Late last year, when we set out to launch our Made in USA sheets, we found it hard to find textile manufacturers in the United States –and I mean INCREDIBLY hard. You wouldn’t believe how few factories in this country have the machinery needed to weave a giant bed-sized piece of fabric! Through our search, we crossed paths with some great, fascinating people –people with deep-rooted histories in the American manufacturing industry. They told us stories about factory after factory that had shut down over the years, and showed us abandoned plants that had been converted to trendy condo buildings. I wanted to learn more about the history of American manufacturing and here’s what I found:
In general, the United States’ economic history can be summed up as follows: up through the 19th century, agriculture ruled the American economy with the majority of people holding farming or ranching jobs. The turn of the 20th century kicked-off the rise in the manufacturing industry and many people left the farm to find jobs in the factories, taking a spot on the assembly line making everything from refrigerators to television sets, lawn mowers to automobiles. But by the 1970’s, the market was turning once again. This time workers were moving towards the service industry. Today, the United States is primarily a service-based economy, with the majority of us holding positions like salespeople, handymen, cooks, waiters, barbers, nurses, or bankers.
To use numbers to put some context around this phenomenon: in 1950, almost 50% of American’s employed in the private sector held manufacturing jobs; today that number has dropped below 15%. (source: U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis)
But why? What caused a market shift of this magnitude? To start, the rise in US manufacturing attracted an influx of skilled workers and a focus on technological innovation, both of which result in increased efficiency. Over time, it took less workers to produce the same level of output. Factory owners then didn’t need to employ as large of a workforce. At the same time, rising wealth was leading to an increase in demand in the service industry. The need for tailors and cobblers, restaurant and department store staff, and housepainters and tree-trimmers was on the rise. Workers displaced from manufacturing jobs took up these service-based professions instead.
While this gradual and natural shift started in the 1950’s, the tipping point towards the demise of traditional American manufacturing came in the late 1970’s. The emergence of factories in China and other developing nations with incredibly cheap labor costs meant that the same goods could be produced for a fraction of the price. This, along with newly negotiated international trade agreements, sent much of the production of high-consumption goods overseas.
In 1960, foreign goods made up 8% of US purchases; today, we spend over 60% of our money on goods that were produced in foreign countries.
Now, to make it seem that US manufacturing is dead would be incorrect and irresponsible –more accurately, it’s simply gone through a complete transformation –one that is very typical of a country that has experienced the same growth in wealth. U.S. manufacturers have moved on to producing higher value products like airplanes, pharmaceuticals, or sophisticated technical and mechanical componentry.
In fact, 10 million American’s still get their paychecks from factories, producing manufactured goods for companies like Boeing, Harley Davidson, or Airstream. American factories produce more value than any other county’s factories through focusing on producing the highest value products, the type of products that are typically sold directly to other business instead of to consumers.
But through all this, the sad truth is that Americans today own very few Made in America items. Typical consumer goods like clothing, furniture, home appliances, sporting equipment, hand tools, bedding, flatware and dishes, carpeting and draperies, are rarely manufactured in the USA.
Imagine your home if you removed all the items that had been produced in a foreign country. How many sets of clothing would you have to choose from when you get dressed in the morning? Would you have plates to eat off of? Would you even have the kitchen appliances to cook that meal with? Would you have a couch where you could curl-up and watch Netflix? Or maybe that isn’t a problem because you wouldn’t even have a television to watch. Would you have a bed to sleep on? Or any sheets or blankets on that bed to keep you cozy all night long?
Maybe you don’t care all that much about any of this, and I can understand that. But there’s no denying that us American’s have become increasingly reliant on other countries to provide our luxuries, and that month after month for the last 25 straight years, more money has left our country than entered into it (to the tune of a trade deficit of over $40 billion). This makes it a bit unsettling to think of the economic outlook of the country that we’re passing onto our children, or the position that this might leave us in if our global relations turn bad.
For these reasons and more, American-made apparel has been gaining attention over the past few years. But Made in America bedding is still practically non-existent. As I said in the beginning, finding a US-based supply chain for our bedding brand was a challenge, but we found it to be entirely worth all the hard work. We’re thankful for our US manufacturing partners and proud of our Made in USA sheets!