This "Teaching with Documents" article was originally published in Social Education with reproducible documents, which are not available in this text-only version. For information on obtaining the documents mentioned in this article, contact the National Archives Education branch at the address within the article.

The 1820 Census of Manufactures

Their [sic]are very many young Ladies at work in the factories that have given up milinary [sic] d[r]essmaking & s[c]hool keeping for work in the mill. But I would not advise anyone to do it for I was so sick of it at first I wished the factory had never been thought of. But the longer I stay the better I like.


—Malenda M. Edwards, Nashua, New Hampshire, April 4, 1839



Lee Ann Potter and Wynell Schamel

Between 1820 and 1860, thousands of young women like Malenda Edwards left their homes on farms in northern New England to work in the mills of expanding factory towns across the Northeast. Towns such as Saco and Biddeford, Maine; Lowell, Holyoke, and Lawrence, Massachusetts; and Nashua, Manchester, and Dover, New Hampshire offered women new employment opportunities outside of the home.

The opportunities grew out of regional economic conditions that stemmed from reduced European farm production during the Napoleonic Wars. At that time, demand for American food stuffs increased and New England agriculture expanded. Many farmers took out loans, bought additional land to farm, and initially profited. But when Congress passed the Embargo and Non-Intercourse Acts preceding the War of 1812, the New England farmers lost their overseas markets and found themselves in debt. Significantly, many of these same farmers had daughters whose primary domestic occupations were spinning and weaving.

New England merchants were also suffering economically from the federal government’s attempts to deal with the European conflict. They were unable to import many of the products their customers demanded, including cotton cloth. These circumstances led to the establishment of textile mills employing the daughters of many New England farmers and producing domestic textiles that were not affected by the embargo.

One such mill was the Dover Cotton Factory, incorporated in 1812 on the Cocheco River in Dover, New Hampshire. According to the document featured in this article, by 1820 the factory employed 105 women and girls, and paid them four to six dollars per week with board. These wages were relatively high; most textile mills at this time paid “mill girls” between three and four dollars for a six-day, 72-hour work week, and sheltered them in company boarding houses. Although the document does not offer additional information about the women and girls employed at the Dover factory, it is probable that they were similar to mill girls elsewhere: single and ranging in age from fifteen to twenty-nine years old, working in the mill off and on for a period of four to five years.

In 1823, the factory changed its name to the Dover Manufacturing Company. Four years later, the factory changed hands, when the Cocheco Manufacturing Company purchased the property and all its works. Although the initial company failed, the cotton industry in Dover eventually thrived, and women—at first the daughters of farmers and later new female immigrants—consistently played an important role.

In 1828, new rules came into effect at all the textile mills in Dover. These rules prohibited the formation of unions, reduced wages from 58 cents to 53 cents a day, forbade talking between employees during work hours, and imposed 121/2 cent fines for being late. Female workers rebelled, and on December 30, 1828, Dover was the scene of the first women’s labor strike in the United States. Half of the 800 mill girls walked off the job and paraded around the red brick buildings with banners, signs, and fireworks. The mill owners responded by simply advertising for 400 replacements. In fear of losing their jobs, the women returned to work. For nearly 100 years, the Cocheco Manufacturing Company was quite profitable, due in large part to the long hours and hard work first of the mill girls and later of children.

The document in this article is taken from the 1820 Census of Manufactures. Interestingly, this census—like the mills themselves—resulted from the economic circumstances of the 1810s. The United States Constitution, in Article 1, Section 2, provides for a population count to be conducted every ten years. However, from the beginning, it has been left to Congress to determine what specific information should be gathered in a census. Often, Congress is influenced by economic factors, and this was the case in 1820.

The economic changes experienced by the nation’s economy during the period 1810-1820 resulted in the panic of 1819 (caused in part when thousands of New England farmers defaulted on their loans). Subsequent appeals for government aid to business led Congress to provide for a Census of Manufactures to be taken as part of the fourth census. The legislators believed that if they knew more about the various industries in the country, they would be in a better position to legislate for agricultural, commercial, and manufacturing interests.

Because there was no Bureau of the Census at that time, Secretary of State John Quincy Adams directed a team of marshals and assistants to gather information on manufactures. Information from each manufacturer about raw materials, employees, machinery, expenditures, and production in an establishment was recorded, primarily on printed forms. Unfortunately, the results of the census were incomplete and far from uniform. Some manufacturers refused to furnish the desired information for fear of being taxed, and the census takers often interpreted their instructions differently.

A summary of the information gathered was, however, printed as the “Digest of Manufacturers” in the American State Papers in early 1823. Although incomplete, the summary and the individual forms do reveal the types of products that were being manufactured in the United States during the early Industrial Revolution—including yarn, cotton sheetings, clocks, furniture, hats, paper, rum, saddles, cordage, flour, and lumber. The summary also reveals important sectional differences, such as that most manufacturing establishments were in the North, most northern factories were significantly larger than those in the South, and many more women and children were employed by factories in the North than in the South.

Due to the negative reaction to the apparent inaccuracies in the 1820 census, Congress made no provision for an account of manufactures in 1830. Beginning in 1840, however, manufacturing returns were taken every ten years. In this century, they have been taken even more frequently, the most recent count having been in 1997.

Teaching Activities

1. Introductory Activity. Explain to students that although Article I, Section 2, of the U.S. Constitution provides for a population count every ten years, acts of Congress determine the specific information that will be gathered in each census, and these acts are often influenced by economic factors. Ask students to read the background article, or share with them the information it contains, about the plight of New England farmers and merchants during and after the Napoleonic Wars. Direct students to read more about the Embargo, the Non-Intercourse Acts, and the Panic of 1819 in their textbook. Ask students what information they think might have helped Congress to make good decisions about how to support the New England economy at the time.

2. Document Analysis. Distribute copies of the document to students. Ask one volunteer to read aloud the first question printed on the form and another volunteer to read aloud its handwritten response. When all of the questions and answers have been read, lead a class discussion by posing the following questions:

> What type of document is this?

> When do you think it was created?

> Who do you think created it?

> What type of information does it provide?

> Who might use the information provided in the document?

> For what purpose?

3. Document Analysis. Direct students to reread questions 4, 5, 6, and 10 of the document. Ask students what the answers to these questions reveal about the workforce in the Dover Cotton Factory in 1820. Share with students information from the background essay about women in the workforce during the period 1820-1860. Ask the class to generate a list of questions they have about the “mill girls,” for example, their working conditions, their housing situations, their level of education, their rights as workers, their forms of entertainment, and so on. Next, ask students to generate a list of sources they think might exist that could provide answers to their questions.

4. Research. Assign groups of three or four students to research different New England manufacturing towns. Possibilities include Saco and Biddeford in Maine; Lowell, Holyoke, and Lawrence in Massachusetts; and Nashua, Manchester, and Dover in New Hampshire. Direct each group to conduct research on their assigned town’s manufacturing history using the questions they generated in Activity 3. Ask a representative from each group to report his or her group’s findings to the class.

5. Role Play. Ask students to brainstorm a list of ways in which business owners and workers, government officials, and consumers use economic census data such as the kind provided in the document. Possible answers include: to gauge competition, to locate business markets, to locate jobs, to compare working conditions, to evaluate investment opportunities, and to set taxes. Divide students into small groups, and ask the members of each group to pretend they work for the Bureau of the Census. Instruct each group to update the 1820 Census of Manufactures form to include questions helpful to people today and to historians in the future. Each group should choose a representative to take part in a work session to revise the census form by incorporating the best suggestions from each group.

6. Compare and Contrast (Internet Activity). Inform students that the most recent economic census was taken in 1997. Direct them to the website of the Census Bureau ( ec97frm2.html) and ask them to compare the census forms they created in Activity 5 to the actual forms used by the Bureau of the Census. Ask students to evaluate the real forms, explaining whether they think business owners, workers, government officials, consumers, or historians would benefit most from the information requested.


The document featured in this article is the page from the 1820 Census of Manufactures that records information about the Dover Cotton Factory in Dover, New Hampshire. It is from the Records of the Bureau of the Census, RG 29, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, DC. All of the returns from the 1820 Census of Manufactures, including the featured document, are available on National Archives microfilm publication M279. Copies of National Archives microfilm publications are available in federal depository libraries and may be ordered by calling 1-800-234-8861.



Davidson, Katherine H. and Charlotte M. Ashby. Preliminary Inventory of the Records of the Bureau of the Census (PI 161). Washington, DC: National Archives, 1964.

Dublin,Thomas, ed. Farm to Factory: Women Letters,1830-1860. New York: Columbia University Press, 1981.

Heritage Trails in Dover, New Hampshire: Celebrating 375 Years. Dover, NH: Dover Chamber of Commerce, 1998. (

Woloch, Nancy. Women and the American Experience. New York: Knopf, 1984.


Lee Ann Potter and Wynell Schamel are education specialists at the National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C. Schamel serves as editor of “Teaching with Documents,” a regular department of Social Education. You may reproduce the documents featured in this article in any quantity. For more information, write or call Education Branch, NARA, Washington, D.C. 20408; (202) 501-6729.

©1999 National Council for the Social Studies. All rights reserved.