Worcester in the Industrial Age

By Timothy Jarvis

From its humble beginnings over 150 years ago, Worcester rose to become a leading center for manufacturing in New England. Investors encouraged bold experiments and unrivaled innovation, resulting in the city’s innovative spirit for diverse manufacturing. The city was soon called home by a high number of global producers.

Before the industrialization of Worcester began, it was a mere rural town. The industry brought Worcester to new heights, making it one of the largest cities in New England, second only to Boston. Great prosperity was shared with the people of Worcester, and as progress continued to unfold, the ways to make a living expanded.

In the early nineteenth century, a series of rapidly changing strategies in how goods were produced lead to American industrialization. Worcester’s economy, like the rest of the country’s, transitioned to manufacturing. Textile factories opened on the Blackstone River, but Worcester faced an immense obstacle in its early textile days: harnessing water power.

Unlike cities such as Lowell, Worcester was isolated from large reserves of water power. Despite this, Worcester’s innovative attitude endured. The solution was later found in the form of the Blackstone Canal, which was built in 1828. Because of the canal, Worcester’s textile mills thrived as water-powered factories.

Despite the success of the Blackstone Canal, Boston investors weren’t as interested in Worcester as they were in Lowell. That city dominated the textile industry at the time, giving Worcester a drive to add more to the textile industry to set itself apart. The city became a hub for producing several different kinds of machines for turning cotton and wool into cloth.

As the textile industry boomed in Worcester and Massachusetts as a whole, a revolutionary tool for industry was dawning: the railroads. Transportation was key in making Worcester an industrial city. Irish laborers finished building the Boston-to-Worcester railroad in 1835. The new transport made it possible for Worcester mills to receive raw materials and ship items in large quantities relativity cheaply.

The city’s industry and newfound transportation would soon attract a diverse influx of immigrants, making Worcester a strong cultural mosaic to this day. The immigrant groups included people of Irish, French, Swedish, Finnish, Lithuanian, Polish, Italian, Greek, Syrian, and Armenian descent. The majority of immigrants lived in three-decker houses. The three-decker was used throughout the country during the Industrial Revolution, and originated in Worcester.

In 1831, Worcester was on the radar, having been officially charted a major city, outgrowing even Lowell. A man named Ichabod Washburn came to Worcester during this time from Millbury with no money or connections, yet he found the means to open a wire factory, the Washburn & Moen Company. Washburn was best known as the model for his generation’s “man’s man”, with mechanical talent and ambition. Worcester’s prosperity and opportunity drew this type of man to Washburn’s enterprise.

When Washburn died in 1868, he was among some of Worcester’s richest and influential residents, and one of the city’s leading philanthropists. His business became the largest wire producer in America, and was valued at one million dollars.

By the turn of the twentieth century, the city had reached its industrial peak, and as the industries prospered, business leaders promoted Worcester as the ideal industrial city. Worcester was now a center of machinery, wire products, and power looms. Among the largest manufacturers in the city were Wyman-Gordon Company, American Steel & Wire, Morgan Construction, and the Norton Company. Also notable is that in 1908, the Royal Worcester Corset Factory was the largest employer of women in the United States.

The most prominent of manufacturers was the Norton Company, which set out to create the first-ever precision-made grinding wheel. By 1886, with the help of students from Worcester Polytechnic Institute, Norton Company succeeded in its task. When it was time for Norton to distribute their product, the company introduced literature that described the application of the grinding wheel in detail. By the mid 1890s, Norton amassed the largest inventory of grinding wheels in the world. The product was shipped to Chicago (1887), New York (1904), and Europe.

In 1914, the year of the birth of the auto industry, Henry Ford purchased thirty-five Norton Grinders.With ninety-five percent of the auto industry requiring grinders, the automotive industry became Norton’s biggest consumer.

“The abrasive processes are basically responsible for our ability to produce cars to sell for less than a thousand dollars,” Ford commented. “Were it not for these processes these same cars would cost at least five thousand dollars, if indeed they could be made at all.”

Later in the twentieth century, New England’s industries saw a steady decline; World War II inspired the workers of the city to labor. The war effort was a duty the entire country was called to, and Worcester was no exception. Despite this, the work of American Steel & Wire Company represented America’s dominance as a global producer and economic powerhouse in war time.

Not long after World War II, a great number of Worcester’s companies closed or were outsourced. This was in wake of the global post-World War II. Industries began to leave the city because it was cheap and convenient for companies to produce outside the country. As such, Worcester’s manufacturing slowed in the 1960s. After the war, almost every major global producer was destroyed, except the United States, so Worcester still found industrial success many years after, despite these difficulties.

Many local investors fought to keep Worcester’s manufacturing legacy alive. The goal was to continuously employ working-class citizens in Worcester for as long as possible. This lasted for about thirty years. By the 1990s, Worcester had seen a complete outsource of its producers. All that was left was the Norton Company, and soon, even that couldn’t stay afloat. Norton was purchased by Saint-Gobain of France, a manufacturer of construction and high-performance materials.

In 2015, Worcester is now a post-industrial city — but that doesn’t mean the city is desolate. The city was left with many abandoned factories and mill structures, and as of late, gentrification has lead to the revival and refurbishment of many of the oldest buildings. The city planners of Worcester have created a plan to make the city prosperous again. Though progress is slow, the plan is to convert all of the abandoned spaces into either living, office, or retail space. This could potentially make for a new era of the city.

Worcester has left behind the industrial model of a city, and is now looking to become more service-based. With the factories and manufacturing jobs gone, many workers are now servers, not laborers. Many feel this is a symptom of the city’s progress, since it is a trend that has occurred throughout the country.

Worcester’s industry rose to prosperity and fell to outsourcing in a matter of 150 years. The city’s industry endured obstacles and was a global producer for decades. Only time will tell if the industry days were the peak of Worcester’s success, or if we’re currently progressing towards a better future.

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