[Book Review] America's First Factory Town: The Industrial Revolution in Maryland's Patapsco River Valley by Henry K. Sharp

David Schley

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review


In America's First Factory Town: The Industrial Revolution in Maryland's Patapsco River Valley, architectural historian Henry K. Sharp argues that examining entrepreneurial initiatives undertaken during the mid-eighteenth century in the Patapsco River Valley, just west of Baltimore, offers new perspectives on the history of American industry. Sharp focuses particularly on the Ellicotts, a Quaker family whose early flour mill anchored a flourishing village and became "a prophetic version" of a new "architectural form—the factory town" (p. 64). In making this claim, Sharp contends that the origins of American industrialization lie earlier in the past and farther south than New England–centered narratives of textile manufacturing would suggest. Lavishly illustrated—high-quality images, many in color, adorn nearly every page—this book will be of particular interest for historians of early industrialization and vernacular architecture.

Industrialization in Maryland, as Sharp depicts it, followed a gradual and at times counterintuitive path. The earliest "purely industrial process" in the Chesapeake region—iron production—actually had more in common with the tobacco trade than with later industrial enterprises (p. 2). The early iron industry replicated many of the patterns found in southern agriculture, including reliance on an enslaved workforce. Neither iron forges nor tobacco plantations did much to encourage urbanization. It was, rather, the mid-eighteenth-century shift to wheat production in Maryland that first stimulated large-scale industry and the development of mercantile cities like Baltimore. Wheat cultivation, processing, and shipping had knock-on effects that ultimately "produced the first American industrial towns" (p. 33).

The Ellicott brothers of Pennsylvania began establishing themselves in Maryland in the 1760s to capitalize on the booming wheat economy. The mills, dwellings, and other structures they set up along the Patapsco River are at the heart of this book. Sharp reconstructs in intricate detail the layout of the Ellicotts' village, the designs of their buildings, and the composition of the mills' workforce, which consisted entirely of free laborers. Ellicotts' Mills demonstrated a comprehensive architectural vision. The Quaker meetinghouse, [End Page 962] cemetery, and schoolhouse rested on hilltops looking down on the village below, while the arrangement of dwelling places represented the Ellicotts' notions of social order. The mill village, Sharp writes, reveals the brothers' "attempt to organize and express the hierarchical components of a new kind of industrial community just then developing" (p. 53).

The success of Ellicotts' Mills spurred further development in the area, including a large-scale cotton textile factory financed by Baltimore investors. By 1825, the area around the mills housed some 1,200 people working in a variety of enterprises and was connected to the outside world by the river, the National Road, and—as of 1830—rail. And while the textile towns of New England already outstripped Ellicotts' Mills in terms of population and productivity, Sharp contends that "the trajectory and form of the Ellicotts' industrial town discredits the old assertion that New England's developmental experience . . . can stand in its entirety for the nation's" (p. 95). He finds in Maryland "a branch of America's industrialization story" that began with wheat roughly a half century before the advent of mass-produced cotton textiles (p. 73).

Readers of this book will benefit from Sharp's meticulous research and adroit spatial analysis but may question some of his broader historiographical claims. Sharp positions his narrative against a body of literature that grants New England primacy in American industrialization, but he neglects scholarship published since the 1990s that has emphasized the gradual and geographically diffuse development of manufacturing. Nor does it appear that the Ellicotts' Mills complex tangibly influenced the subsequent development of American industrial capitalism. Nonetheless, Sharp's detailed reconstruction of the design, operations, and fate of the Patapsco River Valley mills sheds light on an otherwise overlooked site in America's industrial history.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)962-963
Number of pages2
JournalJournal of Southern History
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - Nov 2018


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