Special Report

What It Was Like to Work in America's First Factories

When we think of factories, we probably think of assembly lines staffed by workers performing repetitive tasks — or, increasingly, of sophisticated robotic machinery cutting, shaping, assembling, and packaging whatever products are being made. In past centuries, though, factories were very different places than they are today.

A factory is simply a building or group of buildings where something is manufactured, whether entirely by hand, entirely by machine, or something in between. Many historians consider the earliest example to have been the Arsenale di Venezia, a shipbuilding and arms-making complex in Venice, Italy, opened in 1104 A.D. It operated with a kind of water-borne assembly line — ships moved along a canal, being fitted with different pre-made parts at each one — and at its height employed 16,000 workers.

Modern factories grew out of the Industrial Revolution in England. Matthew Boulton’s Soho Manufactory, opened in 1766 in Birmingham, is considered to have been the first one in the modern age (it produced metalwork, vases, coins, and other objects). 

The first American factory was a textile manufacturing facility set up in 1790 in Rhode Island by an English immigrant, Samuel Slater. Rhode Island was also the site of the nation’s first factory strike, in 1824 — which was also the first strike of any kind led by women. These are the largest worker strikes in American history.

Click here to see what it was like to work in America’s first factories.

By the time of the Civil War, there were hundreds of cotton and wool factories in the country. Other kinds of factories followed, their efficiency greatly increased when Ransom Olds, creator of the Oldsmobile, built and patented the first modern assembly line in 1901. When the last Olds rolled out of the plant in 2004, it marked the end of what was then the country’s oldest auto brand. These are famous car brands that no longer exist.

The efforts of organized labor have helped make major improvements in workplace conditions over time. Industrial workers still go on strike over issues of salary and benefits, but while problems still exist in factories today, conditions for employees are almost certainly much better than they were in the early days of American manufacturing.

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