Ingenious and enterprising mechanics: A case study of industrialization in rural Vermont, 1815--1900

Date of Completion

January 1995


History, United States|Economics, History|Economics, Labor




In 1832 E. & T. Fairbanks, a small foundry and machine shop in northeastern Vermont, began manufacturing platform scales. By mid-century and for the rest of the nineteenth century it dominated the world market in scales.^ This study investigates how a company evolving in rural isolation was able to overcome the liabilities of its isolated location to become the international leader in its field. The study first examines how a firm far inland was able to resolve problems in the acquisition of resources and the distribution of finished products. The initial design of the platform scale reduced the firm's reliance on resources and transportation. The local availability of materials such as charcoal, wood, and limestone, and the existence until the Civil War of iron furnaces in northern New England alleviated the reliance on distant resources. While the availability of labor was more than adequate in Vermont, the company provided incentives to recruit and retain workers who were susceptible to the call of opportunities in the cities and the West. As the company grew, its dependence on outside resources increased. This dependence was eased by the partners active promotion of rail transportation to the interior of northern New England.^ The study then looks at the strategies and structures the company used to become the world's premier scale manufacturer of the nineteenth century. These include technological innovations in both product and process, the development of an elaborate marketing distribution network, and the extensive use of advertising.^ Finally, the study analyzes the interrelationship of company leaders, workers, and community to see if industrialization in rural isolation developed differently than in more urban environments. It was found that the social environment of the upper Connecticut River Valley, and the ruralness of the community interacted with the company culture to produce a relationship between labor and capital that was harmonious and stable. The Fairbanks' paternalism, influenced by their commitment to Christianity and a desire to make the community a pleasant urban village, was tempered by the reality of geographic mobility and a Vermont spirit of independence that prevented the Fairbankses from forcing their will upon the community. ^