The Industrial Revolution transformed America’s economy and social fabric in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Northern agriculture shifted from mostly subsistence farming, whereby families grew crops and raised livestock for themselves, toward a more market-based system with farmers selling their surplus. Industry spurred the southern plantation system too, setting in motion an emerging conflict of two inter-dependent but politically antagonistic economies, as southern cotton fed northern textile mills that made fabric.
At the same time, communication and transportation underwent revolutions of their own, along with the very way Americans lived. People started caring what time it was and factory workers had to stay sober all day. As middle classes emerged in towns and cities, children went to school, washed their hands, and quit sleeping in the same room as their parents, while husbands and ministers invented the new role of the “traditional housewife.” Collectively, these changes are known as the Market Revolution, but they were all triggered by industry, which in turn traced to the Scientific Revolution (Chapter 7).
Early Industrial Revolution
The Industrial Revolution began in England with advances in mechanical engineering and steam technology and then spread first to Germany, France, and the northern United States. Mechanical engineers applied the complex gears of watches and clocks on a large scale, driven first by teams of horses, then water wheels and steam. British engineers like Thomas Savery (1698), Baptist preacher/blacksmith Thomas Newcomen (1705), and Scotsman James Watt (1769), who coined the term horsepower, reinvented and improved upon steam power almost by accident. The steam-driven Aeolipile dates to the ancient world, but Romans, Greeks, and Egyptians didn’t apply steam power to work. As they pumped water from tin and coal mines beneath the water table, the British exploited the fact that steam pressure (pink, right) from a coal or wood fire boiler converts into mechanical energy when pumped through a piston or turbine. The boiler drives the pump because gas (steam) occupies 16x more volume than water, so it has to escape. In other words, water expands as it converts from a liquid to gas when heated, creating pressure that can be released to turn turbines. The vacuum after the air releases also pulls down on Newcomen’s rocking beam pump. Steam power converts heat into motion or “work.” This steam is invisible but appears as vapor after it cools.
The key breakthrough came from Watt. He took Newcomen’s basic idea and added a separate cooling condenser to amplify the vacuum effect, refined it with tighter, smoother cylinders — having hired John “Iron Mad” Wilkinson from the Royal Navy whose precision boring machine improved cannons — and transformed Newcomen’s rocking beam into a wheel and axle. While historians seem to argue about everything else, there’s widespread agreement that Watt’s steam engine ushered in the Industrial Revolution as it enabled steam to power machines and transportation, creating an even bigger market for coal to fuel the engines. Today, coal, natural gas, nuclear fission, and concentrated (utility-scale) solar all boil water to power steam plants, while geothermal taps into natural dry steam and hot water in the Earth’s crust.
In the 19th century, external combustion steam engines drove turbines that could be applied to factories, transportation (locomotives and ships), communication (printing presses), and digging/excavating (shovels). The Greeks and Romans and Leonardo da Vinci envisioned using steam for weapons, but steam-powered cannons and guns never caught on in the 19th century. Briton Charles Babbage, the “father of the modern computer,” built a prototype steam-powered calculating machine, the Difference Engine #1, that never made it into production but could square and cube numbers and solve simple quadratic equations and polynomials.
With its network of roads and canals, embrace of the scientific revolution, natural resources (coal), dynamic financial markets, naval strength, and overseas empire, Britain was a natural incubator of the Industrial Revolution. Manchester, England was the first industrial city. The revolution spread from Britain around the world, changing it forever. That’s the process we saw Alexander Hamilton trying to encourage in America and Thomas Jefferson trying to discourage in the last two chapters. The steam engine belongs alongside mastery of fire and the inventions of agriculture and the wheel as a major watershed in human history (and the steam engine incorporates fire and the wheel). Here’s what happened to world population after mankind first unleashed power beyond that of water turbines and animal muscle.
Around the same time, the British inadvertently made a health-related discovery. When Asian tea became popular as their overseas empire grew, they started boiling water to steep the tea. Unbeknownst, they were killing pathogens that cause water-borne illnesses. Even in unboiled water, tea has natural antibacterial qualities. Tea, then, contributed to a population boom, providing Britain with manpower to work the factories made possible by steam power and mechanical engineering. And, unlike craftsmen drinking beer as they worked in previous centuries, tea kept workers alert for long shifts.
The British also used water power. By the 1770s, Richard Arkwright applied new cotton-spinning, hydro-powered water frames to yarn production. Soon the British were mass-producing cotton from India in history’s first mechanized factories. For good measure, they exported textiles back to India, wiping out that country’s garment industry (today, South Asia is once again a major clothes exporter). In pottery, Josiah Wedgwood facilitated the transition from craftsmanship to machine production and specialized tasks, or separation of labor, that soon characterized most industries. Wedgwood was also an abolitionist and maternal grandfather of Charles Darwin. The British jealously guarded their technological secrets, keeping engineers from emigrating and even going so far as to search people leaving England for blueprints of spinning looms or steam engines. They were familiar with industrial espionage as they had stolen from Italy the silk-spinning technique made famous at their Derby Mill. But the concepts the British were trying to guard were simple enough that they didn’t require elaborate designs. Engineers could disguise themselves as laborers or just memorize the basic mechanics. The Industrial Revolution spread from Britain to continental Europe and North America.
New England pioneered mechanical manufacturing in America in the 1790s with watermills and it accelerated when President Jefferson’s 1807 Embargo cut off most European trade (Chapter 12). While opposed by business leaders, his embargo and the War of 1812 had the long-term effect of making the U.S. more self-sufficient. Even earlier, engineer Samuel Slater built the first advanced water-powered cotton mill in Pawtucket, Rhode Island for Moses Brown after apprenticing in Jedidiah Strutt’s English stocking mill. Slater’s industrial espionage earned him the sobriquet “Slater the Traitor” in Britain, but future president Andrew Jackson called him the “father of the American industrial revolution.” Francis Cabot Lowell snuck detailed power loom plans out of England and memorized others, eventually building forty cotton mills outside Boston. Later on, when Apple and Microsoft didn’t want their technology pirated across Asia, the U.S. argued for intellectual property rights, but not yet.
These were the first factories in America, with their jennys and mules spinning out over 50k miles of fabric per year along the Merrimack River, in Lowell’s namesake town. Cities like Lowell and Lynn, Massachusetts built industrial compounds that employed girls from surrounding areas, providing them campus-like accommodations with dorms, chapels, and chaperones. Next came the application of steam, freeing industrialists up to build plants anywhere, not just alongside rivers.
Delaware’s Oliver Evans not only improved on the steam engine, he also built America’s first assembly-line type system in his automated flour mill, including conveyor belts, bucket elevators, and Archimedean screw pumps. In the 1830s, Evans designed a steam-powered horseless carriage, the amphibious Oruktor Amphibolos, the first American attempt at a “car” and the second worldwide behind that of Frenchman Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot (1769). To top it off, Evans designed the first refrigerator but never built it (Jacob Perkins won the patent for the first vapor compression cycle model in 1834, based on Evans’ idea). Evans grew lazier as he aged and failed to invent the airplane and split the atom. Though he was way ahead of his time with the car and conveyor-belt assembly line, steam turbines drove factories across the North by the 1830s. More so than the improved power looms of the 1790s, steam turbines launched the American industrial revolution.
Nineteenth-century Americans excelled at mass production, even though conveyor belt-style assembly lines didn’t go mainstream until the early 20th century with the aid of electricity. Manufacturers outsourced singular, monotonous tasks like applying outsoles to the insoles of shoes, and the British learned to mass-produce ship rigging (e.g. block pulleys) as they expanded their Royal Navy. Standardized interchangeable parts, pioneered by French artillery (Gibreauval) and musket designers (Blanc) in the 18th century, were the key to mass production. Some would say the notion went back even further to Gutenberg’s printing presses or the Chinese and Korean movable type process he drew on. But the idea didn’t really kick in until the late 18th century, especially among millers and arms makers. The American System of manufacturing, first applied to firearms, used precision milling machines to crank out standardized parts then assembled them quickly. The evolution of micrometers (right) enabled precision parts, which enabled mass production.
Thomas Jefferson knew about the French work from his time in Paris and ordered the U.S. Armory to apply the interchangeable (or component) parts idea to guns (TJ to John Jay, August 30, 1785). The U.S. had two main armories, in Springfield, Massachusetts and Harpers Ferry, Virginia. Eli Whitney, inventor of the cotton gin, helped promote and popularize the concept. He won a contract to make 10k muskets for the War Department in 1798. After some time went by and they hadn’t seen any guns, some worried politicians found their way to Whitney’s secret barn in New Haven, Connecticut. According to legend, he demonstrated the process by disassembling ten gun stocks he’d built, mixed the parts, and put them back together. He actually marked the parts and filed some down for the demonstration, but the basic idea was sound and well on its way toward becoming reality. Gunsmiths like Simeon North and Samuel Colt standardized barrel gauges to mass-produce bullets, creating the .22 and .45 caliber, etc. With common gauges, bullets no longer had to be melted down for individual guns. John Hall developed the first real mass-produced, interchangeable-part gun at Harper’s Ferry, the M1819 Hall Breech-Loading Rifle. Jefferson, meanwhile, wasn’t doing a very good job slowing the industrial revolution in America as his embargo and promotion of interchangeable parts ironically helped set it in motion. The French, on the other hand, pioneered component gun parts but their smiths, much like the Luddite weavers of the English Midlands who vandalized textile frames and burned mills, resisted standardization and automation because it threatened their craft. New England, in turn, became a global leader in arms manufacturing with “gun valley” firms like Colt, Remington, Ruger, Winchester, and Smith & Wesson.
Machine tools, metal lathes, and jigs enabled mass production and interchangeable parts. The key breakthrough in guns came from North’s milling machine, a more maneuverable drill press used to make solid single-piece parts, reducing the need for filing. Standardized long guns made warfare more efficient because parts could be replaced quicker on the battlefield and governments could contract large orders. Handguns, meanwhile, changed America’s criminal and legal landscape. In the South, especially, affordable, mass-produced handguns raised murder rates, which triggered the first gun regulations, which led, in turn, to the first proclamations of individual gun rights in relation to state governments and, by extension, the Second Amendment (e.g. Bliss v. Commonwealth of Kentucky, 1822).
The U.S. government hired Simeon North to make rifles at their Harpers Ferry, Virginia armory. Colt later won a contract to build rifles for the Union in the Civil War and his .44-40 caliber six-shooter revolver was iconic in the Old West, compatible with Winchester rifles for those that carried long and short guns that used the same bullets. Just as Johannes Gutenberg got his idea for the printer from a wine press, Colt’s breakthrough for the revolver came at sea observing the ratchet and pawl mechanism on a capstan (for ropes, cables, and hawsers), a version of which he used to rotate gun cylinders. Likewise, according to unsubstantiated legend, Shaker Tabitha Babbitt got her idea for the circular saw blade from a spinning wheel. Watching sawyers rip lumber, she’d noticed that they wasted half of their motion whipsawing back and forth.
Inventors soon applied the standardized parts concept to a host of other inventions, including textiles with the application of sizes. Prior to that, all clothes, at least those that fit, were tailored. In Connecticut, Frederick Trent Stanley used milling machines to craft hardware and bolts from wrought iron, later merging with his cousin Henry’s Rule & Level Company to form Stanley Works, now Stanley Black & Decker. In the same state, Eli Terry revolutionized clock making. Elias Howe’s lockstitch loop sewing machine became an important American export and later influenced the invention of film projectors. Bicycles also depended on component parts. Some inventors were purely engineers while others combined engineering and entrepreneurial skills. In the sewing machine’s case, Isaac Singer was the businessman who cashed in biggest by exporting them overseas.
Prior to the early 19th century, the U.S. hadn’t exported much other than commodities, but soon its Remington rifles and Singer sewing machines could be seen around the world. They blazed the trail overseas for Standard Oil cans, Kellogg’s cereal®, and Coca-Cola® later in the century. The government encouraged inventors like Colt, Howe, and Charles Goodyear by awarding patents: certificates granting short-term monopolies on profits from new inventions. The term (length) for proprietary rights on patents varies. Philips-head screws and screwdrivers, for instance, had a patent that lasted from 1934 to ’66, but the Phillips Screw Co. extended the term by slightly modifying the design. Americans and Europeans revived the Renaissance-Classical patent model during the Industrial Revolution to spur ingenuity.
In Goodyear’s case, he invented vulcanized, or non-melting, rubber by adding sulfur to the natural latex sap from rubber plants. He bankrupted his family and nearly died of exposure to chemicals experimenting for years in his tiny New York tenement, but Goodyear’s breakthrough invention became a staple of the industrial revolution. Improved rubber wasn’t just critical to tires years later, but also the numerous gaskets and seals that would’ve otherwise melted in the gears and pipes of factories and their power stations. Rubber stopped engines from shaking shops or machinery apart.
Machinery also needed to be oiled and sperm whales provided the necessary lubricant. Large-scale hunting emerged in the 17th century, with the British, Dutch, and Norwegians competing in the Atlantic and sub-Artic to boil blubber down to oil. By the early 19th century, whale hunting out of ports like Nantucket, Massachusetts became one of the big industries of the Market Revolution, critical for lubricants and lamps until the whales were over-hunted and coal-based kerosene filled the void in the mid-1840s, followed by petroleum-based oil later and light-bulbs for lamps. Whalers drilled holes in the whales’ skulls then lowered young boys into the cavity to extract the spermaceti oil, one of the world’s most sought-after commodities. Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and Jane Austen wrote by the light of sperm whale oil. Artificial light changed sleeping patterns as well. Instead of segmented sleep, separated by an hour or two of wake after midnight, people stayed up later and tried to sleep once through the night. Spermaceti still lubricated automatic transmissions in American cars up until 1972. The dangerous drama of whale hunting lent itself well to literature, most famously in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (1851), and Nathaniel Philbrick’s non-fiction In the Heart of the Sea (2000) about the Essex sinking in 1820 that inspired Melville. A hooked whale tore apart the Essex with its tail, stranding its surviving crew. Melville likely wrote Moby Dick under the light of sperm whale oil.
Agricultural Revolutions: North & South
Among the most important of the early patent-winners was Vermont blacksmith John Deere’s cast-steel moldboard plow. Polished steel (or wrought iron) plows improved on more brittle cast-iron. Horse-pulled steel plows allowed farmers to bring 10x as much land under cultivation as they had with the oxen-driven wood plows many still used, making this seemingly simple invention one of the most important of the 19th century. While Deere was originally from New England, steel plows expedited expansion onto the Midwestern prairie, where thick sods were more difficult to scour off wooden plows than eastern soils. With Deere’s improved design and polished steel surface, prairie soils self-scoured (fell off) rather than clumping on the moldboard. He surely wasn’t the only person to whom it occurred that steel-tipped plows would cut through soil easier than wood or hold up better than iron, but he developed the first commercially successful model and wisely situated his plant in Moline, Illinois to take advantage of both the east-west railroad and north-south Mississippi River. New plows hastened the transition from families simply growing their own food and raising their own livestock to larger operations where farmers grew surplus to sell on a market.
The evolution beyond subsistence farming goes to the heart of what historians mean by the market revolution. Increasingly, but not suddenly or overnight, labor became a specialized enterprise whereby most people performed one task and paid others to perform other specialized tasks and bought items from stores and traveling peddlers. Steel plows are a good example of how economic growth can trigger a multiplier effect, creating more jobs without displacing others. Farmers grew more food, that they traded for money they spent on other consumer goods, employing more people. Soon, those people needed teachers, lawyers, police, carpenters, etc., creating more employees who spent more money.
That, at least, is the grow-the-pie model of job creation favored by those who argue that economic growth is not a zero-sum game; that’s why it’s growth. A modern example of such a “tailwind” is the productivity boost computers have provided most sectors of our economy (also see Moore’s Law). Critics counter that the pie is finite at any given time, such as in the early 20th century when mechanized agriculture cost people their jobs as tractors displaced farmhands and sharecroppers in capitalism’s ongoing process of creative destruction. Automation today displaces jobs even as it grows the companies that create automation. Others counter that, even if the pie is growing, workers’ relative slice size can still shrink in comparison to the rich. Still others argue that, either way, the whole model is based on growth, which isn’t environmentally sustainable.
Eighteenth-century French physiocrats, promoters of agriculture as the basis for economic growth, pioneered the multiplier theory. Jefferson liked their theories, hiring physiocrats to teach at his University of Virginia. Physiocrat Pierre Samuel du Pont de Nemours migrated to the U.S. in the early 19th century and worked in weaponry instead of farming. He and his son founded DuPont gunpowder company in 1802, that supplied the Union Army in the Civil War.
In the 19th century, improved agricultural implements turned the fertile Midwestern prairie states into a breadbasket. The advent of barbed wire in the 1870s allowed for building fences with less nearby timber and the government subsidized regional train lines starting in the 1850s. Farmers harvested corn and wheat on a scale that more than realized Jefferson’s earlier dream of an agrarian empire. But Jefferson was wrong to juxtapose farming with the industrial revolution because the two overlapped and reinforced each other. John Deere, Joseph Glidden (barbed wire), and Cyrus McCormick (modifier of the mechanical reaper and founder of International Harvester) were implement manufacturers, not farmers. And the meatpacking that went along with raising livestock transformed mass production. Large-scale farming was part of the industrial revolution and its yield fed a growing army of immigrant factory workers, miners, and clerks.
In the South, a simple but important new implement revolutionized agriculture, too, but in a different way. We’ve already seen how the push to manufacture cotton clothing more efficiently led to mechanized textile mills in England and New England. Now came a simpler hand-held device that made harvesting cotton cheaper and faster. While working as a Yankee tutor on a Georgia plantation (wealthy Southerners often home-schooled their children), the forenamed gunsmith Eli Whitney was struck by how time-consuming and tedious it was for enslaved workers to pluck the prickly burrs out of cotton before the cleaned product could be sold. In 1794, he built a sluice box similar to others he’d seen, this one to drop cotton in. He called it a cotton engine, or gin.
Despite being a labor-saving device at harvesting, the cotton gin paradoxically increased the demand for slavery because it made growing short-staple cotton more profitable just as textile mills emerged in England, France, and the northern United States. King Cotton spread from Georgia to East Texas and became the driving force behind the South’s new export economy. By some accounts — disputed in the optional article below by Gavin Wright — cotton became a driving force behind the entire American economy, amounting to a larger industry than banking, railroads, and (non-textile) factories combined by the onset of the Civil War. Southern cotton fueled the northern textile industry (fabrics, clothing), the first major sector of the Industrial Revolution, even though many people in this economy were only indirectly connected to slavery. In 1846, Karl Marx wrote: “Without slavery there would be no cotton; without cotton there would be no modern industry.”
Another transplanted New Englander, Daniel Pratt from New Hampshire, also contributed to the southern economy by building cotton gins in Alabama. While mostly a northern phenomenon in the 19th century, there was a smattering of industry and agribusiness in the South. Pratt also helped import the industrial revolution by building sawmills, gristmills, and woolen mills, and by smelting pig iron in a Birmingham blast furnace after the Civil War.
But, instead of investing in implements like northern farmers, southern planters bought enslaved workers, including many auctioned off by tobacco growers in the Chesapeake. The soil nutrients on Chesapeake plantations were depleting, but the Founders’ hope (rationalization?) that slavery would slowly die off on its own because of tobacco’s demise didn’t materialize. By the mid-19th century, there was over $4 billion invested in enslaved labor in the South, most growing cotton and sugar, while others grew rice and tobacco or worked on small farms.
Gradually, builders (usually local farmers, craftsmen, and laborers) networked America’s growing farms and factories with bridges and roads — many built on existing Indian trails cut in the logical routes between mountain passes, etc. The National Road, started in 1811 (left), was the first to connect the East coast to the interior. Covered bridges, numbering in the thousands by the end of the 19th century, lengthened the life expectancy of wooden bridges by forestalling rot. But, given their lack of pavement and unreliability in bad weather along with the non-existence of trucks, these wagon roads were not enough. The burgeoning Market Revolution needed railroads and canals.
The Market Revolution spurred growth of the steam locomotive, another British invention. Richard Trevithick and George Stephenson came up with the first trains in the very early 19th century, utilizing the locomotive’s chimney to release boiler steam and suck fresh air into the firebox, stoking the fire, which in turn heated the boiler that churned the piston rod that turned the wheels.
In the 1830s, it took people awhile to wrap their heads around anything that moved humans and goods so fast. One science professor at University College London said that passengers would die of asphyxia because they’d be unable to breathe. New York governor and future president Martin Van Buren told Andrew Jackson, “The canal system of this country is being threatened by a new form of transportation known as ‘railroads’…As you may well know, Mr. President, ‘railroad’ carriages are pulled at an enormous speed of 15 miles per hour by ‘engines’ which, in addition to endangering life and limb of passengers, roar and snort their way through the countryside, setting fire to crops, scaring the livestock and frightening women and children. The Almighty certainly never intended that people should travel at such breakneck speed.” What he really meant was that the Almighty would prefer that railroads not threaten the canal-based economy New York had invested in so heavily the previous decade (more below).
No one died of asphyxia, but they got around faster and soon improved on the 15 m.p.h. clip. The Allegheny Portage Railroad between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh in 1834 cut travel time between those two cities from 13 days to 13 hours, highlighted by the famous Horseshoe Curve outside Altoona (photo at the top of the chapter). The first major line, the Baltimore and Ohio (B & O), connected the East Coast to the interior via Wheeling, [now West] Virginia in 1853. But early railroads didn’t have a common gauge, or agreed upon width between the rails, so no integrated freight system developed until around the Civil War.
By the 1820s and ’30s, there was a pressing need to move produce and goods that roads, trails, and early railroads could not meet. There is a saying tracing to the Greek philosopher Plato that necessity is the mother of invention and this was a case in point. What good was it to grow 10x more corn in Indiana if there was no way to get it to other markets? The Indiana farmer could float crops on a flatboat down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers to New Orleans but then had to break up the boat for firewood and walk home, unable to row upstream. Aside from being hard and time-consuming, that could be dangerous, especially dodging thieves and even serial killers like the Harpe brothers along the Natchez Trace [trail] in Mississippi.
The application of steam to boats around the turn of the 19th century changed that. As was the case with trains, steamboat inventors had to overcome some prominent skeptics. Napoleon Bonaparte asked, “Would you make a ship sail against the wind and currents by lighting a bonfire under her deck? I pray you, excuse me, I have not the time to listen to such nonsense.” Yet, as the emperor spoke, Robert Fulton’s first commercially viable paddle-driven steamer started running in 1807.
Steamboats were dangerous but effective. Their boilers could explode, just as Napoleon feared, or they could flip over if they snagged river bottoms that shifted due to erosion, a problem worsened by deforestation on the banks from cutting wood to fuel their engines. In 1849, Abraham Lincoln won a patent for an inflatable device for dislodging boats that ran aground called the Buoying Vessels Over Shoals. While Lincoln is the only president to have won a patent and worked for a time as a patent lawyer on McCormick’s mechanical reaper, branding wasn’t his strong suit. Yet, by and large, the advantages of steamboats outweighed their risks as they reduced shipping costs and made traveling easier.
Majestic, paddle-wheeled boats symbolized the new economic era, the most dramatic and colorful machines yet known to man. They fascinated young Samuel Clemens growing up in otherwise dull Hannibal, Missouri. He saw them as his ticket out, working as a depth finder (“marking twain”) and, eventually, a pilot himself. Under the pseudonym Mark Twain, he embellished his experiences in Life on the Mississippi (1883). Steamboats moved crops and people up and down America’s first highway system, but most of these rivers ran north and south. New liquid roads, or artificial rivers, were required to connect the highway system east and west. So began the American age of canal building.
The mother of all American canals, and the second biggest anywhere before the Suez (1869) and Panama (1914), was the Erie, which linked the Great Lakes to New York’s Hudson River. The Chinese Grand Canal, built in the Middle Ages, was the longest. Though surprisingly few trained engineers were involved, especially in the early years, the Erie Canal was the greatest project of its time, leading to pioneering methods of dynamiting, felling trees on a mass scale with special screws and stump-pullers, binding the bottom of the shallow four-foot canal and lock basins with hydraulic limestone-based cement, and building a series of locks to account for the change in elevation between the Great Lakes and upstate New York.
To overcome the Appalachian Range from Maine to Georgia, the Founding Fathers hoped to build a canal somewhere through a reasonably low gap. Thomas Jefferson and George Washington hoped for a canal connecting the Potomac River at Georgetown to the Ohio River, but the elevation changes were impossible to overcome in the given distance. At least the Potomac Canal proposal helped encourage the convention in Philadelphia where they wrote the Constitution (Chapter 10). New York’s Mohawk River Valley, sandwiched between the Catskill and Adirondack Mountains, was the best option, as Washington had already scouted during the Revolutionary War, though it too required elevation changes and Washington preferred that the country’s western connection run from the South. The Erie Canal’s elevation dropped slowly from west to east. The British had built the sort of water stairs needed in New York for their Bingley Five Rise Locks on the 127-mile Leeds & Liverpool Canal that opened in 1774. As president, Jefferson wrongly thought the engineering was then impossible, saying an Erie Canal was a “fine idea 100 years ahead of its time.” Like Washington, Jefferson was really hoping for a Potomac Canal closer to home and, as a states’ rights advocate, he didn’t want to use federal funds to build New York’s canal. His successor, James Madison, also vetoed federal funds for the project.
Consequently, New York built the Erie Canal with state funds, in the meantime demonstrating the first major “one-off” use of bond sales to raise revenue. They built the 363-mile canal from 1818-1825, coming in under budget in a rare public project that “under-promised and over-delivered,” celebrating the opening with a series of cannon shots that rang along the route and paying off the bonds within nine years. Timing the opening of the Erie Canal and B & O Railroad with July 4th helped popularize that holiday as it gained mainstream traction after the War of 1812. The canal is 7x longer than the Panama Canal, albeit simpler to build. While immigrants from Ireland and elsewhere later moved in to help dredge the tougher western portion, local farmers dug much of the gigantic ditch themselves with mules and spades, proud of their own role in boosting their market economy. Horses, mules, and even children pulled flat-boat barges along the shallow canal, making it nearly 100x cheaper for farmers, lumberers, and miners to ship goods east than overland. This sounds unbelievable given what now seems like a rudimentary technique of hauling unpowered barges, but draft animals can pull 50x more weight across water than across land. New York enlarged and deepened the canal periodically over the next century.
The Erie Canal changed American history. Instead of New Orleans becoming the most important port city in America, as Jefferson predicted, New York was now linked to the interior, making it the commercial capital. Goods flowed both ways, from America’s interior to Europe and vice-versa. It also boosted Toronto, Ontario as the main gateway from western Canada to the Atlantic, via upstate New York. The canal was also near a major salt mine, allowing easy shipping of that important commodity in either direction. Ancient cities were often near both salt licks and water because salt is essential to brain function. It’s also the etymological root of the words salary and salvation. This salt later provided the North an important advantage during the Civil War when they cut off access to southern salt in the Chesapeake, making it harder for the Confederacy to preserve food in the pre-refrigeration era.
While Alexander Hamilton had already seeded New York City’s status as a financial hub in the 1790s, commercial trade turned it into the “Big Apple.” New York’s harbor also had miles of shoreline protected by the Verrazano Narrows. After the Erie Canal, those narrows were the entrepôt through which goods, people, ideas, communication, and fashion flowed to America’s interior along the water artery. The canal boosted Alexander Hamilton’s dream of a mixed industrial-agricultural economy, leading to Great Lakes cities like Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, Milwaukee, Toledo, and Duluth, along with boom towns in upstate New York such as Buffalo, Rochester, Oswego, Schenectady, Syracuse, and Troy. By 1900, more tonnage came through New York’s harbors than all of America’s other oceanic ports combined (today’s leaders are Long Beach-Los Angeles, Houston, and New Jersey/New York).
New York City also built the country’s first modern water supply system by connecting Manhattan to the Croton Aqueduct in Westchester County, 40 miles to the north, with dams and a series of underground tunnels. The city had suffered from brackish water and waterborne cholera and, in 1835, had a major fire that destroyed much of the city while helpless firefighters lacked wells and cisterns and the East and Hudson Rivers were frozen over. With clean water, New York City’s population quadrupled in the next forty years.
The Erie Canal gave the North a decided head start over the South on infrastructure, yet also indirectly helped the pro-slavery Democratic Party forge its status as a trans-sectional party, popular in both the North and South in the 1830s and ’40s. New York already had ties to the South through its textile mills manufacturing cotton and it was second-last of the northern states to outlaw slavery in 1827, ahead of New Jersey. Now, it also backed states’ rights because, after building the Erie Canal and Croton Aqueduct with their own money, it opposed efforts of other states to tap into federal funds to build their own versions. Such funding would’ve forced New Yorkers to pay twice. Prior to the 1850s, Southerners also valued states’ rights to protect the right of states to keep slavery and nullify tariffs.
Canals filled in elsewhere across the north, connecting to the major rivers that steamboats plied. The forenamed canal that the Founders envisioned connecting the Potomac River/Chesapeake Bay to the Ohio River came to fruition as the Chesapeake & Ohio, aka the C & O or “Grand Old Ditch,” in 1831. Chicago connected its port on Lake Michigan to the Illinois and Des Plaines rivers that flowed into the Mississippi, securing the “Windy City’s” role as a nexus of trade even before it became the railhead of the West a generation later. The Illinois & Michigan Canal (built 1836-1848) was a wider and deeper canal than the Erie, but was built partly with steam shovels unavailable to New Yorkers in the 1820s. St. Louis didn’t appreciate the canal because, by reversing the flow of the Chicago River, which had flowed into Lake Michigan, Chicagoans were now sending their sewage southwest toward the Mississippi.
Railroads, canals, and its strategic spot at the southwest corner of the Great Lakes turned Chicago into a sprawling agro-industrial complex built around meatpacking, grain processing, farming implements, rail cars, and lumber. The first rail from Chicago was the Galena & Chicago Union, which started in 1836 (below). By 1869, the Great Lakes connected to the West Coast via rail.
Just as more crops and goods necessitated better transportation, better transportation left companies, governments, and armies pining for better communication to overcome the “tyranny of distance.” Until the early 19th century, the quickest way to communicate was one human traveling to another by foot, horse, or boat (one exception: a 1.2k-year-old gourd-and-twine phone made by Chimú in the Peruvian Andes). Then, with the invention of the electric telegraph by Samuel Morse and others in the 1830s, humankind leaped forward to instant communication by land. Morse, an artist, was motivated by the tragedy of his wife dying in childbirth when he was away, making it impossible to communicate. He wasn’t the only one working on such technology, but Morse’s version utilized just one wire rather than five or six, making it easier to build. He built a switch to turn the flow of electrical magnetism on-and-off. Prior to the telephone, which otherwise utilized more or less the same technology, one could only excite electrons by tapping through the line, rather than talking. Morse’s assistant Alfred Vail developed a tapping telegraphy that he generously called Morse Code (left) and specialists perfected both sending and receiving messages. They called those that could key messages well “smooth operators.” In a typical case of the aforementioned creative destruction of technology, the telegraph no doubt cost work for message boys within cities but also created jobs nationwide for linemen and coders, to say nothing of fueling mass media through newswires (previous chapter) and boosting businesses generally. Foreshadowing the Internet, historian Tom Standage discovered that, even before the voice feature of telephones, some telegraphers socialized and dated exclusively with each other, without ever meeting in person. This was too expensive for most but was most common during downtimes at circuits like the Associated Press (AP). In 1844, Morse sent the first message, from the old Supreme Court chambers in Washington, D.C. to Baltimore with the famous line: “What hath God wrought!” (Numbers 23:23 KJV)
What God wrought was a major communications revolution that’s transforming our lives today at a faster pace than ever. In 1861, Western Union laid the transcontinental telegraph across the country.
Three years earlier, after engineers figured out how to better insulate the wires and spool hundreds of miles of it onto boats with grappling hooks, they laid a submerged trans-Atlantic cable from Newfoundland, Canada to Ireland. Queen Victoria sent a congratulatory message to President James Buchanan that took 17 minutes to cross. But 19th-century cables were copper, generally coated in gutta-percha and tarred hemp, and deteriorated fairly quickly.
The first attempt worked briefly then went silent when they tried to jump it from 600 to 2000V (the electrons need enough juice to travel, but too much can burn the wires). There wasn’t much they could do at that point other than start over and lay a second line that wasn’t funded and completed until six years later. The second held and, today, there are dozens of traditional and fiber-optic cables strewn all over the ocean floors, regulated by a series of international treaties. Someone in Indonesia could read this chapter on such a cable. If a shark chewed through that cable, it would just re-route onto another. Between 2010 and 2015, the number of oceanic cables doubled.
Telegraphs allowed companies to go international and changed how countries conducted diplomacy and war. The War of 1812, for instance, probably would not have occurred in the age of the telegraph because it didn’t start until after the British and Americans had already agreed to terms back in England. In the Civil War, armies madly strung up telegraph wires so that their generals could communicate better while opposing sides tried to cut each other’s wires. Some soldiers put snipped wires on their tongues and their saliva conducted the electricity sufficiently that they could hear code. By World War I, generals had left the battlefield, retreating back to telephone stations to better coordinate maneuvers. With telegraphs, empires like the British Empire could expand beyond that of the ancient Roman, Greek (Alexandrian), or Mongol versions that were limited by how far horses could travel in a couple of weeks. Enabled by steamships and telegraphs, the British ruled “the empire on which the Sun never sets.” Less dramatic, but more important to the economy, smaller companies now had the communicative means to expand.
Gradually, some of the traveling peddlers riding the steamboats, canals, and roads of the Market Revolution morphed into big companies. In Cincinnati, for instance, two brothers-in-law took advantage of that city’s meatpacking industry and location along the Ohio River. They combined lye with animal fat to mass-produce soap, eventually winning a contract to supply soap and candles to the Union Army during the Civil War. They used the country’s expanding communication and transportation network to grow steadily over the next century, eventually becoming one of the world’s biggest corporations. Today, Procter & Gamble makes common household items like Crisco®, Tide®, Pampers®, and Pepto-Bismol®.
Social & Religious Revolutions
Better communication and transportation, along with more factory shifts, necessitated keeping track of hours and minutes. Today time is such a normal part of our daily routines that it’s nearly impossible to imagine life without it. But minding the clock is fairly new to human history. Mesopotamians invented the sixty-second minute ~ 3k years ago (along with writing, math, astronomy, sailing, and the wheel), but farmers traditionally cared about the calendar, not the clock. They got up when the rooster crowed or Sun came up and quit working when it got dark. As we saw above, people often slept in two shifts, separated by a couple of hours in the middle of the night. With the advent of sperm oil and kerosene lamps, people started to stay up later in the evenings and tried to sleep in one, uninterrupted segment. With the Market Revolution, boats and trains had to run on time, workers had to clock in and out, and it mattered that noon in one part of the country was different than noon hundreds of miles away – thus the birth of time zones and daylight saving time (DST) first suggested by Ben Franklin, pushed by railroad companies and weather forecasters, and legalized a century later at the end of World War I. Railroads preferred dozens of times zones based on winding routes and specific switches but, after nationwide disputes over “Sun time” versus “railroad time,” scientists and meteorologists won their case for a few zones based on slightly meandering north-south lines. To this day, people still encourage each other to “get on the ball,” drawn from running trains based on Ball Watches that railroads synced to stay on schedule. One dissenting historian, Lewis Mumford, even argued in Technics & Civilization (1934) that the Industrial Revolution began not with the steam engine, but rather with medieval monks’ invention of the clock.
The Market Revolution also led more Americans to move into towns, which led to changes in lifestyles ranging from more multi-room homes, with new notions of privacy, to the housewife, a new role for women in middle-class urban homes. Isn’t that the most traditional role of all for women? you might ask. Most women in history were farm wives and, as anyone can tell you that’s spent much time on a farm, women don’t spend all day indoors.
New in the early 19th century was the domestic sphere, idealized in Godey’s Lady’s Book. A proliferation of such magazines and religious sermons powered by new steam-powered presses set the parameters of this new female role, which focused on nurturing children in a protected environment. Women were guardians of morality, more so than the men motivated to lie, cheat, and steal in the competitive worlds of business and politics. Many of the new prototypical housewives were no doubt perfectly happy. Others were bored with their new roles and, together with the growing number of poorer women working in factories, forged the women’s suffrage (voting) movement.
One of many ways the American Revolution hadn’t been initially very revolutionary was that it did nothing for women, despite them playing an important role in boycott groups. Abigail Adams famously requested that her husband John “Remember the ladies. and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors,” to which he replied: “I cannot but laugh…We know better than to repeal the masculine system” (full passage). 1837, South Carolina suffragist and abolitionist Sarah Grimké wrote a summary often quoted by Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg a century-and-a-half later: “I ask no favors for my sex. I surrender not our claim to equality. All I ask of our brethren is, that they will take their feet from off our necks, and permit us to stand upright on that ground which God designed us to occupy.”
Traditionally, married women were completely absorbed into the legal being of their husbands (Tejano culture in northern Mexico, now Texas, was an exception). Any money wives earned, for instance, automatically went to their husband’s account. As traditional English common law coverture doctrines slowly began to erode around the 1840s, some states, including Mississippi and New York, granted women the right to control their own property. In many states, though, married women especially (feme covert) had no real legal standing, making them wards of their husbands. Historians date the real beginning of the Suffragist Movement to the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848, organized by Quakers and Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815-1902).
Suffragists were just one of the many reform groups associated with the Market Revolution. Workers grew into a potent political force for the first time. Unlike the 18th century, when most craftsmen had the potential to rise vertically through the apprentice-journeyman-master ladder within a given guild (e.g. blacksmith, butcher, cooper, tanner, saddler), most were now stuck permanently on a large factory floor with little hope for advancement. The same was true of hundreds of others across town, who came to identify with each other more horizontally as a permanent working class. In Europe, some workers considered the radical Marxist option of embracing standardization and mass production but taking over the factories and farms via a communist government — to “seize the means of production” — though that never happened until the 20th century on the eastern outskirts of Europe, in Russia. Karl Marx’s worker takeover option never happened in America either, but the workers’ growing number of votes had to be accommodated one way or another by the party system. In the 19th century, the Democrats of Andrew Jackson appealed to blue-collar workers primarily, including craftsmen and factory workers to go along with their traditional farming voters. There were other third parties dedicated purely to the workers’ cause after the Civil War, like the Workingman’s Party (or “Workies”), International Workers of the World (IWW, or “Wobblies”), and Democratic Socialists. Today, with expanded suffrage, both major parties, Democrats and Republicans, have to appeal to working-class voters somehow or another, economically or culturally.
Improved transportation, communication, and publishing (steam presses) allowed ministers and revivalists to spread their messages more effectively, fueling the Second Great Awakening in the early 19th century. Many evangelicals thought Christ would not return until America’s most egregious sins were mollified by abolishing slavery, improving the treatment of prisoners beyond simple incarceration, and curbing alcohol abuse. Northern evangelicals, many of whom believed in this Second Coming of Christ, fueled a small but important abolition movement. Among white Christians, abolitionism had been mainly a Quaker cause until then. The first organization dedicated to the cause, the Pennsylvania Abolitionist Society launched in 1775, consisted mainly of Quakers. Other groups sprouted up during this Second Great Awakening, including the apocalyptic Millerites and Mormons (The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints) in upstate New York’s “Burned-Over District,” along and around the Erie Canal (left). That was no coincidence; religious and social ideas moved with goods and people along the canal. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony were from Seneca Falls and Rochester, New York, respectively.
The penitentiary movement, encouraging prisoners to reform and “do penance,” also arose out of the Second Great Awakening. The prisoners’ courtyards in Philadelphia’s Eastern State Penitentiary (1829-1971) are something you wouldn’t have seen prior to the 19th century. It employs a panopticon surveillance system whereby inmates don’t know which guards are watching them at any one time, intended to make them always behave well. The Mansfield Reformatory in Ohio, featured in The Shawshank Redemption (1994), was also originally designed to reform, as its name suggests, not merely incarcerate. Reformers hoped that the ex-prisoners would contribute to society. Prisoners of the “lock ’em up and throw away the key” era, conversely, weren’t asked to do penance or didn’t get reduced sentences for good behavior.
Steam-powered presses increased book publication across the board, allowing for more primary schools. The Market Revolution made education more important for two reasons. First, merchants and farmers had to be able to read, write, and do arithmetic in order to function in the new economy. These fundamentals were sometimes known as the “3 R’s: Readin’, ‘Ritin’ & ‘Rithmetic.” Family farming hadn’t required literacy prior to the Market Revolution, even though the Reformation encouraged literacy among Protestants. Second, since many new jobs were more boring or repetitive than traditional farming — which, while grueling, includes diverse tasks in the open air — public education compensated the masses by enriching their minds while also preparing them for lives of citizenship. Finally, as we saw in the previous chapter, steam-powered printing presses provided cheap newspapers filled with political commentary, as newly eligible men voted.
These changes in women’s roles, incarceration, religion, and education dovetailed with the Market Revolution. Likewise, the Temperance Movement worked in conjunction with factory owners who could not tolerate drunken workers around machinery. Alcohol was not only a leading cause of domestic abuse and problems (see above) and dangerous in the workplace, but also reduced profits. The same is true in the animal kingdom: bees who imbibe too much fermented nectar aren’t allowed back into the hive; guards “bounce” them. Among humans, employers could work with clergy, as bosses only promoted sober workers who attended the right churches. The same churches stressed the association between alcohol and the devil with the phrase “demon rum.” Hallucinations during the delirium tremens of withdrawals underscored the demonic association. Awareness and study of alcoholism took off after the Panic of 1819 (previous chapter) because the downturn drove so many merchants, farmers, and investors to despair. Mainly, though, Americans just drank far more alcohol in the 19th century than today. To give us a high-end approximation based on 18th-century England, Londoners averaged a half pint of gin per day during their Gin Craze. The U.S. wasn’t quite so bad, but historians estimate that Americans drank ~ 3x more than today on average, with males drinking far more hard alcohol. The disruptions of the Market Revolution, with many people migrating west and changing careers to adjust to the new economy and mismatches between jobs and skills, led to widespread alcohol abuse, including unprecedented amounts of solitary drinking. For some, loneliness and anxiety were unforeseen consequences of the Market Revolution and early industrialization, while grain surpluses also increased access to whiskey. More so than other countries, the 19th-century U.S. found itself split between tipplers and teetotalers, with few moderate beer and wine drinkers in between. This all-or-nothing approach had ramifications a century later when the U.S. tried to eliminate the problem altogether during Prohibition and failed.
The growth of cotton markets that caused the Panic of 1819 was religiously divisive, as well. Just as northern evangelicals began to oppose slavery, it became immoral to oppose slavery in the South. Ministers could only find work there if they argued that slavery was pro-Christian and the new Protestant churches that thrived in the Great Awakening — Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian — fractured along regional lines over slavery in the 1830s and ’40s, even before the breakdown of political parties that finally led to war in 1860-61.
In that way, the Market Revolution provides a classic example of moral relativism, a term often misunderstood as endorsing apathy or lower moral standards, as in “anything goes.” But descriptive moral relativism in the study of history or anthropology is, as the term implies, descriptive, not prescriptive — just describing honestly the way that morals are often dependent or contingent on historical circumstance or location. In this case, white Northerners and Southerners were both mainly Christian who came from the same parts of Europe, but their respective economies dictated opposing moral outlooks on slavery. Given the big profits in cotton and sugar, Southerners’ ethics and religion were pliable enough to convince themselves that God put Africans on Earth to labor for Euro-Americans. The same would’ve undoubtedly happened if Northerners had been in the same economy.
Optional Reading & Viewing
Frank Sadowski, Jr., Erie Canal: Clinton’s Big Ditch
Into the Deep: America, Whaling & the World, PBS, American Experience
Charles Morris, “We Were Pirates Too: Why America Was the China of the 19th Century,” Foreign Policy, December 5, 2010
Gavin Wright, “Slavery & the Rise of the Nineteenth-Century American Economy,” Journal of Economic Perspectives (Spring 2022) JSTOR w. ACC eID
Rosemarie Ostler, “The Early Days of American English,” Lapham’s Quarterly, September 19, 2023