Antebellum Industrialization

Manufacturing represented a small but expanding sector of Alabama's economy in the antebellum period. The number of large businesses counted in the federal census increased from 89 in 1820 to 1,459 in 1860 and represented 56 different industries with a total capital investment of $9,098,181. In 1860, manufacturers employed more than 8,000 white, free black, and enslaved men and women. In contrast, 67,743 planters and farmers cultivated 6,385,724 acres with a combined value of $175,824,622. They employed 82,025 farm hands and most of the 435,080 enslaved people of the state. Overwhelmingly agricultural, Alabama nevertheless industrialized during the antebellum period, developing agricultural processing and manufacturing industries in every county of the state.

Historic Furnaces at Tannehill Manufacturers and the skilled white, free black, and enslaved men and women they employed fueled industrialization in Alabama. Mills, shops, and factories opened in the Tennessee River Valley in the 1810s. By 1860, manufacturing industries, many of them steam powered, dotted the landscape. Serving local customers, manufacturers sawed timber, ground grain, and ginned cotton. They made crockery, cutlery, and furniture, yarn and cloth, and shoes and saddles. They built wagons and carriages, forged tools, and constructed machinery. Merchants sold similar goods that complemented those produced by local manufacturers. With notable exceptions, however, little evidence remains. Still standing are Daniel Pratt's cotton gin factory and foundry, the Tallassee Cotton Mills, Tannehill Ironworks, and scattered iron furnaces. Preserved in museums are artifacts like the silverware of jeweler David T. Knox, the ceramics of the Usserys, and furniture such as the chest of enslaved cabinetmaker Levic Borders. Newspapers, census manuscripts, and government documents stored in state archives and county courthouses have preserved the most comprehensive record of industrialization in antebellum Alabama.

Newspapers from the seats of northern counties published the earliest evidence. In 1817, Huntsville's Republican ran advertisements for a number of businesses, including a tailor, a shoe maker, a saddler, jewelers, and four merchant ginners who processed cotton for plantation owners. The number of notices increased during 1818, when Charles Cabaniss opened a cotton-spinning factory where he made and sold cotton thread. In notices relating to enslaved African Americans, newspapers identified artisans who worked either in town shops or on plantations as carpenters, shoemakers, and tanners; an enslaved woman was identified as a weaver and seamstress.

The 1820 federal census included manufacturing in its data for Lawrence, Shelby, and Monroe Counties. Businesses included furniture manufacturers, blacksmith and machine shops, a pottery, and a printer. The newspapers of the 1820s reflected similar industrial growth. Cotton gin makers, a cotton factory, carpenters, coach makers, and plow manufacturers advertised in Huntsville's Southern Advocate. Watchmakers, blacksmiths, cabinet makers, and a tailor, published in northern Franklin County's Tuscumbian. In October 1824, the newspaper included a description of the Alabama Iron Works, an industrial site that included a furnace, forge, and saw and grist mills. Notices of new and expanding firms appeared in the newspapers of northern Lauderdale, Limestone, central Tuscaloosa, Dallas, and Greene Counties.

In the 1830s, Alabamians joined the transportation and market revolutions sweeping the country. Entrepreneurs received corporate charters from the state legislature for turnpike, steamboat, and railroad enterprises, as well as textile factories and a mechanics' association. Cabaniss's spinning factory had expanded under different owners, who added weaving looms in 1824. In 1832, they incorporated the firm as the Bell Factory and used enslaved laborers to operate the machinery. David Scott opened a cotton and wool yarn-spinning factory in Scottsville, Bibb County; a year later, he incorporated it as the Tuscaloosa Manufacturing Company and employed white laborers. In 1836, wealthy merchants in the city of Mobile incorporated two steam-powered saw mills and a steamboat company, and wealthy mechanics, led by cabinetmaker J. F. McBride, incorporated the Mechanics Association of Mobile to provide relief to impoverished members and their families. Corporate charters encouraged the formation of large firms, but most manufacturers continued to form partnerships. Daniel Pratt, in partnership with Samuel Griswold until 1853, formed the largest and longest-lived cotton gin factory and foundry in Prattville in 1833.

Pratt Company Advertisement, 1856 Iron furnaces, foundries, and steam engines characterized manufacturing in the 1840s. Furnaces used iron ore, coal or charcoal, and limestone to produce the pig iron that iron foundries used to make products such as axles, gears, and engines. Manufacturers established furnaces and foundries in Bibb, Calhoun, Cherokee, Coosa, Franklin, Mobile, Montgomery, Shelby, Talladega, and Tuscaloosa Counties. Notable among them were the Winter Iron Works, incorporated in 1848 as the Montgomery Manufacturing Company and capitalized at $100,000. That figure equaled the combined capital investment of the J. D. Spear & Company and Skates & Company, two large Mobile foundries. Jonathan Ware, listed in the 1850 Census as the owner of the Shelby Iron Works in Shelby County, invested $1,500 in his furnace. Steam engines powered all but Ware's water-powered furnace.

The federal Census of manufacturing captured the shift from water to steam power that began in the 1840s and continued through the 1850s. Counting only the firms that made $500 in profit annually, the Census of 1850 found that steam engines powered four percent of all businesses; the Census of 1860 found that they powered 14 percent. Most engines were installed in saw and grist mills. In 1860, 80 percent of Baldwin County's 34 sawmills were steam powered. The majority of Pike County's 15 businesses, including a tannery and a carriage factory, also used steam engines. In Mobile, a 200-horse-power engine powered Garland Goode's Dog River textile factory. There is insufficient evidence to determine the source of the engines. Manufacturers brought them from northern or southern factories until the 1850s, when firms such as James Young's Eufaula Iron Works, Pierce Campbell's foundry and machine shop in Selma, and Mobile's Skates and Company began making steam engines locally.

Fones McCarthy Cotton Gin Alabama remained the leading cotton producer in 1850 even as it continued to industrialize. Greene County increased its cotton production between 1850 and 1860, from 25,680 to 57,838 bales, while also sustaining a diverse community of manufacturers. In 1850, three free black men worked as carpenters along with shoemakers from Ireland, a marble cutter from Scotland, and a silversmith from France. Carriage maker Edwin Reese, German-born jeweler Gustave Braune, and cotton-gin maker Samuel R. Murphy built mansions that still stand in downtown Eutaw. In Greensboro, Methodist minister and cotton-gin maker John Du Bois patented and built innovative cotton gins. In 1850, he was one of 72 manufacturers that included cabinet, coach, and machine makers. In 1860, steam engines powered all 12 of the county's saw and grist mills as well as the Ellison & Company cotton gin factory. Talladega County increased its cotton production from 8,509 to 27,068 bales and tripled the number of its manufacturers. J. L. and W. C. Orr's Choccolocco Gin Factory, J. R. and J. McKibbon's wool-carding factory, three marble factories, and most of the county's other 67 firms used water power. Other counties, particularly Dallas, Lowndes, Marengo, and Montgomery, experienced a similar pattern of simultaneous agricultural and industrial expansion.

Shelby Iron Works Furnaces Industrialization accelerated during the first half of 1860, as manufacturers responded to the sectional crisis. Textile factories, including the Daniel Pratt Manufacturing Company and David Scott's Scottsville Manufacturing Company, sold fabric to the Confederacy. Joseph H. Bradford supplied fabric made in his Tallassee cotton factory and leased space to Josiah Gorgas, who installed the relocated Richmond Carbine Factory. Henry J. Davis and David W. Bozeman converted their steam-powered cotton gin factory in Rockford, Coosa County, to an arsenal that produced more than 900 rifles and carbines. In 1862, Horace Ware incorporated the Shelby Iron Works, installed steam engines, and rolled iron plate for naval ordnance the same year that William L. Sanders expanded Stroup and Alexander's water-powered furnace at the Tannehill site in Bibb County. Sanders supplied pig iron to the Selma Ordnance and Naval Foundry. Other industries responded, opening new shops and factories and expanding existing facilities. The Civil War increased the industrialization that had begun five decades earlier.

Further Reading

  • Adams, E. Bryding ed. Made in Alabama: A State Legacy. Birmingham, Ala.: Birmingham Museum of Art, 1995.
  • Lakwete, Angela. Inventing the Cotton Gin: Machine and Myth in Antebellum America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003.
  • Wilson, Harold S. Confederate Industry: Manufacturers and Quartermasters in the Civil War. Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 2002.

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Bell Factory

Courtesy of the Huntsville-Madison County Public Library Special Collections
Bell Factory