In 1779 during the British Industrial Revolution, Samuel Crompton invented the spinning mule, a combination of two different spinning mechanisms, the spinning jenny and the water frame, which resulted in large, industrial machines that urbanized spinning of woolen yarns. Little did he know, when Crompton unveiled his machine, he also commenced the alteration of the social order of the factory working class in industrial Great Britain.
One man, the minder, and two boys, the side piecer and the little piecer, manned the mule-spinners; however, it took extensive social change for this to be the job description. Originally, the women were considered the weavers, and weaving and spinning was considered a woman’s work and apart of their domestic duties. However, the British Industrial Revolution introduced factory jobs for both men and women with the originally simple machines, especially women who were seen to have more dexterity, than the men, who worked the larger factory machines. However, when the mule-spinner was introduced, the labor became very difficult and required enormous amounts of strength, which was seen to only be possessed by men. The men monopolized the mule-spinning jobs, and soon well outnumbered the women in the factories, even protesting women being hired in their field of work, once seen as women’s work. One instance in Glasgow, Scotland, where the trend had spread, men violently attacked women mule-spinners hoping to reduce their competition for the field and keep women out of the job. The male mule-spinners became known as the “barefoot aristocrats” of the factory system, named after their work done barefoot, they also became the leaders of the factory worker unions of the time.
The mule-spinner not only revolutionized the art of spinning wool, it also resulted in major social change for the British industrial worker class, creating a new social order. The jobs women once held, and were seen as domestic chores, became extremely masculine and only qualified for men to work them, resulting in women working in other types of factories or continuing domestic work. It also created the social hierarchy of the factory workers, with the mule-spinners at the top. The change in social order contains some irony, as now the men spin and weave, yet only a few years before the invention of the mule-spinner, it was viewed as a women’s position in society. This social change provides evidence of the impact of technology had on the British factory working class and the gender roles in their society.
Photo courtesy of Economic History Association