Sectoral Shift in Antebellum Massachusetts: A Reconsideration

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The transformation and growth of the manufacturing sector in Massachusetts during the antebellum period has always exercised a particular fascination for economic historians perhaps because developments in the state prefigured in many respects the changes which took place in the economic structure of the country as a whole after the Civil War. Our understanding of the dimensions of this transformation and growth, particularly insofar as these developments affected the cotton textile, wool textile, and boot and shoe industries is reasonably accurate, thanks to state and federal census records, as well as a number of specific industry studies.4 The explanation of these changes, however, that is, the explanation of why these changes took place in Massachusetts (and New England) when they did, rather than earlier or elsewhere, is far from satisfactory. To the extent that recent economic historians have addressed the problem of sectoral shift in the antebellum United States3 their explanations have focused heavily on changes in available technologies as the main causal factor. In Davis, Easterlin, Parker et al. (1972, p. 421), for example, we learn that “the most plausible single explanation for the rapid growth of the cotton textile industry between 1815 and 1833 is that the improvements in manufacturing methods lowered the price of cotton goods.” More generally, it is argued that U. S. factor endowments induced a bias in the search for technological improvements which eventually led to the development of a set of new manufacturing blueprints particularly suited to the American environment. As these techniques developed, America was able to overcome the comparative advantage which England initially had in manufacturing, and helped to some extent by the protection which distance and the tariff provided, was able to develop a domestic manufacturing sector (Habakkuk, 1962, pp. 40, 99- 100).