Rhode Islanders…like the Industrial Revolution. I’ve always known this, but it wasn’t until I kinda sorta accidentally produced a documentary on it that I really began to grasp the extent of it.
I say “accidentally” because well, I kinda didn’t mean to. I’m not an industrial historian. Truth be told, I’m not even the biggest fan of the Industrial Revolution. Those even remotely close to me know that my true interests lie in prehistory. Pretty much as old as you can get while still remaining within the direct human lineage.
The Industrial Revolution was all well and good. But it’s always been way too recent and it was also one of those things we went over in Social Studies classes through all of my public school career. With a heapin’ helpin’ of, “This started here!!,” young me just kinda lost interest. It sorta felt like a chore.
Flash forward to Pedal Powered Anthropology becoming a producer of documentary films, and all of a sudden I found myself very deeply involved in researching the industrial history of the state. And it’s incredibly fascinating and I loved it. But I still had the taste left in my mouth from learning about how Samuel Slater memorized plans for Arkwright style mills and smuggled em mentally to the United States. Not just learning it though. Having essentially the same chapter repeated to me for 12 straight years with little changed except more complex vocabulary. So going through it I had no illusions that many people would care about it.
I’d hone my researching chops. Maybe learn a few things about film making. But aside from myself and the 5 people who are morally obligated to watch it, I thought it wouldn’t be a very long-lived project.
Move forward several months to the premier at the Museum of Work and Culture and it started to become a bit more clear just how ravenous Rhode Islanders are for this history. With 50 seats available, there were about 75 people there. I was told that several people were turned away. This was on a rainy Sunday morning in February.
That means close to 100 people showed up on a freezing cold and wet Sunday to sit through an hour long documentary made by a no-name film maker. Then came the Q&A at the end—one of the Q’s were about where to get the DVD. People wanted to pay me for it. One woman insisted on doing so that night! She made me take money from her because she said it was worth paying for. Even though it was a free event.
So now it’s on DVD and it’s been screened something like 7 or 8 more times. Most recently, though, it was screened at the Hope Historical Society. The screenings are always followed by a fun discussion about all things industrialization. This time someone came up to me after all that to talk about the machinery at the mills. He specifically mentioned how the machines were driven.
Way back when, the river that powered the mills would turn a wheel, and that would supply the power for the machines inside. Essentially there would be an array of shafts on the ceiling that were driven by the wheel as it turned. On those shafts would be drums above the machines. And then long drive belts that would head on down to the machines themselves. The machines would have a lever to slide the belt from the driven drum to one that just kind of coasted. That way you could stop the machines individually if need be.
He was surprised to learn that I run a machine like that one. In fact, it’s why I was hired at that job and it’s really one of the coolest machines I’ve ever seen.
When I’m not cycling around and making documentaries and educational videos, I work at a paper converting factory on Hopkins Hill Road in Coventry, Rhode Island.
This machine is ancient. So old it’s steam heated. That drive belt you can see going up to the ceiling used to be leather, but is now canvas.
That massive gear on the left is another clue—curved gear spokes like that were only produced until the late 19th Century, and that big guy is cast iron.
Lastly, a name plate on the side is yet another clue. Jagenburg was founded in Germany and set up shop in New York in 1877.
That puts this machine as being built between 1877-1899.
Research I’ve done in the time I’ve been running it (since 2005) leads me to believe it used to be a wax coater. It may have coated sailcloth for waterproofing. Stuff like that. And the machine is still equipped to do just that. Textile printing was also done on machines similar to this, and this may have indeed been for printing. I’ve settled on wax coating though because the heated pan would likely have caused issues with the flammable solvents in older printing inks.
The heated pan is now aluminum, which wouldn’t have been a possibility originally. The pan keeps the coating (in this case, protein glue) hot. The glue is applied using a metal roller, after which it passes by a bar that smooths the coating and meters off the excess. A large, steam heated “can” then dries the glue to where it can be rewound into another roll.
Pictured here is the machine running a green gusset cloth for Avery Dennison, and they make it into tabs for file folders and stuff like that. This particular material isn’t so far removed from the sailcloth that would have been run centuries ago. On the left, the roll unwinds, wrapping around to the applicator. You can see where it begins heading upward and is polished before heading into the oven where it’s dried by the steam can. On the far right, you can see where the roll rewinds.
I don’t think it’s possible for me to ever completely get over the passion that Rhode Islanders have for the Industrial Revolution. It started here, and so I understand that it’s part of the identity of the state. But beyond that, it’s everywhere you go. The mills are everywhere—some of them are living spaces, some of them retail, some of them are breweries. You name it and it’s moved into a mill space. In that sense, the Industrial Revolution hasn’t ever ended.
The railway is still in use as the bike path you’ll meet in Rhode Island’s Industrial Revolution. The mills are part of everyday life. People still give directions using and identify with the names of the villages that seem nonsensical to those who don’t understand it.
But we don’t really need to understand it. It’s enough to understand that in such a small place as Rhode Island, to have such an immense impact in western culture worldwide is bound to reverberate today. The textile industry may be long gone, but the entire state is built around the Industrial Revolution, and that identity is unlikely to ever change.