The Growth of the American Economy: An Introduction to the Economic History of the United States

By Robert G. Albion; Harold F. Williamson | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 12
Light Manufactures and the Beginnings of Precision Manufacture Before 1861

American Manufacturing Before 1790

AT THE END OF THE REVOLUTION the United States was not only politically disrupted but was in economic straits. The difficulty of obtaining manufactured goods from abroad during the war had inevitably encouraged some new experimental domestic manufactures, though households had made shift to do with what could be contrived at home. But with the peace came a flood of European goods to meet the accumulated demand, and the country soon found itself faced with the prospect of being tied economically to Great Britain or France as tightly and helplessly as before the war. Hard money was scarcer than before, and peacetime production of foodstuffs and goods for export was slow in gaining headway. And still European manufactures came pouring in.

At the first session of the Federal Congress a petition for protection of American manufactures was presented by a group of artisans and mechanics of Baltimore. Similar appeals from New York and Boston followed almost at once. Congress promptly effected some relief by placing duties on a number of articles, among them candles, soap, cables and cordage, leather, hats, slit and rolled iron, iron castings, nails, unwrought steel, paper, cabinet ware, carriages, tinware, wool cards, and anchors. This specific act, virtually the first passed by the new Government, strengthened by the existence of a centralized authority with power to apply such measures, inspired confidence in the future, and American manufacturing enterprise began to feel its way toward a capacity calculated fully to meet domestic needs.

The extent of Colonial manufacturing and the expansion of American productivity before 1785 has been discussed in Chapter 3. Luxuries were the chief items of import after, as before, the Revolution. Most household necessities continued to be made at home or at the village smithy or wheelwright's shop. Usually every community had its tanworks, its sawmill and gristmill, and often its fulling mill as well. Pottery, salt, firearms, paper, and the small amount of glassware in use were frequently of American manufacture; but as these articles could not be made without special equipment and skilled workmen, the

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