In the study of Industry in the Southern Thames Street Neighborhood of Newport, Rhode Island from 1820 -1920 we by necessity must touch, even if ever so slightly, on the history of industry in Newport, not just the District, both before and after that time period. We must try to understand what life was like for the residents of the District and the city. We must try to understand what was happening in the area, the city, and in a larger sense, the region to get an understanding of the social and economic forces at play on their everyday lives.
This is at best, a very difficult, complex, and confusing task. Difficult because we must try to piece together a subject that people generally didn’t write passionately about. Information tends to be factual; this mill has 8,000 spindles, 220 looms, and employs 175 operatives. Complex because Newport had so much in the arena of business going on in the early years and, to a lesser extent, the years following the wars. Confusing because there are often times incomplete or contradictory information that may even been written years after the fact, or by people unassociated with the event. It is only a limited look at a very specific topic. But by understanding what industries were active, we can get an understanding, to some extent, of what life was like and how the people lived. We see that in the beginning, trading cargoes consisted of “agricultural produce, livestock, fish, and wood products such as lumber, barrel staves, shingles, and charcoal. Even William Coddington, the founder of Newport, was exporting sheep, cattle, horses, corn, butter, cheese, wool, and mutton just 20 years after the colony was founded.” (Hale). From this we can at least start to sketch a picture of industrial life.
But one must be cautioned, bread crumbs don’t always lead the way home. Value judgments should not be made about the people or even the industries of the period. Our values are vastly different then the values that may have existed back then, products, I am sure, of their world and the forces in play about them. We might not like living, or working, or going to school next to a lead works or coal-gas company. However, in their world the residents may have seen this as employment, food on the table, and the American Dream.
This does not attempt to be the final word on Newport industry or even District industry. Indeed, it would take tomes of work on top of those that already exist to even come close to this goal. What has been attempted is to give a broad overview of the state of industrial affairs in the District in the time period to give us some kind of idea what life might have been like for the residents. Granted we will never know what it was like to be a part of that time period; we can not. We can only try to glean an understanding of what every day life might have been like by reading what the people of the time period left us; written accounts and material culture. Through this limited set of sources, we get to know our forbearers.