West Kingston, RI – Samuel Slater

The Slater Mill Historic Site offers visitors a unique opportunity to see how the Blackstone River Valley was transformed from a series of small farming and milling communities into one the nineteenth century’s great industrial centers. The site contains three buildings – the Sylvus Brown House (1758), the Slater Mill (1793) and the Wilkinson Mill (1810) – which illustrate the progression of textile manufacturing from a hand craft to large scale industrial enterprise.
The Sylvanus Brown House

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Sylvanus Brown House

The Sylvanus Brown House, the oldest building at the Slater Mill Historic Site, is a typical dwelling of the mid-late eighteenth century. A small, solid looking building, the house was moved to this location in the late 1960’s. Except for the basement and chimney, the original structure is intact. The sparse furnishings conform to those of Sylvanus Brown’s 1824 estate inventory and include a loom, spinning wheel and other tools used to make cloth by hand.
In this house, and others like it, women and children did the slow tedious work of cleaning and carding wool, spinning yarn and weaving cloth. It is interesting to watch this process by hand since the machinery in the Slater Mill duplicates many of the same operations, often with equipment that looks much like the hand tool original.
The Slater Mill

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Slater Mill

Built in 1793, the original Slater Mill was a modest 29 foot by 42 foot, 2 ½ story structure now obscured by later additions. Built of wood, it looked much like the farmhouses, barns and churches of the day except for its size. Posts were mortised into heavy beams on which plank floors were supported. The long narrow shape facilitated the transfer of power from the water wheel to the machines and made the most of natural light. This basic design was repeated frequently throughout the Blackstone River Valley.
Today, the Slater Mill is a museum dedicated to the history of textile manufacturing in America. It displays 24 machines built between 1775 and 1922 which demonstrate the process of turning cotton into cloth.
The Wilkinson Mill

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Wilkinson Mill

The Wilkinson Mill demonstrates the changes in mill design after twenty years of industrial experience. Built in 1810, the building is significantly larger than the original Slater Mill and has exterior walls built of stone to reduce the chance of fire. As it appears today, the mill includes a brick tower added in 1840 and a belfry recreated from an 1870 photograph.
Designed as a cotton mill, it also included a machine shop on the first floor where mechanics built or repaired whatever machinery the mill required. A magnificent waterwheel still provides power to the machines in the machine shop. When built, the mill performed all stages of cloth manufacture except weaving. By 1817, it is likely that weaving was also introduced, possibly on looms built in the mill’s own machine shop.

Son of a yeoman farmer, Samuel Slater was born in Belper, Derbyshire, England on June 9, 1768. He become involved in the textile industry at the age of 14 when he was apprenticed to Jedediah Strutt, a partner of Richard Arkwright and the owner of one of the first cotton mills in Belper. Slater worked for Strutt for eight years and rose to become superintendent of Strutt’s mill. It was in this capacity that he gained a comprehensive understanding of Arkwright’s machines.

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Samuel Slater

Believing that textile industry in England had reached its peak, Slater emigrated secretly to America in 1789 in hopes of making his fortune in America’s infant textile industry. While others with textile manufacturing experience had emigrated before him, Slater was the first who knew how to build as well as operate textile machines. Slater, with funding from Providence investors and assistance from skilled local artisans, built the first successful water powered textile mill in Pawtucket in 1793.

By the time other firms entered the industry, Slater’s organizational methods had become the model for his successors in the Blackstone River Valley. Later known as the Rhode Island System, it began when Slater enlisted entire families, including children, to work in his mills. These families often lived in company owned housing located near the mills, shopped at the company stores and attended company schools and churches. While not big enough to support the large mills which became common in Massachusetts, the Blackstone River’s steep drop and numerous falls provided ideal conditions for the development of small, rural textile mills around which mill villages developed.

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Old Slater Mill

One of the earliest of these mill villages was Slatersville. Located on the Branch River in present day North Smithfield, Rhode Island, Slatersville was built by Samuel Slater and his brother John in 1803. By 1807, the village included the Slatersville Mill, the largest and most modern industrial building of its day, two tenement houses for workers, the owner’s house and the company store. In the early twentieth century, industrialist and preservationist Henry P. Kendall took a personal interest in the village and initiated many of the improvement projects which give the village its traditional New England Charm.

Samuel Slater was the founder of the American cotton textile industry in America.  While others with textile manufacturing experience had emigrated before him, Slater was the first who knew how to build as well as operate textile machines.  The 1793 opening of Samuel Slater’s cotton mill in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, the first successful water-powered textile mill, ushered in a historical phenomenon now known as America’s Industrial Revolution.  Along the banks of the Blackstone River, for which the region is named, dozens of factories sprung up, employing generations of working-class families and drawing thousands of immigrants from around the world.

Slater divided factory work into such simple steps that children aged four to ten could do it — and did. While such child labor is anathema today, American children were traditionally put to work around the farm as soon as they could walk and Slater’s family system proved popular.

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