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The Weaver’s Craft: Cloth, Commerce, and Industry in Early Pennsylvania

Author(s):Hood, Adrienne D.
Reviewer(s):Inwood, Kris

Published by EH.NET (June 2005)

Adrienne D. Hood, The Weaver’s Craft: Cloth, Commerce, and Industry in Early Pennsylvania. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003. ix + 230 pp. $28 (cloth), ISBN: 0-8122-3735-8.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Kris Inwood, Department of Economics, University of Guelph.

One of the most familiar stories in economic history is that of the handloom weavers whose livelihood was eroded by the advance of mechanization, first in spinning and then weaving, except where protected by distance, cheap labor or other ‘special’ circumstances. A North American version of the same story would emphasize the high opportunity cost of male labor in a land abundant environment and hence a feminization of weaving, especially in rural areas, until demographic and technological changes drove even the women and children to other activities. Perhaps less familiar in this literature are the complexities introduced in recent years by Philip Scranton, Beverly Lemire, Kevin James, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich and others. In the new literature of hand-weaving, technological competition and opportunity cost considerations have not disappeared. Increasingly, however, they are complemented by a nuanced recognition of differentiated demand and product characteristics, the symbolic significance of clothing, gender relations within the household, regional diversity of experience, and other complexities. The story has changed, and it has become much more interesting.

Adrienne Hood, in The Weaver’s Craft contributes to the emerging literature of complexity through an examination of weaving in eighteenth century Chester County, Pennsylvania. As a weaver herself, a museum curator, a professor of history and a careful reader of Jim Lemon’s earlier work on Chester County, Professor Hood is well-qualified to give us an interesting volume on the topic. She does not disappoint. Hood draws upon probates, tax records, account books, newspaper ads, tax records and other government records in a study that contributes to social and family history as well as economic history and the history of technology. Hood examines consumption as well as production for a variety of textiles in a way that respects regional diversity and, interestingly, she makes sense of the survival of commercial hand-weaving, by men, until the early nineteenth century.

The first substantive chapter reviews the European background to North American textile manufacture. Hood characterizes the different manufacturing processes and their labor requirements with considerable clarity. She emphasizes the importance of regional diversity and, within Britain, the industry’s pursuit of greater flexibility through relocation to rural environments. The patterns of textile production that emerged in Yorkshire and Ulster would appear to provide the closest antecedent to that of North America. In chapter two the author shows how land availability and systems of labor contracting shaped the organization of weaving. Throughout the eighteenth century, weaving remained a substantial activity embedded within the powerful agricultural economy of Chester County. During the eighteenth, century cottagers, servants and others who lacked their own land gradually took on more and more of the weaving, often in the employ of landed proprietors and typically in a pattern of work that combined agricultural as well as craft activity.

The description of various fibers (principally flax, hemp, wool and cotton) in chapter three and the account of spinning and knitting in chapter four, together, provide an excellent overview of the material circumstances of the early stages of textile production. The account of breaking, scutching and hackling flax, for example, is the clearest and most informative short discussion that I have seen. Although much of the discussion does not break new ground, Professor Hood excels at showing how the material characteristics of various fibers explain much about their handling and use.

The analysis of American flax seed export to Ireland is especially interesting. Irish farmers came to rely on imported flax seed because the very best linen required the harvesting of flax before the seed could mature. American farmers supplied the seed to Ireland, and in the process generated a supply of flax that, presumably although the author does not say, would be manufactured into lesser-quality but still serviceable Pennsylvania linen and blended fabrics. Professor Hood’s account of arrangements for spinning and knitting before and after the advent of mechanization does not deviate greatly from other recent work although the rich agricultural context of Chester County influenced the patterns of production.

From earlier in the eighteenth century, according to Hood, textile processes in rural Pennsylvania often relied on an extended labor force of indentured servants or wage labor, even for spinning, in contrast to the dependence on nuclear family members and neighborhood exchange in rural New England. By and large men continued to weave in Pennsylvania, often on a wage or contract basis, again in contrast to New England. Hood attributes the difference to a relative dearth of immigrant workers in the latter region (p. 79), although the different regional attraction to immigrants itself is not explained.

The patterns of cloth demand, in turn, are exposed wonderfully in chapter six. I know of no comparable treatment of the range and diversity of cloth used during the eighteenth century. Economic historians often recognize the importance of demand and consumption to the understanding of production, but seldom do they go beyond a ritual gesture. This book, in contrast, provides a rich and detailed description of cloth used for a variety of household purposes including, of course, clothing. Professor Hood even reports in a table (p. 122) the yardage needs to manufacture various textile items. There may not be a big demand for this information, but the people who want it probably want it very badly. Well, here it is! And this is only one of the more prosaic contributions in a chapter that will be of wide interest to students of status, culture, gender and so on.

The contrast between mid-Atlantic and New England experience increasingly presents a focus for the second half of the book. The most analytically ambitious aspect of the monograph is a comparison of hand production and the transition from hand to machine production in lower New England and eastern Pennsylvania. The author sets herself the challenge of explaining why the mills did not come to Pennsylvania as early and as vigorously as they did to New England.

She begins with the observation that hand-weaving in New England was more widespread in the sense that a greater proportion of households produced cloth. In rural Pennsylvania weaving households were less common and more ‘commercial’ in their scale of production; men continued to weave in contrast to the feminization of weaving in New England. Hood argues that the wider penetration of looms facilitated the supply of women and children to New England’s mills and mill-based outwork networks. Mills arrived more slowly and less successfully in Pennsylvania because rural workers were in shorter supply, which in turn reflects the different organization of hand weaving and, underlying that, at least in part, more successful agricultural performance. Philadelphia, of course, received large numbers of immigrants some of them with weaving experience, but this kind of labor apparently encouraged the production of more specialized cloths (some of it hand-woven, some not).

This is an interesting set of arguments. According to Hood, the crucial difference between industrialization in the two regions was local labor supply, which differed because of the nature and organization of rural manufacturing, itself interacting with agricultural conditions. Other influences are recognized, of course, but rural labor supply is a crucial part of the story. The author might extend the argument with further research that takes on board the experience of additional regions, although admittedly this is not a criticism as much as recognition of further research possibilities. It might help as well to gain more information about rural New England since, despite an examination of Essex County (Massachusetts) probates, the evidentiary base for New England does not match the author’s comprehensive familiarity with Chester County sources and context. The sources are not so complete as to eliminate all ambiguity about differences in production (hand or machine) that serve as a starting point for the analysis. Indeed, important contributions to the secondary literature on New England industrialization are not mentioned.

The larger questions of interest, though, are analytical rather than evidentiary. Several questions come to mind, again in the spirit of suggesting possible directions for future research rather than criticism of this monograph. Would agricultural prosperity have had the same effect on rural household supply of labor to the mills if nobody had woven on handlooms? How much do we really know about the origins of actual and potential mill workers circa 1810? To the extent that rural families hold the key, might we want to say something about demographic behavior? How securely can we distinguish the influence of agricultural prosperity operating via the local demand for textiles from its influence via labor supply? And, of course, can we say something about any limit to the influence of local factor supply in a world of substantial population mobility?

One sign of an engaging and successful monograph is its ability to stimulate further reflection and enquiry. In this sense, and more fundamentally through an engaging account of cloth production in Chester County, Adrienne Hood has made a valuable contribution to regional history in early America and to the ongoing revitalization of research on cloth production. This is a good book that will be read with profit by scholars on both sides of the Atlantic.

Kris Inwood’s recent papers include “The Diversity of Industrial Experience: The Example of Cabinet and Furniture Manufacture in Ontario,” Enterprise and Society 2003 (with Ben Forster); “The Social Consequences of Legal Reform: Women and Property in a Canadian Community,” Continuity and Change 2004 (with Sarah Van Sligtenhorst); and “Bigger Establishments in Thicker Markets: Can We Explain Early Productivity Differentials between Canada and the United States?,” Canadian Journal of Economics, forthcoming (with Ian Keay).

Subject(s):Industry: Manufacturing and Construction
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):19th Century