Looking at New England’s mill towns today, with their shuttered factories and run-down communities, it’s easy to forget that when these towns first began to thrive back in the 19th century, the United States was not a prosperous country. Most Americans were poor and many, especially in urban centers, lived in squalor. Sewage spewed out onto alleyways, garbage was dumped outside apartments and left to rot, and horse manure lined the streets — because at the time there wasn’t technology to create the necessary infrastructure.
American governments in the 19th century might remind us of poor-country governments today. Local, state, and federal government officials engaged in rampant corruption. “Bosses” ran big-city political organizations, directly controlling city services such as utilities, police protection and security, trash collection, and transportation. America was ad hoc and chaotic — at one point the country had more than 80 time zones. Noon in Chicago was 11:27 a.m. in Omaha and 12:31 p.m. in Pittsburgh. America then was nothing like America now.
A generation of American innovators, many of them from New England, changed all that. They succeeded against what might have seemed staggering odds by pioneering innovative products with new business models that allowed those products to become affordable. As new consumer markets emerged, that opened the way to improved infrastructure systems. Today’s struggling mill towns can look to their pasts for clues on how to turn things around.
One of the best models for today is Isaac Merritt Singer, who in 1850 was a printing machinery entrepreneur in Charlestown. He noticed that the guy in the machine shop above his office at 19 Harvard Place spent a lot of time repairing sewing machines. Sewing machines in 1850 weren’t very good — barely able to best the 40 stitches a minute a skilled seamstress could produce by hand, and prone to breaking down.
Singer’s printing machine wasn’t finding any buyers, so he started tinkering with a sewing machine design. His mechanical improvements made the sewing machine simpler, less expensive, and more reliable. Most importantly, Singer’s sewing machine enabled an unskilled person to produce 900 stitches a minute. That drove the average time it took to stitch a shirt from 14 hours down to just one.
Singer would team up with a lawyer named Edward Clark to create I.M. Singer & Co. To sell their machines, they created a new business model: establishing branch offices, sending out door-to-door sales and service staff, and offering lessons to customers on how to use the product. Americans were poor, remember, so Singer’s company also extended credit to cash-strapped customers. A typical Singer sewing machine retailed for $100 (roughly $1,400 in today’s money), but with as little as $5 down and a monthly payment of $3, a family earning just $500 a year could own a sewing machine. Singer didn’t invent the sewing machine, but his innovations contributed to the US economy in ways that cannot be overstated. For instance, in 1863 a tailor in Sterling named Ebenezer Butterick began selling dress patterns, making it easy for anyone to copy a dress design to make at home. This revolutionized the clothing industry — which doubled in size between 1860 and 1870, and by 1890 reached a billion dollars ($26 billion in 2018 dollars).
Singer of course did not singlehandedly jump-start the American economy. There were many Singers — in New England and elsewhere. What they did then, Americans can also do today. The three of us, working under the auspices of the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation, are researching how impoverished countries can use innovation to achieve economic prosperity. We’ve found the most direct approach requires innovations that make products or services simple and affordable. That’s the model Japanese powerhouse Sony used, starting out repairing radios in a bombed-out factory after World War II before creating its first blockbuster innovation, a portable tape recorder. Korean auto giant Kia started out selling bicycles.
The other side of innovation, though, can be seen all over New England in our fading factory towns. A once-thriving textile mill in Lowell is now a museum (and a fascinating tour). The jobs in that factory moved south to less expensive labor markets and then overseas, never to return. That pattern has repeated itself all over our country and then in others. Those jobs from Lowell might have shifted to Japan, then Taiwan, then Vietnam, and so on — each time diminishing the local economy they left behind. It’s impossible not to lament their loss. But there’s always a new location with cheaper labor.
What’s essential to remember is that an empty factory doesn’t have to be the end of economic opportunity in a community. History has shown us, time and again, that real opportunity doesn’t require billions of dollars of investment or the backing of Silicon Valley or Boston. Successful innovation starts with identifying how to help people achieve something they’re finding difficult, more affordably. Think about what you are struggling with. If it’s a problem for you, it’s probably also a problem for others. We’ve studied entrepreneurs who created mini-microwaves for space-challenged Chinese consumers, tiny, low-power washing machines in Africa, and microinsurance for the poor in India and elsewhere. New products and services that solve problems are the best way to create new markets, with new jobs. We’re not saying that displaced workers can automatically fill these new jobs. A person with factory-specific skills may not be a good salesperson or a designer. But better to create the potential for new jobs than cling to ones that are eventually going to go elsewhere.
Clayton M. Christensen is a professor at Harvard Business School; Efosa Ojomo is a research fellow at the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation; Karen Dillon is a senior researcher at the Christensen Institute. Their upcoming book is “The Prosperity Paradox: How Innovation Can Lift Nations Out of Poverty.” Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.