On an Immigrant Family

William became a casualty of the Industrial Revolution. A Scottish damask weaver in his home in Dunfermline, William saw the trade into which he had been born and raised taken from him and replaced by a large mill that was able to produce exponentially more fabric faster, cheaper–but not necessarily better. His oldest son would later remember the day his father came home and told his mother, “Andra, I can get nae mair work.”

Andra tried to sell food out of the house for a time, and she also took in work sewing leather soles to workers’ boots. Nothing improved the family’s situation. Thus, in the cold winter of 1847, the choice was made by the family of 4 (William and Andra had a younger son as well) to sell all their possessions–the looms William worked with and the remaining cloth–and sail for America. There, William reasoned, his skill as a weaver of fine cloth would be appreciated and not supplanted by mass production.

William was wrong.

The proud man tried to work as a weaver in Pennsylvania where two of his sisters had taken up residence after emigrating. The family ended up in a place called Slabtown, a shabby suburb of Pittsburgh, PA, in Allegheny City. They rented a couple of rooms there among other immigrant families. There was no sewer, no running water, and even feral hogs roamed the streets of the neighborhood in what was, effectively, a slum. William reassured the family that his skill as a weaver would produce enough for them to soon leave the lousy surroundings for a better place for the four of them.

However, William found that the Industrial Revolution had found even more fertile ground in the American continent than it had in Scotland. His hand-woven cloth was simply no match for the economy of scale that the textile factories enjoyed. William was thus forced to work as a laborer in a cotton textile mill. His oldest son, at age 13, soon joined him there in an effort to provide for the family.

Of note is that the lad did not share his father’s distain of factory work; in fact, he showed such a keen understanding of how the production process worked that he was soon promoted to be the keeper of the steam engine that made the factory’s machines work at the lofty salary of $2 a week.

That aptitude for machinery and the appreciation for the technology involved in the factory led to another job offer for the young man. He became a messenger boy for the new technology of the telegraph. In a letter back home to his mother’s brother, the young man wrote:

“Although I would like to be back in Dunfermline, it is far better for me that I came here. In Dunfermline I would have been a poor weaver all my days, but here I can surely do something better than that, if I don’t it will be all my own fault, for anyone can get along in this country…”

Anyone except, well, William.

It’s easy to see in this excerpt that William and his son each represented the reality of two vastly separate and different worlds. One of those worlds was William’s world of private, small business owners who worked out of their homes, people who produced hand-worked and crafted products that provided an extremely modest living for a person’s family–but that reality was dying an economic death. William’s son, on the other hand, represented the birth of the Modern World, the world of instant communication, of the application of steam engines to do the work of dozens of people, and of the burgeoning railroad industry that moved people and goods faster than humans had ever moved before. That new world of industry promised wealth beyond any man’s wildest dreams–especially well beyond William’s concept of modest success.

Yes, William’s world was gone. His son’s new, modern, mechanized and industrialized world–in fact, the world for both of his sons–had rendered William’s world obsolete. He died at age 51, less than a decade after coming to America, his dreams of making a success as a small weaver in his newly adopted nation dashed by the forces of the new economy.

His oldest boy, now the man of the family, was 20 when William died. And soon, the entire globe would soon know that oldest boy as one of the titans of this new Industrial Age.

Andrew Carnegie.

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