In 1897, Scribner’s published a series of articles on “The Conduct of Great Business.” This article by Philip Hubert on a New England textile mill conveyed some of the sense of wonder that Americans felt at the enormous new factories suddenly emerging in what had been primarily an agricultural nation. Although other contemporaries—both agrarian radicals and trade unionists—viewed the new industrial behemoths with skepticism or even horror, middle-class observers like Hubert celebrated the achievements of the capitalists who organized and managed these vast and complex enterprises. Hubert had little interest in or sympathy for the thousands of workers who toiled in the textile mill that he visited, echoing the view that the “character of the machinery” was more important than “the character of the hands.” But his account, including a vivid description of the mill at quitting time, captured the sheer size and dehumanizing impact on workers of the new industrial enterprises.
One hot evening in July last I stood on the brink of a little canal that skirts a row of noble buildings constituting the largest textile mill in New England and perhaps in the world, and watched hundreds and thousands of mill-hands pour over the bridge that connects the mills with the town of which they are the chief support and pride. As the great bell clanged forth its six peals, one could hear the cessation of toil for the day. The mighty turbines, fed by this canal from the Merrimac, ceased to revolve, the great Corliss engines that in recent years have come to the aid of water-power in all big mills, came to a stop; the three hundred thousand spindles, the eight thousand looms, and the thousands of other ponderous machines, ingenious and effective almost past belief, for picking, cleaning, roving, bleaching, printing, drying, and finishing the one hundred million yards of cotton and woolen goods turned out from these mills every year—all this vast mass of machinery, scattered over sixty acres of flooring, came to a stop. Bell-time, as six o’clock in the afternoon is called in all New England mill-towns, had come. In place of the hum and clatter of machinery, the patter of innumerable feet made itself heard. Then the first of the army of five thousand operatives began to come, first by driblets, comprising those who did not need to wash, or did not care to, then the larger streams as the doors of some great room were thrown open, each operative having to go and come by a special staircase in order to avoid the gorging of any particular exit in case of fire, and finally the densestream of humanity, male and female, big and little, until the broad iron bridge was packed and shook under the strain. Browning’s description of the rats as they came in answer to the three shrill notes of the Pied Piper came to my mind.
I hope that should any of the mill-hands of this particular mill ever read these lines they will take no offence at the comparison. The picture was not an unpleasant one; it had just the diversity suggested by the poet. There were men and women, boys and girls, of all ages and colors—even green, and blue, and yellow, and striped—for the operatives in the printing and dyeing shops are as apt to be covered with color as the miller is powdered with flour; here were the fat and the lean, the tall and the short, pretty women and women—less pretty; dark and fair, neat and sloven. And it should be said here that no such squalid poverty saddens the visitor to these mills as can be seen in every manufacturing town in England. Every woman and girl wore shoes; the poor slattern, barefooted, and with a ragged shawl thrown over her head, that one finds by the thousand coming from the cotton-mills of England, was conspicuous by her absence. The women and girls of our manufacturing towns, especially where the native American stock still holds its own, retain a vivid appreciation of pretty things in dress and adornment. In some of the cotton towns, such as Fall River, where the French Canadian and the Irish have driven the Yankee girl from the spindles and the loom, there is less concern for personal appearance than in Lynn, for instance, with its American shoe operatives, or in Manchester with its American thread-makers. Among the more recent recruits to the mills are the Armenians and Polish Jews, of whom there are some in almost all the New England manufacturing towns.
Watching the privates of this army of workers pour forth from the mills where they have been at work since half past six in the morning, with an hour’s rest at noon, and bearing in mind the fact that these mills have been in steady and profitable operation for nearly half a century, the management of this vast machine for turning out and selling one hundred million yards of goods a year will impress any one as possessing as much general interest, and far more human interest, than the processes of manufacture themselves. How is the business conducted, whether the product be cotton-yarn, printed calico, watches, shoes, or bicycles? What are the principles governing the art of making money by the manufacture and sale of articles requiring an army of operatives?
One feature of the manufacturing industries of a country that makes them of perhaps more interest than the agricultural industries, is the constant change in the character of the product, as well as in the methods of manufacture. The farmers' products seldom or never change. The wheat sealed up in Egyptian tombs fifteen hundred years before the birth of Christ is found to be identical with that grown in Egypt to-day, and upon being planted yields a similar crop to that now grown. Not only do manufactured objects change every few years, but the field is constantly enlarged by the appearance of new things to make—things not dreamed of a few years ago. Electricity now gives employment to hundreds of thousands of persons whose great-grandfathers never heard of a telegraph, a telephone, an electric light, or a motor. While new farms spring up every day in the wilderness, it is always the same old wheat or corn that results. But every day some new factory begins turning out a product the like of which was never seen before, and, in some cases, let us hope, may not be seen again. More than this, it is not reasonable to suppose that this stream of novelty which began to flow with the printing press, the steam-engine, and the electric spark, will ever cease. It would be strange if we happy possessors of these wonderful tools, unknown to our forefathers, should fail to profit by them, and turn out still more wonderful things in the future. The next century ought certainly to give the world gifts as valuable as steam and electricity. The factories of 1997 will make wonders, of which we have no conception. The field is, however, already so large that one branch of manufacture must be taken as a type of all, and I have selected the making of calicoes as offering the best illustrations of this business of manufacturing. The business problems met with by the man who undertakes to buy cotton, weave, print, and sell it as calico, are similar in kind with those of the man who makes shoes, or lamps, or watches. They involve accurate judgment not only of what the public is asking for, but—far more important—what it is going to ask for; the purchase of raw material, the hiring of labor, the judicious management of an army of people so as to avoid laxity on one hand and strikes on the other, the discovery of new and better processes, the choice of designs, the manufacture itself, finally the disposal of the product by a thousand channels, native and foreign.
Let me, therefore, take a big cotton-mill making and printing its own calicoes, as the type of an American manufacturing business. If a man wants to enter the business of making calicoes, the question of capital is the first consideration. Most of our cotton-mills and paper-mills are stock corporations, largely because of the vast capital needed. The larger the plant the cheaper the product, is an axiom in the cotton business, especially when staple goods, such as sheetings, are to be made. There is always a market here or abroad for American sheeting, and the sales are often made in such vast quantities that the danger of overstocking the market is as nothing compared with fancy dress-goods, shoes, or worsted cloths, the fashions of which change from one year to another. It is not unusual to hear of the sale of thousands of bales of sheetings in one operation. It follows, therefore, that the manufacturer must be ready to take advantage of these periods of profit, so to speak, and be ready with his tens of thousands of bales of goods, where the manufacturer of goods liable to depreciation through change of fashion, such as shoes, hats, fancy printed cloths, etc., does not dare to manufacture much beyond the current demand of the market, and is consequently debarred from manufacture upon the vast scale seen in the mills at Fall River, Lowell, and Lawrence. The capital needed for cotton-mills being therefore very large—the mill I have selected as a type having a capital of three million dollars, and its property being assessed at nearly five millions—the ownership is commonly held by a stock company. . . .
The necessary capital having been subscribed and the manufacture of cotton goods decided upon, the question of site is next to be settled. In the past good water-power has been of the chief importance in the selection of a mill site. The splendid water-power on the Merrimac, at Lowell, Nashua, Lawrence, and elsewhere explained the existence of gigantic mills at these places. Steam, however, is rapidly replacing water-power, notwithstanding the improvements made in turbine wheels. In most of the older mills of New England steam now shares about equally the work with water, while in the new mills it takes almost the whole burden. Of course in factories where the power needed is small, such as in making hats, clothing, shoes, etc., steam has entirely replaced water, the higher cost being of no importance when its greater reliability is considered. As yet electricity has not appeared as motive power, except in small industries. What the tremendous works at Niagara will do in this field remains to be seen. It is easier with electricity to adapt the power to the needs of the day whether they are great or small, than with steam. Mr. Atkinson foresees the ultimate dispersion of these mill armies to their homes, when electric power can be sent from place to place without loss; then, as before the introduction of steam-power, the weaver will work his loom and the spinner his spindles in his own cottage instead of in the big mill. Whether or not the change will be to the benefit of the operative is still a mooted question among experts. One of the agents of a big mill, a man who has studied the problem at close quarters for twenty years, tells me that the change would be a misfortune for the mill-hand. In the mill the worker has the law as his champion in providing good air and light, and in limiting the hours of labor; in his own cottage the hours of labor will be measured only by the endurance of the weaker members of the family, while the sanitary arrangements are apt to be defective as compared to those of a modern mill.
It is commonly admitted that while a man or woman who does some small thing in the manufacture of an article—whether it is piecing the broken yarns of a spinning machine, or cutting the eye of a needle, or gathering matches for boxing—may become marvelously expert, the operator runs the risk of becoming more or less of a machine. The girl who stands at the end of a frame of one hundred spindles and sees a broken thread, catches it with lightning-like rapidity and joins it with a touch; the one who cuts the eyes in needles can do the same thing with a human hair; and the girls who pack matches pick up the requisite number for the box, whether it is one hundred, more or less, without counting them, judging simply by touch whether or not the right number is there, and doing it as fast as the eye can follow the hand. Mr. Ruskin contends, probably with reason, that the minute division of labor that makes such wonders possible brutalizes the laborer, and that if the girl made the whole article instead of doing one operation out of fifty, she would gain in intelligence if not in expertness. From an economic, or rather an industrial point of view, however, manufacturing has to be carried on at present with the greatest subdivision of labor possible. Fierce competition and a small margin of profit demand it. Mr. Ruskin’s dream of a manufacturing community in which the same person shall shear the sheep, clean the wool, dye it, card, spin, and weave it, doing all this in country homes made beautiful with flowers, working but six hours a day, and devoting the rest of the time to reading good books, raising flowers, and singing songs, is a very pretty dream to be made possible only when some philanthropist provides a market at good profit as well as the pleasant conditions for this labor. For the present steam-power is the only power suitable for the work of manufacturing, and this compels the work to be done at one spot. . . .
This minute subdivision of labor which threatens, according to some economists, to make the operative only a part of a machine, and needing to be little more intelligent than one of its wheels, may go on at one end of the industry to be counter-balanced at the other end by a process of aggrandizement. Just as in the large cities the department store is absorbing the smaller shops of its neighborhood, so the large factory of the future may absorb its smaller rivals, not only in the same branch of industry but in many others. There are great mills in New England to-day which not only spin and weave, but print, using wool and silk as well as cotton, something unheard of a few years ago. It is an interesting speculation among experts as to how long it will be before the same gigantic mill will turn out cotton goods, woolen goods, silks, shoes, umbrellas, hats and caps, and writing-paper. The very process that makes the operative merely the attendant upon a machine favors such a development. When there is no sale for cotton, the army of hands will start up the shoe machines, just as, in the department stores, when business is dull at the silk counter the clerks may be put at selling cigars. This may sound extremely fanciful, but there are indications of such a trend. It may be remembered that when, some thirty years ago, a Philadelphia clothier introduced umbrellas as a part of his stock the innovation was widely denounced as a sinful encroachment upon the rights of umbrella shops. Yet to-day it would be hard to say what the department store does not sell; it supplies or attempts to supply all that man needs from a cradle to a coffin. So the first cotton factory that adds shoes to its list of products may excite criticism, but if there is profit in the change it is sure to come. . . .
The business organization of most big factories is simple enough. Almost all cotton-mill properties are managed by a board of directors elected by the stockholders. These directors appoint officers, among whom the treasurer and the agent are the important personages, the first having charge of the finances, the buying of supplies, payment of expenses, and selling of goods; the second having the actual manufacture of the goods under his control, the hiring of labor, the management of the shops or mills. The treasurer of most New England manufacturing corporations lives in Boston, where the goods are sold, and the agent lives near the mills. Taking a big cotton-mill, the agent employs a head or superintendent for each of the important departments, such as the carding, roving, spinning, weaving, bleaching, printing, and packing. Under these superintendents there may be many or few foremen, according to the character of the work. In some departments where the work is all of the same character, each girl of the three hundred in a room doing precisely what her neighbor does, year in and year out, a few foremen suffice. In one room at the mill I have in mind, a room 800 feet long by 70 feet wide, the girls who tend the spindles need small advice, and being paid by the product turned out from their machines, they need small supervision. In other departments, the print works, for instance, there are a variety of operations requiring comparatively few men, but a high grade of intelligence and constant supervision by expert foremen. The transfer of the designs to the copper rolls used in printing, the mixing of the colors, the adjustment of elaborate machinery, all this delicate work requires vast experience. The discipline of such mills is by no means military. In visiting several of the largest of them I was impressed with the friendly relations between superintendents and men. “We never scold,” said the agent of a big mill. 'If a man or girl proves to be habitually careless or idle, a discharge follows; but for small infractions of rules we trust the various foremen to look after their own people. In the sixteen years I have been here we have had no strikes." At half-past six in the morning the bell rings for work to begin; there is an hour’s intermission at noon, and then from one to six it goes on again. On Saturdays all work in most cotton-mills stops for the day at noon. The law limits factory work in Massachusetts to fifty-eight hours a week. In New York State there is no such limit. In some trades, the Lynn shoe shops, for instance, work begins at seven o’clock and there is only half an hour’s stop at noon. In Connecticut, the hours at Waterbury and Ansonia are the same as in Lynn. In the papermills of Massachusetts and Connecticut work begins at half-past six, with an hour at noon.
Opinions differ as to whether or not the growth of the factory system is a blessing to a community, but, as a rule, it is conceded that the standard of intelligence and of living among the mill-hands of New England is not so high now as it was forty years ago. And this, notwithstanding higher wages and shorter hours. In 1850, the average mill-hand earned $175 a year, as against $300 at present, and worked thirteen hours a day as against ten hours to-day. The American farmer’s daughter who worked in the cotton mills fifty years ago has been almost wholly displaced, first by women of Irish and English birth, and more recently by the French Canadian, all representing lower types. The very growth of the mills has tended to do away with certain features of factory life, that worked for good in smaller communities. In the old days, say in 1850, the American girls who made cotton cloth in Lowell, or shoes in Lynn, or thread in Manchester, had their own singing and reading societies, their benevolent clubs, and church sociables. The owner or agent of a small mill in a small town was able to exercise something of a paternal supervision over the few hundred girls or men who might work for him. With the immense increase in mill plants, the force now numbering thousands where it was hundreds fifty years ago, this is impossible. Yet, whether it be as a matter of self-interest or not, the visitor to Lowell, Manchester, Lawrence, Fall River, and other factory centres will find an attempt on the part of mill owners to help the hands after they leave the buildings. Saving societies, libraries, hospitals are common. In Lawrence there are no less than three flourishing co-operative stores patronized exclusively by mill-hands. The rise in power of the unions seems to have made the mill-hands suspicious of all interference with matters outside the mill. One is apt to find a dozen unions in a cotton-mill, and in the shoe shops there are unions for every one of the score or more of operations through which a shoe passes. The factory law of Massachusetts prescribes that wages shall be paid weekly. This rule has been found to work rather disadvantageously so far as saving by the mill-hand goes, for, receiving no large sum of money in a lump, he finds it difficult to spare from the comparatively small weekly wage. Efforts are made almost periodically by many mill corporations to render the homes of the hands more sanitary than they were in earlier years, and attractive with gardens and flowers. In some towns, notably in Manchester, where the mill operatives number many native Americans, some success in this direction has been met with; in other towns, notably the larger centres—Lowell, Nashua, Fall River, Lawrence—where the population is either foreign-born or but one generation removed from it, not much has been effected. The hands live mostly in tenements unadorned with gardens or even grass-plats. A large number of the hands in every factory are young people who have to board, necessitating the existence in all mill towns of large rows of tenements known as boarding-houses, as a rule dreary homes inside and out. The people who live in them, looking upon themselves as temporary inmates or tenants only, cannot be induced to better their surroundings, and will decline to care for the vines and flowers offered to them by their employers. . . .
As in most other trades, strikes are the bane of the factory owner’s existence. With a plant worth perhaps a million dollars brought to a standstill, and perhaps half a million dollars' worth of raw material in process of manufacture, a strike coming at an awkward time of year means tremendous loss.
Next in importance, or perhaps even of more importance than the character of the hands, comes the character of the machinery in use. The entire machinery of a mill may be said to change every twenty years, just as the entire material of the human body is said to change every seven years, or eleven years—I forget which. I asked one mill superintendent, a veteran who has seen the inside of about every mill in the country, what he looked at most carefully upon entering a rival establishment. “First the machinery, then the hands.” Nine-tenths of the machinery used in cotton and woolen manufacture, ninety-nine hundredths of that used in shoe making, and all of that used in paper-mills is made in this country. In cotton-mills we still use English carders, as the machines for cleaning the cotton from small imperfections are called. In return for their carders we have given the English the most important improvement made in cotton manufacture during this generation—the Rabbeth spindle, which makes ten thousand revolutions a minute, as against half that speed with the old-fashioned spindle. It has been estimated by General William F. Draper, an expert on the subject, that the Rabbeth spindle, invented in 1866 by Francis J. Rabbeth, of Ilion, N. Y., has effected a saving of $100,000,000 to this country since its introduction about 1870. In equipping a new factory there is always a certain advantage over older establishments, thanks to changes and improvements in the machinery. What is done to-day in the new mills just finished at the South would astonish the mill-hands of twenty years ago. As a rule, these changes in cotton machinery have been introduced without opposition. The spinning and weaving, for instance, are paid for by the piece, so that the introduction of the Rabbeth spindle, doing twice the work and requiring actually less care and watchfulness on the part of the operator, found its champions as well as its detractors. In some trades, however, the spirit that led to the breaking-up of Arkwright’s spinning frames because they did so much work survives. The shoe manufacturers of Lynn have not yet dared to introduce a certain lasting machine largely employed in Europe and in certain western cities of this country because the lasters‘ trades union forbids its use. According to the leading shoemakers of Lynn, this machine would revolutionize the business. One firm has very recently induced the Lynn lasters’ union to consent to the introduction of two of these machines as experiments, the lasters themselves to try the machines and to fix the conditions under which they may be used if used at all. It is evident that in a big manufactory it is not everything to invent a labor-saving machine; endless tact must be used to induce the unions to allow its use. . . .
In all factory work it is essential to have as complete a system of checks upon defective work as possible, especially since the opposition of the unions to improved machinery has made payment by the piece obligatory. In cotton-mills to-day more than seventy per cent. of the hands are paid by the piece, in shoe factories ninety per cent., in brass-ware factories eighty per cent., and in paper-mills sixty per cent. The visitor to any big cotton-mill will notice that the spools of yarn from the spinners all bear a colored chalk mark, the finished roll of cloth from the looms a similar mark, and so on, from first to last, every piece of work bearing a mark, sometimes red, sometimes blue, all the colors and shades of the rainbow being used, and often two colors together. By this means each piece is traced back. The weaver who finds that the yarn furnished to her is defective in the spinning has only to examine the chalk-mark on the spool to find out who spun it, and so on through the whole operation till the finished piece of goods reaches the packer. . . .
A factory having been put up in a suitable spot, equipped with proper machinery, and a force of competent hands engaged, the important question arises: What kind of goods shall be made? This is a question to be decided by the persons who sell the product of the mill—the selling agents. Under the direction of these agents, the art director, so to speak, of the corporation seeks high and low for designs, takes suggestions where he can, employs designers and artists. We can surpass the world at machinery, but as yet we have to go to Paris for our designs. Each of the big mills where printed goods are made keeps its man in Paris watching the new designs and buying the best he can from the professional designers, of which there are a hundred in Paris, some of them earning as high as $20,000 a year. A designer of international reputation commands his own price, inasmuch as the design makes or mars the product; it sells or does not sell according to the favor the pattern meets with. The question is often asked: How do the men who make designs know what kind of goods the public is going to demand? The designs for next winter’s goods are already finished. How does the artist know that the fickle public is not going to discard all that it has admired this year, and go wild over what it now ignores? This year the colors are faint and suggestive; next year they may be kaleidoscopic in brilliancy. This year ladies' shoes run to a point, next year they may be square-toed. Upon an accurate forecast of the public’s whims in these matters depends success. Well, the truth seems to be that sudden or violent as these fluctuations appear, there is really an evolutionary process involved. Each style or fashion has in it the germs of what is to follow, perhaps visible only to experts, but to be discerned. The designer accents the peculiar attributes of a pattern that has found favor one year in order to create his design for the next season. The short life of a design is somewhat surprising. Out of the six or eight hundred patterns made during this last year by the largest calico-mill in the country it is not likely that ten will be called for two years hence. The designs ( the word design covering the texture of the material as well as its ornamentation) for every class of goods have to be virtually new every year, and the explanation given for this is hardly flattering to the fair wearers of these pretty mousselines, lawns, organdies, cashmeres, serges, and brocades.
“Not only,” said a mill agent, “do fashions change in a bewildering way, and a most expensive way to us manufacturers, but they have a way of changing so radically that new goods may be wholly unsalable if they bear any resemblance to the dress goods in demand last year. Why? Simply because a woman who buys a new dress wants a pattern and a color wholly different from that of her last year’s frock, in order that there may be no question as to its being a new frock. She not only wants a different design, but a very different one, so that he, or more probably, she, who runs may see that it is a new dress.”. . . .
The element of chance thus enters more or less into any manufacture dependent upon changes of fashion. As the styles for summer have to be made in winter, and those for winter in summer, a manufacturer cannot wait to see what the public wants; he has to take his chances. What he has made may or may not meet with favor. If it does not, his whole product will have to be sold at cost or less, to be sent to the confines of civilization. Upon the other hand, fortunes are often made when fashion veers in favor of a particular style of goods. . . .
Some factories, usually very small ones, depend wholly upon novelties. Each year some new trifle comes up upon which the whole establishment is put to work. Holiday goods, the trifles sold by sidewalk peddlers, and many cheap toys are of this class where the ingenuity of the deviser or designer is everything. Of a curious character was a small factory near Philadelphia, devoted wholly at one time to the manufacture of hoaxes sold through advertisement. Among the notable successes of this precious establishment was a device warranted to kill the potato-bug. Thousands of farmers sent their half-dollars in exchange for two little slabs of wood with the directions: “Place the bug between these two blocks of wood and press hard.” This seems scarcely worth noting as an industry, and yet incredible sums of money are made out of the manufacture of things hardly less trivial. Many readers may remember the vogue of a wooden ball fastened to a rubber string, so that the ball when thrown returned to the hand. It is said that the patentee and manufacturer of that toy made $80,000 in one season from it.
The demand for novelties, always novelties, imposes a constant expense and drain upon all manufacturing corporations, and yet it is the novelties that offer the greatest field for profit. Staple goods not affected by fashion must be sold almost at cost because every mill can make them, and the stocks of such goods on hand are always enormous. When orders are scarce and a mill agent hesitates about letting his hands go for fear that he may not be able to get the best of them back in time of need, the force may be used in turning out coarse staple goods, sure to find a market some day. But such work offers only a minimum margin of profit. One case of fancy goods that sell well brings in a larger profit than one hundred cases of some staple article that every mill in the country, North and South, can turn out. Novelty is the cry of all manufacturers. Give us something new to make. Every year the mills of this country turn out from three to five thousand new designs, of which perhaps one thousand find a profitable sale.
A factory having produced a stock of goods from the best designs to be obtained by its agents here and abroad, the next step is to sell at a profit. Twenty-five years ago the mill or factory sold all its goods to the jobbers, who in turn distributed them to the retailers throughout the country. Each mill had its selling agents who undertook to dispose of its product to the jobbers. A retailer could buy nothing directly from the agent of the mill. Within the last ten or fifteen years the small jobber has been eliminated. In 1850 there were half a hundred dry-goods jobbers in New York City and as many in Boston all doing a good business. Today the number has dwindled to half a dozen in each city. The same thing is true of Philadelphia and Chicago. Only a few of the very largest jobbing houses have survived. The selling agents of the mills now go direct to the retailer, because the retailers have in many instances become buyers upon a much larger scale than the small jobber of former days. Go into the Boston or New York office of the agent of any important mill, and you will find plenty of samples and clerks, but almost no buyers. The agent now goes to the buyer. The agent of the largest cotton-mill in western Massachusetts told me that he sent his men to every large drygoods shop in Boston every day, and his partner in New York did the same thing there. At certain seasons Boston and New York, twenty-five or thirty years ago, were overrun with the buyers of dry-goods houses from all parts of the country. There were hotels and even newspapers devoted to these buyers and their doings. Much of this business has passed away. To-day the travelling men, “drummers,” of the mills and the few large jobbing houses that have survived, scour the country, taking their samples to the retailer. A few large jobbers, doing an immense business, still survive in all our large centres because they have the machinery for the distribution of goods in channels where it is not worth the while of the agent to enter—small shops in small towns. The small jobber who gave up business when he found the mills selling directly to the retail shops who could buy even more goods at a time than he could, had neither the capital nor the army of travelling men necessary to do business upon this scale. The jobber who could buy five thousand cases of goods at a time, and had the machinery and the means for disposing of it, survives because the mills sell cheapest to the largest buyer, and the jobber who buys on this scale is more important that even the largest retail store. But the small jobber, buying one hundred cases of the same goods, gets no better terms than the big retailer and has therefore no excuse for being. Some of the big department stores now obtain a monopoly of certain patterns or designs by taking the whole output of the mill, thus doing what was formerly in the power of only the greatest of jobbers.
The object of the country merchant in sending his buyer to New York or Boston every year was to get a more attractive stock than that obtained by his rival on the next block, and at better prices. The buyer comes no more to headquarters. A few big jobbers send their men to him, as I have said, and supplement these visits in the following way: The big jobber’s travelling man, making a specialty, say of the eastern end of Long Island, and having a number of customers in that region, not only takes his samples over the route several times each season, but he promises his customer that when novelties of importance or goods at extraordinarily low prices appear in New York he will take care that some are sent out to this customer. The travelling man has an accurate knowledge of the selling capacity of his customer, and an agreement with him to the effect that the country merchant will take a certain amount of whatever goods the “drummer” may see fit to send him in an emergency. Much depends, as will be seen, upon the judgment of this latter. If he abuses his privilege, there will be trouble. If, on the contrary, he acts with good judgment, he will be invaluable.
Now suppose that one day a certain mill comes to the house in New York with the offer of a big stock of new and fashionable goods, or goods at a remarkably low price; the outside force is called together and an estimate is made of the quantity of such goods that can be distributed. The Long Island man puts down this customer of his for three cases, that one for one case, and some one else for half a case. The jobbing house may be able, by taking the whole country, to buy the whole stock of this pattern from the mill, thus getting exceptional terms and a monopoly of the pattern. The country merchant who gets the goods, of which his rival across the way can get none, will make money or lose it according to their desirability. He may receive too many goods in this way, in which case he can restrict the privilege of the New York house, or he may find that he could have sold five times as much of a cheap and popular style of goods as he received. I have been told of instances in which five thousand cases of printed calicoes, or about eight million yards, have been disposed of in this way in one morning by the largest jobbing house in this country.
The search for a foreign outlet for American manufacturers began more than half a century ago and still goes on. Every year some new market is discovered. Our old competitor, England, fights hard, but we can often beat her on her own ground. Everyone may know that we send our New England cotton-cloth to the British colonies by the thousand cases, but it may be news to many that 25,000 American ploughs went to the Argentine Republic last year, and that the thousands of watches distributed to the Japanese army as rewards of bravery were made in this country. American trademarks have always been and now are of exceptional value the world over, and this notwithstanding the frequent imitations of them practised by foreign competitors in the past. . . .
It should also be said that nearly all the English houses which had imitated American marks, in many cases ignorantly, being instructed to copy certain brands from patterns furnished them by their customers abroad, promptly discontinued the practice when the facts were made known to them. No less than twenty-seven imitations of one American brand were thus voluntarily withdrawn. For years past, however, the export of American cotton goods to India and China has more than resumed its old proportions, the shipments for 1896 having exceeded those of any previous year.
Source: Philip G. Hubert, Jr., “The Businss of a Factory,” Scribner’s, vol. 21 (January-June 1897): 306–331.