At a time when the nation faces severe financial depression, bank failures, and high unemployment, it should come as something of a consolation to recall that over the course of some 350 years New England has demonstrated an uncanny ability to adapt well to all kinds of economic changes. Certainly one contributing factor for this story of change and adaptation would have to be the spirit of Yankee enterprise.
The origins of the term “Yankee” are uncertain, but during the colonial period almost everybody from New England was considered a Yankee – hence “Yankee Doodle.” A Yankee was usually regarded as sharp, canny, and resourceful – someone who simply could not leave things alone. He had to keep tinkering with things to make them better, more efficient, and more profitable.
The uniqueness of the Yankee mentality, however, was intellectual as well as practical. In the Massachusetts Bay Colony. the Congregational faith placed great emphasis on education, to insure that everyone could read the Bible. Bostonians, therefore, not only read books on theology, but also studied works on science, navigation, and astronomy that helped them in their widespread maritime enterprises. During the 1700s, New England’s profitable triangular trades brought fish to Western Europe, carried fur and lumber to the West Indies, and shipped molasses and rum to West Africa in return for tragic cargoes of slaves. Young Frederic Tudor of Boston expanded the trade even further by sending frozen ice all the way to India, creating a commodity that would not change until the electric refrigerator appeared in the 20th century.
In 1812, however, the outbreak of war with Great Britain threatened to destroy New England’s maritime supremacy. With naval blockades shutting down the New England ports, Yankees invested their money in the manufacture of cotton textiles. First, they brought together the mechanical processes of spinning and weaving under one roof in their factory at Waltham. Then they moved to Lowell and Lawrence, where the great waterfalls of the Merrimack River transformed what had been a small household enterprise into a major industrial complex.
The rapid growth of the textile industry also benefited from the invention of a young Connecticut Yankee named Eli Whitney, who had moved South in search of a teaching job. With the innate curiosity of a tinkerer, in 1793 he came up with the cotton gin. This device provided a mechanical means of replacing the intensive hand labor required to separate the cotton seeds from the cotton fiber. Now the textile manufacturers were furnished with vast quantities of raw cotton at greatly reduced prices.
By the time the War of 1812 was over, the textile industry had become a permanent addition to the New England economy, as Yankee ships carried Yankee textile products all over the world. When Elias Howe of Spencer, Massachusetts, invented the sewing machine in 1845, the textile industry got another boost. Now ready-made clothing could now be turned out by unskilled factory workers. With a growing demand for uniforms during the Mexican War, and later the Civil War, ready-made clothing developed into a new multi-million-dollar industry.
The appearance of the steam engine that powered vessels on the Erie Canal in 1807 was yet another invention seized upon by the Yankee entrepreneurs. Here was a new source of power that no longer depended upon wind or water. In the South, steam-powered cotton gins produced more raw cotton for New England mills, and by the 1830s Boston investors had further diversified their investments by moving into a controlling interest in the new steam-powered railroad lines that began criss-crossing the country.
In the 1840s, Samuel F. B. Morse, a Yale graduate, revolutionized the communication system with his invention of the telegraph. And a few years later Charles Thurber of East Brookfield, Massachusetts, transformed correspondence with the invention of the manual typewriter. With Samuel Colt (another Yale grad) producing the famous revolver that would win the West, and Seth Thomas designing the clocks that would set the nation’s time, inventive tinkerers kept coming up with the new ideas and clever inventions that opened up the possibilities of whole new industries.
In 1851, at London’s fabulous Crystal Palace Exhibition, the displays of Yankee inventions were literally the talk of the town, from such prosaic products as picks, hoes, shovels, scythes, road-scrapers, and ice-cream freezers, to the more complicated intricacies of sewing machines, mechanical reapers, and padlocks with revolving cylinders. Visitors from all over the world came to London and marveled at what they called “Yankee notions” which were destined to change the basic nature of manufacturing.
Perhaps a reappearance of the old Yankee spirit might offer a remedy for recovery and growth. In the past, Yankee entrepreneurs were able to keep the New England economy alive by tinkering with inefficient models, creating new inventions, and applying new scientific methods to outmoded procedures. Ideas have always been a motivating force in New England’s economic history: there is no reason why ideas cannot continue to provide change and growth in the future.
Dr. Thomas H. O’Connor is a resident of Milton and university historian at Boston College.