-quality glass, known as flint glass, and the society gave its official approval. One important advantage of flint glass was its superior optical qualities, which the American Philosophical Society, the country’s leading scientific organization, was in a position to certify. The society’s efforts were in vain, however, as high labor costs and foreign competition forced Stiegel to close his glassworks in 1774.

Another, more effective Philadelphia organization was the United Company of Philadelphia for Promoting American Manufactures, headed by Benjamin Rush. Founded in 1775, it concentrated on textiles and soon employed 700 people. This company survived until the occupation of Philadelphia by the British in 1777.

The British response to the development of American industry in the late eighteenth century concentrated particularly on textiles, the basis of the British export economy in 1772, woolen textiles comprised over 30 percent of British exports to the thirteen colonies. In 1766 and 1768, the Board of Trade required colonial governors to submit reports on all colonial manufactures established since 1734, though most governors described the manufacturing activity in their colonies as negligible. In 1774, Parliament prohibited the export from Britain of tools used in textile manufacture.

Benjamin Franklin, in an interview before the House of Commons, had pointed out that colonists might produce their own manufactured goods if Britain imposed tariffs on exports to America. Therefore, textile manufactures, along with other products of British industry, were omitted from the Townshend duties of 1767. As with the restriction of other freedoms, the quarrels between Britain and the colonies over regulating manufactures contributed to the outbreak of the American Revolution.

William E. Burns See also: Artisans; Economy, Business, and Labor (Chronology); Economy, Business, and Labor (Essay); Laborers, Urban. Bibliography Hindle, Brooke. The Pursuit of Science in Revolutionary America. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press for the Institute of Early American History and Culture in Williamsburg, Virginia, 1956. Hood, Adrienne D. “The Material World of Cloth: Production and Use in Eighteenth-Century Rural Pennsylvania.” William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd series, 53 (1996): 43 66. Hood, Graham. Bonnin and Morris of Philadelphia: The First American Porcelain Factory, 1770 1772. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press for the Institute of Early American History and Culture in Williamsburg, Virginia, 1972. Hume, Ivor No«l. A Guide to Artifacts of Colonial America. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1970. 2nd edition. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001. McCusker, John J., and Russell R. Menard. The Economy of British America, 1607 1789. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press for the Institute of Early American History and Culture in Williamsburg, Virginia, 1985. Mulholland, James A. A History of Metals in Colonial America. University: University of Alabama Press, 1981. Ulrich, Laura Thatcher. The Age of Homespun: Objects and Stories in the Creation of an American Myth. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2001. York, Neil Longley. Mechanical Metamorphosis: Technological Change in Revolutionary America. Contributions in American Studies, no. 178. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1985.


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