"Made in Rhode Island" begins with some history


Every Rhode Island school kid knows the story of Samuel Slater. Slater, an Englishman, memorized the architecture of textile machinery and brought these plans across the Atlantic to Pawtucket in the 18th century.

He founded a textile factory along the rushing waters of the Blackstone River, spurring the industrial revolution in the young United States. Today we honor Slater with a museum at the site of his first mill.

What fewer of us know about Rhode Island is that a century ago, our state was a world-class manufacturing hub. Providence was the Silicon Valley of this era. The software of the machine age was machine tools and Providence's Brown & Sharpe Mfg. made some of the world's best. In 1884 Brown & Sharpe employed 450 workers; by 1906 the workforce had swelled to 4,000.

Rhode Island sprouted some of nation's most respected manufacturing companies - Gorham Silver, Corliss Steam Engines, Nicholson File, American Screw and textile giant B.B. & R. Knight, maker of the Fruit of the Loom brand.

Providence was known as America's wealthiest city. The population jumped from 175,000 in 1900 to 200,000 in five years. Factory jobs were plentiful and workers, from skilled machinists to unskilled jewelry assemblers, flocked to Rhode Island from around the world.

This era was prosperous, but it had its downside. Free-for-all capitalism meant heavy metals dumped into Narragansett Bay, smokestacks belching coal that stained the city's buildings black, and children working long hours amid the mind-numbing clatter of textile looms.

No safety net caught the poor. Women couldn't vote. Immigrants were valued mostly as cheap labor. While things were good for white native-born Protestant males, others were left behind.

This world would, of course, crumble. As early as the 1920s, a south that was recovering from the devastation of the Civil War would lure textile companies away from Rhode Island with promises of cheaper labor, an anti-union business culture and tax incentives.

The Great Depression would shatter Rhode Island's manufacturing economy, but it rebounded during World War II when our state was one of Franklin D. Roosevelt's arsenals of democracy that made everything from military blankets to Liberty ships.

But the second half of the 20th Century would devastate our manufacturing base. Global competition, increased labor costs and some of the nation's highest electricity costs would tamp down industries. Rhode Island has hemorrhaged factory jobs during the recent recession. And the high cost of manufacturing in New England remains a barrier to a recovery in making products here.

Yet, Rhode Islanders still make things. Draftsmen no longer squint at blueprints; now technicians hunch over computers. Robots perform tasks that were once the province of humans. Our state is home to companies large and small that manufacture everything from the world's most sophisticated submarines to costume jewelry worn by women everywhere.

This week we're kicking off an on-going series here on Rhode Island Public Radio that we're calling "Made in Rhode Island" - bringing you the stories of local manufacturers, why they call our state home and the challenges they face in making products in the Ocean State in the 21st Century.

Scott MacKay's commentary can be heard every Monday at 6:35 and 8:35 on Morning Edition. You can also follow his reporting and analysis at our `On Politics' Blog at RIPR.org

Do you have insight or expertise on this topic? Please email us, we'd like to hear from you. news@wrni.org.