THE BUSINESS OF A FACTORY
One hot evening in July last I stood on the brink of a little canal
that skirts a row of noble buildings constituting the largest textile mill
in New England and perhaps in the world, and watched hundreds and thousands
of mill-hands pour over the bridge that connects the mills with the town
of which they are the chief support and pride. As the great bell clanged
forth its six peals, one could hear the cessation of toil for the day.
The mighty turbines, fed by this canal from the Merrimac, ceased to revolve,
the great Corliss engines that in recent years have come to the aid of
water-power in all big mills, came to a stop; the three hundred thousand
spindles, the eight thousand looms, and the thousands of other ponderous
machines, ingenious and effective almost past belief, for picking, cleaning,
roving, bleaching, printing, drying, and finishing the one hundred million
yards of cotton and woolen goods turned out from these mills every year—all
this vast mass of machinery, scattered over sixty acres of flooring, came
to a stop. Bell-time, as six o’clock in the afternoon is called in all
New England mill-towns, had come. In place of the hum and clatter of machinery,
the patter of innumerable feet made itself heard. Then the first of the
army of five thousand operatives began to come, first by driblets, comprising
those who did not need to wash, or did not care to, then the larger streams
as the doors of some great room were thrown open, each operative having
to go and come by a special staircase in order to avoid the gorging of
any particular exit in case of fire, and finally the dense stream of humanity,
male and female, big and little, until the broad iron bridge was packed
and shook under the strain. Browning’s
I hope that should any of the mill-hands of this particular mill ever read these lines they will take no offence at the comparison. The picture was not an unpleasant one; it had just the diversity suggested by the poet. There were men and women, boys and girls, of all ages and colors—even green, and blue, and yellow, and striped—for the operatives in the printing and dyeing shops are as apt to be covered with color as the miller is powdered with flour; here were the fat and the lean, the tall and the short, pretty women and women—less pretty; dark and fair, neat and sloven. And it should be said here that no such squalid poverty saddens the visitor to these mills as can be seen in every manufacturing town in England. Every woman and girl wore shoes; the poor slattern, barefooted, and with a ragged shawl thrown over her head, that one finds by the thousand coming from the cotton-mills of England, was conspicuous by her absence. The women and girls of our manufacturing towns, especially where the native American stock still holds its own, retain a vivid appreciation of pretty things in dress and adornment. In some of the cotton towns, such as Fall River, where the French Canadian and the Irish have driven the Yankee girl from the spindles and the loom, there is less concern for personal appearance than in Lynn, for instance, with its American shoe operatives, or in Manchester with its American thread-makers. Among the more recent recruits to the mills are the Armenians and Polish Jews, of whom there are some in almost all the New England manufacturing towns.
Watching the privates of this army of workers pour forth from the mills where they have been at work since half past six in the morning, with an hour’s rest at noon, and bearing in mind the fact that these mills have been in steady and profitable operation for nearly half a century, the management of this vast machine for turning out and selling one hundred million yards of goods a year will impress any one as possessing as much general interest, and far more human interest, than the processes of manufacture themselves. How is the business conducted, whether the product be cotton-yarn, printed calico, watches, shoes, or bicycles? What are the principles governing the art of making money by the manufacture and sale of articles requiring an army of operatives?
One feature of the manufacturing industries of a country that makes
them of perhaps more interest than the agricultural industries, is the
constant change in the character of the product, as well as in the methods
of manufacture. The farmers' products seldom or never change. The wheat
sealed up in Egyptian tombs fifteen hundred years before the birth of Christ
is found to be identical with that grown in Egypt to-day, and upon being
planted yields a similar crop to that now grown. Not only do manufactured
objects change every few years, but the field is constantly enlarged by
the appearance of new things to make—things not dreamed of a few years
ago. Electricity now gives employment to hundreds of thousands of persons
whose great-grandfathers never heard of a telegraph, a telephone, an electric
light, or a motor. While new farms spring up every day in the wilderness,
it is always the same old wheat or corn that results. But every day some
new factory begins turning out a product the like of which was never seen
before, and, in some cases, let us hope, may not be seen again. More than
this, it is not reasonable to suppose that this stream of novelty which
Let me, therefore, take a big cotton-mill making and printing its own calicoes, as the type of an American manufacturing business. If a man wants to enter the business of making calicoes, the question of capital is the first consideration. Most of our cotton-mills and paper-mills are stock corporations, largely because of the vast capital needed. The larger the plant the cheaper the product, is an axiom in the cotton business, especially when staple goods, such as sheetings, are to be made. There is always a market here or abroad for American sheeting, and the sales are often made in such vast quantities that the danger of overstocking the market is as nothing compared with fancy dress-goods, shoes, or worsted cloths, the fashions of which change from one year to another. It is not unusual to hear of the sale of thousands of bales of sheetings in one operation. It follows, therefore, that the manufacturer must be ready to take advantage of these periods of profit, so to speak, and be ready with his tens of thousands of bales of goods, where the manufacturer of goods liable to depreciation through change of fashion, such as shoes, hats, fancy printed cloths, etc., does not dare to manufacture much beyond the current demand of the market, and is consequently debarred from manufacture upon the vast scale seen in the mills at Fall River, Lowell, and Lawrence. The capital needed for cotton-mills being therefore very large—the mill I have selected as a type having a capital of three million dollars, and its property being assessed at nearly five millions—the ownership is commonly held by a stock company. . . .
The necessary capital having been subscribed and the manufacture of
cotton goods decided upon, the question of site is next to be settled.
In the past good water-power has been of the chief importance in the selection
of a mill site. The splendid water-power on the Merrimac, at Lowell, Nashua,
Lawrence, and elsewhere explained the existence of gigantic mills at these
places. Steam, however, is rapidly replacing water-power, notwithstanding
the improvements made in turbine wheels. In most of the older mills of
New England steam now shares about equally the work with water, while in
the new mills it takes almost the whole burden. Of course in factories
where the power needed is small, such as in making
It is commonly admitted that while a man or woman who does some small thing in the manufacture of an article—whether it is piecing the broken yarns of a spinning machine, or cutting the eye of a needle, or gathering matches for boxing—may become marvelously expert, the operator runs the risk of becoming more or less of a machine. The girl who stands at the end of a frame of one hundred spindles and sees a broken thread, catches it with lightning-like rapidity and joins it with a touch; the one who cuts the eyes in needles can do the same thing with a human hair; and the girls who pack matches pick up the requisite number for the box, whether it is one hundred, more or less, without counting them, judging simply by touch whether or not the right number is there, and doing it as fast as the eye can follow the hand. Mr. Ruskin contends, probably with reason, that the minute division of labor that makes such wonders possible brutalizes the laborer, and that if the girl made the whole article instead of doing one operation out of fifty, she would gain in intelligence if not in expertness. From an economic, or rather an industrial point of view, however, manufacturing has to be carried on at present with the greatest subdivision of labor possible. Fierce competition and a small margin of profit demand it. Mr. Ruskin’s dream of a manufacturing community in which the same person shall shear the sheep, clean the wool, dye it, card, spin, and weave it, doing all this in country homes made beautiful with flowers, working but six hours a day, and devoting the rest of the time to reading good books, raising flowers, and singing songs, is a very pretty dream to be made possible only when some philanthropist provides a market at good profit as well as the pleasant conditions for this labor. For the present steam-power is the only power suitable for the work of manufacturing, and this compels the work to be done at one spot. . . .
This minute subdivision of labor which threatens, according to some
economists, to make the operative only a part of a machine, and needing
to be little more intelligent than one of its wheels, may go on at one
end of the industry to be counter-balanced at the other end by a process
of aggrandizement. Just as in the large cities the department store is
absorbing the smaller shops of its neighborhood, so the large factory of
the future may absorb its smaller rivals, not only in the same branch of
industry but in many others. There are great mills in
The business organization of most big factories is simple enough. Almost
all cotton-mill properties are managed by a board of directors elected
by the stockholders. These directors appoint officers, among whom the treasurer
and the agent are the important personages, the first having charge of
the finances, the buying of supplies, payment of expenses, and selling
of goods; the second having the actual manufacture of the goods under his
control, the hiring of labor, the management of the shops or mills. The
treasurer of most New England manufacturing corporations lives in Boston,
where the goods are sold, and the agent lives near the mills. Taking a
big cotton-mill, the agent employs a head or superintendent for each of
the important departments, such as the carding, roving, spinning, weaving,
bleaching, printing, and packing. Under these superintendents there may
be many or few foremen, according to the character of the work. In some
departments where the work is all of the same character, each girl of the
three hundred in a room doing precisely what her neighbor does, year in
and year out, a few foremen suffice. In one room at the mill I have in
mind, a room 800 feet long by 70 feet wide, the girls who tend the spindles
need small advice, and being paid by the product turned out from their
machines, they need small supervision. In other departments, the print
works, for instance, there are a variety of operations requiring comparatively
few men, but a high grade of intelligence and constant supervision by expert
foremen. The transfer of the designs to the copper rolls used in printing,
the mixing of the colors, the adjustment of elaborate machinery, all this
delicate work requires vast experience. The discipline of such mills is
by no means military. In visiting several of the largest of them I was
impressed with the friendly relations between superintendents and men.
“We never scold,” said the agent of a big mill. 'If a man or girl proves
to be habitually careless or idle, a discharge follows; but for small infractions
of rules we trust the various foremen to look after their own people. In
the sixteen years I have been here we have had no strikes." At half-past
six in the morning the bell rings for work to begin; there is an hour’s
intermission at noon, and then from one to six it goes on again. On Saturdays
all work in most cotton-mills stops for the day at noon. The law limits
factory work in Massachusetts to fifty-eight hours a week. In New York
State there is no such limit. In some trades, the Lynn shoe shops, for
instance, work begins at seven o’clock and
Opinions differ as to whether or not the growth of the factory system is a blessing to a community, but, as a rule, it is conceded that the standard of intelligence and of living among the mill-hands of New England is not so high now as it was forty years ago. And this, notwithstanding higher wages and shorter hours. In 1850, the average mill-hand earned $175 a year, as against $300 at present, and worked thirteen hours a day as against ten hours to-day. The American farmer’s daughter who worked in the cotton mills fifty years ago has been almost wholly displaced, first by women of Irish and English birth, and more recently by the French Canadian, all representing lower types. The very growth of the mills has tended to do away with certain features of factory life, that worked for good in smaller communities. In the old days, say in 1850, the American girls who made cotton cloth in Lowell, or shoes in Lynn, or thread in Manchester, had their own singing and reading societies, their benevolent clubs, and church sociables. The owner or agent of a small mill in a small town was able to exercise something of a paternal supervision over the few hundred girls or men who might work for him. With the immense increase in mill plants, the force now numbering thousands where it was hundreds fifty years ago, this is impossible. Yet, whether it be as a matter of self-interest or not, the visitor to Lowell, Manchester, Lawrence, Fall River, and other factory centres will find an attempt on the part of mill owners to help the hands after they leave the buildings. Saving societies, libraries, hospitals are common. In Lawrence there are no less than three flourishing co-operative stores patronized exclusively by mill-hands. The rise in power of the unions seems to have made the mill-hands suspicious of all interference with matters outside the mill. One is apt to find a dozen unions in a cotton-mill, and in the shoe shops there are unions for every one of the score or more of operations through which a shoe passes. The factory law of Massachusetts prescribes that wages shall be paid weekly. This rule has been found to work rather disadvantageously so far as saving by the mill-hand goes, for, receiving no large sum of money in a lump, he finds it difficult to spare from the comparatively small weekly wage. Efforts are made almost periodically by many mill corporations to render the homes of the hands more sanitary than they were in earlier years, and attractive with gardens and flowers. In some towns, notably in Manchester, where the mill operatives number many native Americans, some success in this direction has been met with; in other towns, notably the larger centres—Lowell, Nashua, Fall River, Lawrence—where the population is either foreign-born or but one generation removed from it, not much has been effected. The hands live mostly in tenements unadorned with gardens or even grass-plats. A large number of the hands in every factory are young people who have to board, necessitating the existence in all mill towns of large rows of tenements known as boarding-houses, as a rule dreary homes inside and out. The people who live in them, looking upon themselves as temporary inmates or tenants only, cannot be induced to better their surroundings, and will decline to care for the vines and flowers offered to them by their employers. . . .
As in most other trades, strikes are the bane of the factory owner’s
existence. With a plant worth perhaps a million dollars brought to a standstill,
and perhaps half a million dollars'
Next in importance, or perhaps even of more importance than the character of the hands, comes the character of the machinery in use. The entire machinery of a mill may be said to change every twenty years, just as the entire material of the human body is said to change every seven years, or eleven years—I forget which. I asked one mill superintendent, a veteran who has seen the inside of about every mill in the country, what he looked at most carefully upon entering a rival establishment. “First the machinery, then the hands.” Nine-tenths of the machinery used in cotton and woolen manufacture, ninety-nine hundredths of that used in shoe making, and all of that used in paper-mills is made in this country. In cotton-mills we still use English carders, as the machines for cleaning the cotton from small imperfections are called. In return for their carders we have given the English the most important improvement made in cotton manufacture during this generation—the Rabbeth spindle, which makes ten thousand revolutions a minute, as against half that speed with the old-fashioned spindle. It has been estimated by General William F. Draper, an expert on the subject, that the Rabbeth spindle, invented in 1866 by Francis J. Rabbeth, of Ilion, N. Y., has effected a saving of $100,000,000 to this country since its introduction about 1870. In equipping a new factory there is always a certain advantage over older establishments, thanks to changes and improvements in the machinery. What is done to-day in the new mills just finished at the South would astonish the mill-hands of twenty years ago. As a rule, these changes in cotton machinery have been introduced without opposition. The spinning and weaving, for instance, are paid for by the piece, so that the introduction of the Rabbeth spindle, doing twice the work and requiring actually less care and watchfulness on the part of the operator, found its champions as well as its detractors. In some trades, however, the spirit that led to the breaking-up of Arkwright’s spinning frames because they did so much work survives. The shoe manufacturers of Lynn have not yet dared to introduce a certain lasting machine largely employed in Europe and in certain western cities of this country because the lasters‘ trades union forbids its use. According to the leading shoemakers of Lynn, this machine would revolutionize the business. One firm has very recently induced the Lynn lasters’ union to consent to the introduction of two of these machines as experiments, the lasters themselves to try the machines and to fix the conditions under which they may be used if used at all. It is evident that in a big manufactory it is not everything to invent a labor-saving machine; endless tact must be used to induce the unions to allow its use. . . .
In all factory work it is essential to have as complete a system of
checks upon defective work as possible, especially since the opposition
of the unions to improved machinery has made payment by the piece obligatory.
In cotton-mills to-day more than seventy per cent. of the hands are paid
by the piece, in shoe factories ninety per cent., in brass-ware factories
eighty per cent., and in paper-mills sixty per cent. The visitor to any
big cotton-mill will notice that the spools of yarn from the spinners all
bear a colored chalk mark, the finished roll of cloth from the looms a
similar mark, and so on, from first to last, every piece of work bearing
a mark, sometimes red, sometimes blue, all the colors and shades of the
rainbow being used, and often two colors together. By this means each piece
is traced back. The weaver who finds that the yarn furnished to her is
defective in the spinning has only to
A factory having been put up in a suitable spot, equipped with proper machinery, and a force of competent hands engaged, the important question arises: What kind of goods shall be made? This is a question to be decided by the persons who sell the product of the mill—the selling agents. Under the direction of these agents, the art director, so to speak, of the corporation seeks high and low for designs, takes suggestions where he can, employs designers and artists. We can surpass the world at machinery, but as yet we have to go to Paris for our designs. Each of the big mills where printed goods are made keeps its man in Paris watching the new designs and buying the best he can from the professional designers, of which there are a hundred in Paris, some of them earning as high as $20,000 a year. A designer of international reputation commands his own price, inasmuch as the design makes or mars the product; it sells or does not sell according to the favor the pattern meets with. The question is often asked: How do the men who make designs know what kind of goods the public is going to demand? The designs for next winter’s goods are already finished. How does the artist know that the fickle public is not going to discard all that it has admired this year, and go wild over what it now ignores? This year the colors are faint and suggestive; next year they may be kaleidoscopic in brilliancy. This year ladies' shoes run to a point, next year they may be square-toed. Upon an accurate forecast of the public’s whims in these matters depends success. Well, the truth seems to be that sudden or violent as these fluctuations appear, there is really an evolutionary process involved. Each style or fashion has in it the germs of what is to follow, perhaps visible only to experts, but to be discerned. The designer accents the peculiar attributes of a pattern that has found favor one year in order to create his design for the next season. The short life of a design is somewhat surprising. Out of the six or eight hundred patterns made during this last year by the largest calico-mill in the country it is not likely that ten will be called for two years hence. The designs ( the word design covering the texture of the material as well as its ornamentation) for every class of goods have to be virtually new every year, and the explanation given for this is hardly flattering to the fair wearers of these pretty mousselines, lawns, organdies, cashmeres, serges, and brocades.
“Not only,” said a mill agent, “do fashions change in a bewildering
way, and a most expensive way to us manufacturers, but they have a way
of changing so radically that new goods may be wholly unsalable if they
bear any resemblance to the dress goods in demand last year. Why? Simply
because a woman who buys a new dress wants a pattern and a color wholly
different from that of her last year’s frock, in order that there may be
no question as to its being a new frock. She not only wants a different
design, but a very different one, so that he, or more probably, she, who
runs may see that it is a new dress. . . .”
Some factories, usually very small ones, depend wholly upon novelties. Each year some new trifle comes up upon which the whole establishment is put to work. Holiday goods, the trifles sold by sidewalk peddlers, and many cheap toys are of this class where the ingenuity of the deviser or designer is everything. Of a curious character was a small factory near Philadelphia, devoted wholly at one time to the manufacture of hoaxes sold through advertisement. Among the notable successes of this precious establishment was a device warranted to kill the potato-bug. Thousands of farmers sent their half-dollars in exchange for two little slabs of wood with the directions: “Place the bug between these two blocks of wood and press hard.” This seems scarcely worth noting as an industry, and yet incredible sums of money are made out of the manufacture of things hardly less trivial. Many readers may remember the vogue of a wooden ball fastened to a rubber string, so that the ball when thrown returned to the hand. It is said that the patentee and manufacturer of that toy made $80,000 in one season from it.
The demand for novelties, always novelties, imposes a constant expense and drain upon all manufacturing corporations, and yet it is the novelties that offer the greatest field for profit. Staple goods not affected by fashion must be sold almost at cost because every mill can make them, and the stocks of such goods on hand are always enormous. When orders are scarce and a mill agent hesitates about letting his hands go for fear that he may not be able to get the best of them back in time of need, the force may be used in turning out coarse staple goods, sure to find a market some day. But such work offers only a minimum margin of profit. One case of fancy goods that sell well brings in a larger profit than one hundred cases of some staple article that every mill in the country, North and South, can turn out. Novelty is the cry of all manufacturers. Give us something new to make. Every year the mills of this country turn out from three to five thousand new designs, of which perhaps one thousand find a profitable sale.
A factory having produced a stock of goods from the best designs to
be obtained by its agents here and abroad, the next step is to sell at
a profit. Twenty-five years ago the mill or factory sold all its goods
to the jobbers, who in turn distributed them to the retailers throughout
the country. Each mill had its selling agents who undertook to dispose
of its product to the jobbers. A retailer could buy nothing directly from
the agent of the mill. Within the last ten or fifteen years the small jobber
has been eliminated. In 1850 there were half a hundred dry-goods jobbers
in New York City and as many in Boston all doing a good business. Today
the number has dwindled to half a dozen in each city. The same thing is
true of Philadelphia and Chicago. Only a few of the very largest jobbing
houses have survived. The selling agents of the mills now go direct to
the retailer, because the retailers have in many instances become buyers
upon a much larger scale than the small jobber of former days. Go into
the Boston or New York office of the agent of any important mill, and you
will find plenty of samples and clerks, but almost no buyers. The agent
now goes to the buyer. The agent of the largest cotton-mill in western
Massachusetts told me that he sent his men to every large drygoods shop
in Boston every day, and his partner in New York did
The object of the country merchant in sending his buyer to New York or Boston every year was to get a more attractive stock than that obtained by his rival on the next block, and at better prices. The buyer comes no more to headquarters. A few big jobbers send their men to him, as I have said, and supplement these visits in the following way: The big jobber’s travelling man, making a specialty, say of the eastern end of Long Island, and having a number of customers in that region, not only takes his samples over the route several times each season, but he promises his customer that when novelties of importance or goods at extraordinarily low prices appear in New York he will take care that some are sent out to this customer. The travelling man has an accurate knowledge of the selling capacity of his customer, and an agreement with him to the effect that the country merchant will take a certain amount of whatever goods the “drummer” may see fit to send him in an emergency. Much depends, as will be seen, upon the judgment of this latter. If he abuses his privilege, there will be trouble. If, on the contrary, he acts with good judgment, he will be invaluable.
Now suppose that one day a certain mill comes to the house in New York
with the offer of a big stock of new and fashionable goods, or goods at
a remarkably low price; the outside force is called together and an estimate
is made of the quantity of such goods that can be distributed. The Long
Island man puts down this customer of his for three cases, that one for
one case, and some one else for half a case. The jobbing house may be able,
by taking the whole country, to buy the whole stock of this pattern from
the mill, thus getting exceptional terms and a monopoly of the pattern.
The country merchant who gets the goods, of which his rival across the
way can get none, will make money or lose it according to their desirability.
He may receive too many goods in this way, in which case he can restrict
the privilege of the New York house, or he may find that he could have
sold five times as much of a cheap and popular style of goods as he received.
I have been told of
The search for a foreign outlet for American manufacturers began more than half a century ago and still goes on. Every year some new market is discovered. Our old competitor, England, fights hard, but we can often beat her on her own ground. Everyone may know that we send our New England cotton-cloth to the British colonies by the thousand cases, but it may be news to many that 25,000 American ploughs went to the Argentine Republic last year, and that the thousands of watches distributed to the Japanese army as rewards of bravery were made in this country. American trademarks have always been and now are of exceptional value the world over, and this notwithstanding the frequent imitations of them practised by foreign competitors in the past. . . .
It should also be said that nearly all the English houses which had
imitated American marks, in many cases ignorantly, being instructed to
copy certain brands from patterns furnished them by their customers abroad,
promptly discontinued the practice when the facts were made known to them.
No less than twenty-seven imitations of one American brand were thus voluntarily
withdrawn. For years past, however, the export of American cotton goods
to India and China has more than resumed its old proportions, the shipments
for 1896 having exceeded those of any previous year.
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