America's First Sweatshop

The Industrial Revolution in the United States officially began in Pawtucket, R.I., on Dec. 20, 1790, when the country's first cotton mill went into operation. The water-powered machinery for spinning and carding cotton was built by Samuel Slater. At the age of 14, Slater had been apprenticed to the owner of a textile mill in England where he spent eight years learning how the spinning equipment invented by Sir Richard Arkwright worked, and committing the details to memory. In 1789 Slater successfully avoided British customs, which forbid anyone with textile expertise from leaving the country -- he was listed as a farm laborer on the ship's manifest -- and secretly emigrated to America. Slater's Rhode Island mill spawned an industry that spread rapidly across New England. Surveying the scope of Slater's influence during a tour of the region 43 years later, Andrew Jackson, seventh President of the United States, christened him the "father of American manufactures." Key to the industry's growth were the textile machines themselves, which by one account were so easy to run "that unskilled children could easily operate them." Indeed, Slater's first employees, working in deplorable conditions by modern standards, were all children from 7 to 12 years old.

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