Today, we are amazed at the changes brought about by the strides made in the field of electronics and computers. Warwick residents have seen their lifestyle, their employment, their standard of living all changed with the marvels of television, the Internet and mobile devices like iPhones.
Much the same changes were felt by the farmers and seamen of Warwick in the 19th century. This was brought about then by the Industrial Revolution. Farming and the coastal trade were now supplemented by the textile industry. Farming, which had been so important in Warwick’s early history, now became significant. The coastal trade, which had brought fame and fortune to Warwick’s ports, was soon to fall into decline. All of this, of course, was due to the emergence of the textile industry. Warwick was ideally located to take advantage of the new industry.
At the beginning of the 19th century, Warwick’s economic interests were primarily concerned with agriculture and the sea trade. Within a few decades, however, the town changed dramatically and, by the close of the century, was in reality two distinct entities economically and ethnically. The reason for the change was primarily the development of the textile industry in western Warwick.
The decade following the adoption of the Constitution by Rhode Island was exciting and promising for the seacoast towns. While Warwick was not directly involved in the East Indies trade, the ports of Pawtuxet and Apponaug benefited from the increased activity in Providence. The Jeffersonian Embargos of 1805-07 and the War of 1812 dealt the maritime trade a severe blow. By that time, however, some of the profits of the China Trade and from the increased trading activity along the coast were already being diverted to the fledgling textile industry introduced to Rhode Island by Moses Brown and Samuel Slater.
As early as 1794, Job Greene, son of Revolutionary War hero Christopher Greene, helped establish Rhode Island’s second textile mill in Centreville, which was then part of western Warwick. Very quickly, mills began to appear along the Pawtuxet River. Because of the availability of farmland brought about by the decline in agriculture, mill owners not only purchased the rights to use the river and adjoining lands for their mills, they acquired tracts of land large enough to create nearly self-sufficient mill villages.
Mill owners seized the opportunity to establish paternalistic mill villages in which they controlled all aspects of the economic, social and moral life of their workers. The social and intellectual thinking of the time believed that mill owners should control the villages as a father controls a family. In Warwick, entire families were recruited to work in the mills, and as the western sector of the town became industrialized, new villages came into being. As a result, the concentration of Warwick’s population moved westward.
For the farmers in the eastern sector the change was phenomenal. Where once the population was predominantly Old Yankee and Protestant, they were beginning to see an infiltration of Roman Catholics and Europeans. Farms that were once so prosperous now found they could not compete with foreign markets, and many of them in western Warwick were abandoned or sold to the captains of the new industry. As the farms were divided and re-divided among the sons of the early settlers, it became impossible to have enough acreage to sustain a high standard of living. In much the same manner European wars did a great deal of damage to Warwick’s seagoing trade.
The story of Warwick’s emergence in the textile industry will be continued.