Unexpected Consequensces: Embargoes in the Early 1800s

Thomas Jefferson’s Embargo Act of 1807 did not work out the way he had planned. The restricted flow of British goods entering the United States spurred the development of U.S. manufacturing and changed society. Even the Embargo Act’s replacement the Nonintercourse Act, which allowed for trade with nations other than Great Britain or France, did not halt the changes occurring within the United States. Interestingly, two changes in domestic life resulted because of the embargo and war. These changes were the increased investment into cotton textile manufacturing, and the development of iron, particularly the production of cast iron. Eventually these developments in U.S. manufacturing would provide cheaper textiles for the home, and promote changes in the production of food due to the proliferation of the cooking stove.

In the early 1790s Samuel Slater helped develop the first modern cotton mill in the United States, but it would be two decades later, during the time of embargoes and war, that Francis Cabot Lowell’s textile mill system, which incorporated into one location the production of cotton thread and the finished woven cotton fabric, was built. These changes reduced the cost of production and increased productivity thereby making cotton fabric more available to the average household. Prior to these changes in cotton textile manufacturing, cotton was considered a luxury fabric. Whereas flax could be grown easily and turned into linen by the skilled spinners and weavers in the United States, cotton fabric was typically imported prior to the development U.S. manufacturing in the early 1800s.

In addition to the availability of less expensive textiles, changes in cooking methods were occurring due to the new technology of the cooking stove. While the first modern cooking stoves began appearing in the mid-1700s, it wasn’t until the end of the century that the major flaws had been worked out. Yet the cooking stove remained outside the reach of the average home due to the high cost of cast iron in the United States. The embargoes and the War of 1812 highlighted the need for increased domestic production of iron, and by the 1820s iron production had spread through Pennsylvania with Pittsburg becoming known as the “smoky city.”[1]The greater availability and affordability of cast iron stoves changed the way food was prepared. Not only were the stoves safer than open fires, they allowed the cook a greater range in what they prepared. No longer limited to a stewpot or spit, a woman could prepare a larger variety of food for her family without the need of additional labor in the home.

Thomas Jefferson had opposed men like Alexander Hamilton who had promoted the development of U.S. manufacturing. The ills of industrialization were not unknown to both Jefferson and Hamilton, but while Jefferson preferred to believe that the agrarian lifestyle was superior to manufacturing and would better promote liberty, men like Hamilton understood that economic power would be required to protect that very same liberty. The production of raw materials alone would not be enough to propel the United States to greatness. Without economic greatness, liberty would always be threatened by the dangers of imperialism and war. So while Jefferson’s embargo was meant to pressure the European nations into respecting U.S. sovereignty, it acted as an affirmation that U.S. manufacturing was vital to U.S. survival. The embargoes also helped change domestic life in the United States. Textiles for bedding and clothing became more available and less expensive, and the entire method of cooking was transformed. The U.S. response to international conflict in the early 1800s resulted in the unexpected consequence of increased investment in manufacturing which in turn changed society by transforming life in the home.

[1] Anne Madarasz, “Tracing the Smoky City,” Western Pennsylvania History, 2002, (accessed October 18, 2014),  https://journals.psu.edu/wph/article/viewFile/5111/4894.

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