Virtuous Capital: Mechanization and Economic Independence in the Early Republic

Friday, January 5, 2018: 8:30 AM
Columbia 6 (Washington Hilton)
Katheryn P. Viens, Massachusetts Historical Society and Boston University
Mechanized production was widespread in 1820s Massachusetts and took root earlier than scholars recognize. On small rivers and streams that had long supported mills for processing grain and timber, rural investors developed new industries during the war years that would form the basis for local economies that would be pervaded by manufacturing. Based on research in the 1820 US Census of Manufactures, corporate charters, and 1831 state tax valuations, this paper posits that “virtuous capital” in the form of modest industrial enterprises offered a way for rural men to maintain economic independence within an exchange economy that was becoming increasingly enmeshed in wider networks of trade. “Independence” in this instance means limiting one’s reliance on wage labor and maintaining one’s patriarchy and social standing. Neighboring farmers might enter the labor market as employers, hiring hands to increase production and adding wages to their list of liabilities alongside the cost of seed, fertilizer, and transportation. Or, their families might engage in outwork: doubtless, many sons and daughters in the Massachusetts town of Lancaster were among the “3 men 2 girls and 100 small children in various families” who were engaged in “setting the teeth” of cotton cards for the Carlton and Sawyer manufactory. Yet equipping a textile, paper, or slitting mill that ran with only a few employees—even buying a single carding machine for an outbuilding—could also alter the fortunes of one or more rural families. At the same time, by removing production from the household, where piecework offered women the opportunity to control the pace of work, earn income, and make decisions about the imported goods they would buy, manufacturing allowed men to retain control over their domestic economy while obtaining the public stature that accompanied owning the means of production and bringing new technologies to rural communities.
Previous Presentation | Next Presentation >>