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Comparison of British and American Mills in the 1780's & 1790's.

Langford Mill, near Maldon, Essex, England, which burned down in 1879. The picture is interesting because it shows the number of workers (11 seen in the photo) in the mill and a donkey cart standing below the sack door on the front floor.

Comparison of British and American Mills in the 1780's & 1790's.

Theodore R. Hazen

Oliver Evans was 23 years old in 1778. His father Charles Evans was termed as "non-enroller." His three sons, however, being over the age of 21 and under the age of 50 enlisted in Captain William Roberson's company of militia for the western district of Christiana Hundred, dated March 7th, 1778. While Oliver Evans declared himself willing to serve in the Continental Army he did not serve. Perhaps before the accepted date of 1782, Oliver Evans and his younger brother Joseph had moved to the Eastern Shore of Maryland. The place was called Nine Bridge, also known as Tuckahoe, on Tuckahoe Creek. This forms the dividing line between Caroline and Queen Anne Counties.

Oliver Evans and his brother Joseph has opened a village stone for the sale of simple commodities that would be required of the local farming community. While waiting for his carding machine orders, Oliver could operate the store alone just in case of the absence of his brother Joseph who could have been called up for active duty.

Lord Cornwallis surrendered on May 17th, 1781, and two days later his whole army also surrendered and American Independence was practically assured which came with the Treaty of Pease in 1783. With the war's end he settled down in the Maryland part of the Delmarva Peninsula, where he and his brother Joseph would open a store. The store had given Oliver Evans the leisure time to prefect his ideas in his inventive mind while the business offered the best means of a livelihood at this time.

Dealing with the local millers, he became aware of the shortcomings of the traditional milling operations. It was during this time that Oliver Evans attention was directed towards grist, merchant and flour mills as being inadequate and antiquated. This feeling reflected the mills all around him, from Delaware to Maryland. Many of the mills were small stone or log buildings with a shingle rook which stood on almost every stream. These were primitive Greek or Norse mill types, with a revolving upper millstone turned by a slow moving horizontal water wheel in the tail race below. Most mills had a single water wheel, built on a single vertical wooden shaft, with a smaller pair of millstones turned by the paddles on the lower end of the shaft as water splashed against it. Bolting a process were coarse brown meals was sent though a sieve or by a hand turned bolting wheel which had made very little progress since primitive times. These mills and bolting operations were wasteful of labor.

The miller had to carry the grain up the stairs on his back, a sack at a time, and dump it into a tub. This was known as the "back and bag" method of milling. Then the tub was manhandled to the granary part of the mill where it was dumped into a hopper to be screened were it would fall into another tub where it was carried to a trough to be ground. Then two men would shovel the flour from the trough into tubs and then later spread it on the loft of the mill be be shoveled and raked back and forth, to dry and cool. Then later it was time for it to be sifted and resacked, the flour had been mixed all the time with a "great quantity of dirt.........from the dirt feet of every one who tramped in it, trailing it over the whole mill and wasting much," said Evans. A great portion had be be condemned, "for people did not even like then to eat dirt, if they could see it. The elimination of bodily handling of our foodstuff which Evans considered to be one of his many achievements.

Oliver Evans wrote the following description on the process of making flour. This is an enlightened description that was written by Oliver Evans many years later, which he tells about the hand and foot methods that were in general use in those old merchant flour mills. Oliver Evans could see the advantages of his inventions but the community could not perceive their tremendous worth. A mill operated with several men, an boys and many mills were worked by members of the same family or by two or three men. These old country millers would not hear of any method where flour could be made in a cleaner manner and produce a better grades.


"If the grain be brought to the Mill by land carriage, the Miller took it on his back, a sack generally 3 bus., carried it up one story by stair steps, emptied it in a tub holding 4 bus., this tub was hoisted by a jack moved by the power of the Mill which required one man below and another above to attend to it, when up the tub was moved by hand to the granary, and emptied. All this required strong men. From the granary it was moved by hand to the hopper of the rolling screen, from the rolling screen by hand to the millstone hopper, and as ground it fell in a large trough, retaining its moisture, from thence it was with shovels put into the hoist tubs which employed 2 men to attend, one below, the other above, and it was emptied in large heaps on the Meal loft, and spread by shovels, and raked with rakes, to dry and cool it, but this necessary operation could not be done effectually, by all this heavy labour. It was then heaped up over the bolting hopper, which required constant attendance, day and night, and which would be frequently overfed, and passed through the cloth, which with the great quantity of dirt constantly mixing with the meal from the dirty feet of every one who trampled in it, trailing it over the whole Mill and wasting much caused great part to be condemned, for people did not even then like to eat dirt, it they could see it. After it was bolted it required much labour to mix the richest and poorest parts together, to form the standard quality, this lazy millers would always neglect, and great part would be scrapped or condemned, while others was above the standard."

Large Stone Mill, which was built about 1760 by Jacob Bear. The mill contained two large breast shot water wheels and four pairs of millstones. In 1820 Daniel Groff bought the mill and enlarged the stone structure. More than likely he installed an Oliver Evans system of flour milling. In 1864 the Ressler family purchased the mill, and in 1904, the water wheels were replaced by two water turbines and the four pairs of millstones with a long system roller plant. The mill became known as the Mascot Roller Mill. The mill is located in Upper Leacock Township, southeast of Leola, in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Through it all, the mill still contains a great number of room-size storage bins for grain and flour.

Robert Leslie's description of the flour mills in use in England must have been a great surprise to Oliver Evans. He could not have realized up until this time the great dissimilarity of construction between the mills of England and those in America. The slender smock, post, and tower wind mills with their small floor space, did not lend themselves to the adaption of the Evans automated flour milling machinery, as did the more roomy stone mills of America. Under these circumstances there could be little hope of introducing anything new in this business to the British millers, who were suspicious of anything novel a, as were their American cousins in a like situation.

London September 26, 1793.

Sir (Oliver Evans):

I have just received your favor of the 8th of July, I am very glad to hear of your success, and hope it will continue.

You will I expect before this reaches you, received a letter I wrote you considering your model in which I informed you, that Mr. Barclay, has taken very god care of it, but had not been able to find anybody that inclined to engage it, neither have I since my arrival, no do I yet see any prospect of it, at the Milling business is carried on here, in a very different manner from what it is in America, that is, all, in the small way, and almost entirely by wind mills, each of which does but very little business, but are able to do all the work of the country in consequence of these great number, which exceeds anything you can imagine, there is I believe hardly a piece of high ground in England but is covered with them; and all along the rivers they are so thick that you may stand in may places and count many than thirty, none of the owners, of these, seem inclined to go to the expense of your machine, and I have not yet seen nor heard of a water mill growing by a fall of water, as falls are very scarce, and what there are, is used for forges, furnises, plating, rolling, grinding, cutlery, and many other kinds of manufactorys, so that I am afraid this Country will not answer your purpose so well as we expected, however I think it will be well enough to send over the certificated from Millers which you mentioned, and if you get them printed in some of the news papers, and send the paper, it will be much better than written once, for not knowing you nor the persons who had signed them, that might say perhaps they were forged, but their being in a newspaper will prevent that.

I am with respect your friend,

Robert Leslie.

Grist Wind-mills at East Hampton, from Picturesque America.
These windmills of Long Island, New York, were similar to the windmills in England.

Interior of the Hook Windmill, shows the crowed interior space around the millstones, and corn cob crusher, and vertical shaft that powers the millstones from above.
Similar interior space to that of the windmills found in England.
Hook Windmill, N. Main St. at Pantigo Rd., East Hampton, Suffolk County, New York.

Furthermore, if the British millers were confronted face to face, they would state, "American millers! They can't know any more than what they learned while apprenticing from us!"

The arrogance of the British millers and millwrights were bad enough, but Oliver Evans got little encouragement from his friends and neighbors. There were even more incredulous about the automatic flour mill than they were about his wool card making machine. Hezekiah Niles, who grew up to be an influential editor, recalled how Oliver Evans boyhood the adults has agreed that Oliver Evans "would never be worth any thing, because he was always spending his time on some contrivance or another." However, he was undaunted by the universal skepticism around him, and Evans set to work in 1783 constructing a mill on Red Clay Creek that would exceed all others that came before.

Oliver Evans said in the preface of "The Young Mill-Wright and Miller's Guide," in 1795 that those versed in science often lacks practical knowledge of science. The growth and expansion of milling would produce the artisan millwright, and then, by continuing , it eliminated them. Large mills could not be built by simple experience and the rule of thumb. Millwrights were not ignorant to science, their books often began with definitions and principles of science. Most millwright's body of scientific knowledge and theory was learned second hand. The millwright's knowledge was for a long time, did not find its way into books. For the most part these men could not read or write, and their learning was recorded only in oral maxims, and rules of thumb. As for principles of science, they did not have the broad understanding of application to different situations. A master workman handed down his acquired knowledge and experience to his apprentices, and spread it around. They traveled about seeking employment and learned by observation and taught as they worked through their travels.

Thomas Ellicott wrote in 1795 a good description of flour milling in the Middle Colonies at about the time of Oliver Evans' birth:

"When I first began the business, mills were at a low ebb in this country neither burr-stones (French quality millstones), nor rolling-screens (for cleaning the grain) being used; and but a few of the best merchant mills had a fan (to cool the ground meal). Many carried the meal on their backs, and bolted it by hand, even for merchant work; and I have frequently heard, that a little before my beginning the business, it ha d be customary, in many instances, to have the bolting mill some distance from the grinding mill, and there bolted by hand. It was counted extraordinary when they got their bolting to go by water: after this, fans by hand, and standing-screens (flat sieves worked by power), took place, then burr-stones, rolling-screens, and superfine bolting cloths."

The main illustration from "The Young Mill-Wright and Miller's Guide" was intended by Oliver Evans not shown as a plan of any particular mill, but simply to be used as a diagram showing one view of the combination and process of his devices in what could best be regarded as an idealized mill. In 1792, these marvelous inventions were announced to millers of Liverpool with very modified approval. "Mr. Oliver Evans an ingenious American has invented a model of a flour mill upon a curious construction, which, without the assistance of manual labor, first conveys the grain deposited to be ground to the upper floor, where it is cleaned. Thence it descends to the hopper, and after being ground in the usual way, the flour is conveyed to the upper floor, where, but a simple and ingenuous contrivance, it is spread, cooled, and gradually made to pass to the boulting hopper. The whole contrivance does the greatest honor to the inventor, and is likely to be of some pecuniary advantage to him, as he has obtained from Congress an exclusive right to the profits of the invention for fourteen years. A number of mills have been already constructed upon this plan, which are found to answer perfectly in practice. To make inanimate nature thus yield to the power of man's inventive faculties what otherwise manual labor would be obliged to effect, must be of the greatest advantage to a young country where hands are wanted." Evidently for the old country, where there were too many hands, the Liverpool editor saw no particular merit in the labor-saving contrivances of Oliver Evans.

In an article entitled: "The English Watermill," by J. Kenneth Major, he still makes an argument against Oliver Evans (about 200 years later): However, we did not need, in Europe, a textbook of the standard of Oliver Evans' "The Young Mill-Wright and Miller's Guide" which was produced in very large numbers simply as a means of transmitting the knowledge to isolated areas where any skilled man could be faced with the need to build a mill. As this book passed through numerous editions over many years it had a great influence on the style of mills in the States.

(*) Just think, this probably began when Oliver Evans (storekeeper) who was still unfamiliar with flour milling, asked a local miller how often can I get a barrel of superfine white flour from you to sell in my shop. Then perhaps the answer was not satisfactory to Evans and he decided to go "to mill," and see for himself "the gossip bake house" were these mill-folk work.

(*) When Oliver Evans more than likely started visiting the mills around him of different sizes, he would have perhaps seen the following thing that would have horrified him. However, the people who worked in the business of flour milling did not see anything wrong the the practices in effect. The word "industry" did not come about until the year of 1814, so I used the word "business" instead. Some of the things that Oliver might have seen could have been: Grain and flour dumped, spilled and stored on the floors, and stored in open air bins. When flour or grain fell upon the floor, the old maxim was in effect. And a miller could have said to Mr. Evans, "Waste not, want not." The millers and mill boys would have thought nothing about it when they walked through grain or flour. The mill cats also walked through it, along with the rodents, and animal droppings could be found mixed into it. Grain and flour pests were born, died, lived, and reproduced in it. Cobwebs that hung heavy with flour dust when they broke free from the ceilings dropped into the product and were mixed into it. The people who worked in the mill thought nothing was wrong when they came into the mill with bare feet or boots laden with road mud and walked across the grain and flour, or jumped into barrels to compress the flour without cleaning their feet first. Grain that was spoiled or mildewed would have been ground into flour along with grain which the millers had no way of cleaning out the dirt, seeds, fungus, smut, straw, sticks, chaff, animal droppings and other filth. Besides the problems of waste in the process of milling their was also the big problem of waste in human effort and labor in a process that had not changed since medieval and feudal times.

(*) If possibly people smoked within the mill, there would develop problems with the product because of it. It was not until 1878 after a dust explosion leveled the seven story limestone building of the Washburn Crosby "A," and the entire flour milling district of Minneapolis, did they know for sure that it was causing mills to blow up. For many years, people thought it was ghosts, demons and evil spirits that caused mills to blow up, for hell fire to happen. What might happen is that a miller might drop his pipe into a bin of flour. He would reach down and fish it out saying, "I hate it when that happens!" Of course, the pipe bowel would be emptied of its contents. If someone would ask him about the tobacco now mixed into the flour, he would simply answer, "Oh, it will make who ever eats it go to the outhouse all that much easier." Grain shovels, scoops, and other objects used in a mill were made of wood because for a long time they thought that metal tainted the taste of flour and in this way it prevented accidental dust explosions.

(*) The mildew will get you if you don't watch out! What exactly is mildew? Mildew is the meal that clings to the sides of the bin once it is ground. It also clings to both the inside and outsides of the meal chute. It also clings to the machinery, and settles on everything inside of the mill. It also clings to the miller, his face, clothes, and hair. The flour dust gets into the miller's lungs and gives him the "miller's cough."

(*) Mildew is formed The bottom basement floor of the mill. It is where also alongside his water wheel on the walls of the mill. The miller is careful to carry the grain he has just finished grinding up to the top floor of the mill for storage where it would be cooled and aged. Then it would be bolted or sifted into its various parts. Then it would be packaged into barrels for export or it would stay there until the farm comes to pick it up. There is a constant film of dew covering the basement floor and walls, and much of the machinery where the water that powers the mill, or mill race, flows through. He wouldn't want the dew from the mill, or mildew, to turn his flour moldy.

(*) The mildew gets into everything, even your head. It gets into the miller's head and clouds his mind. The mildew that gets into your head comes from the dampness, mold, fungus, decay, smoke, filth, and all of the times the mill's basement gets floored from the mill stream. Oliver Evans might have asked a miller how many years have you worked in this mill. The miller may have answered, "I have worked here in this mill since I was a boy, my father operated the mill then, and my grandfather. But my poor grandfather, the mildew got into his brain when he was not looking. Today we would call the mildew that gets into the miller's brain bacterial meningitis. It effects memory, concentration, sense of balance, eye sight, the life within your limbs, and they get sudden flu like symptoms that come and go, that and a lot of times there is the feeling that behind one's ear there is something inside eating my brain. The mildew will get you if you don't watch out! This is one of the basic problems that Oliver Evans wanted to solve, is to get the miller out of the damp, cold, dark basement where it will effect his health in time. Oliver Evans' system of automated flour milling would do this because it took the miller out of the basement and moved the millstone controls to the first floor next to the millstones where he and they belonged.

Oliver Evans worked out his plans for an automated flour mill in 1783. This technological change would be the beginning of automation, which was the first important American contribution to the industrial development after the American Revolution.

At the end of "The Young Mill-Wright," Oliver Evans summarized what he believed to be the advantage of his automation of flour milling system:

1. The hopper-boy dried the flour more quickly and thoroughly. This better prepared it for bolting, packing and storage. Fermentation in flour was reduced.
2. The machinery carried out cleaning and bolting more effectively with less waste.
3. The various mechanisms of automated flour milling systems actually took up less apace than traditional flour mill layouts and allowed the miller to pay more attention to keeping his millstones in good order, thus making his work for steadier and more regular. Before each process was a series of separate steps where each one had to be completed before going on to the next. One man could adequately manage "for a time" an automated mill with six pairs of millstones running at the same time.
4. The stress was distributed more evenly, both the machinery and the building tended to last longer, and could operate in times of low water power. For example, the mechanism of operating the elevators, worked so that the descending belts and cups balanced the ascending ones, except for the weight of of the grain and flour in the system.
5. The machinery cut labor costs in half. A mill producing forty barrels of flour a day needed only two men a day, instead of four and a boy.

The Quaker millers showed early enthusiasm for Oliver Evans' ideas of automated flour milling system. Oliver Evans himself belonged to the Society of Friends. The Quaker millers seem to have been the first group of millers to adopt the automated mill on a large scale. Perhaps in a curious way, religion created a "cluster of entrepreneurs" who advanced technological change.

The Germans acknowledged their origins by stating that it was of the "American type," with no reference to Oliver Evans. The French called it the "American system," and later the English would simply appropriate the ideas without remarking upon their novelty as if these devices were always known. "The Young Mill-Wright and Miller's Guide" was published in French in 1830, while "The Practical Mill-Wright," by Thomas Ellicott had been printed in technical journals shortly after its original publication: 1796 in Great Britain (Repertory of Arts, Manufactures, and Agriculture, London, volume 4, 1796, pages 319-28, plate 18), and 1802 in France (Annales des arts et manufactures, volume 9, (an 10), 1802, pl. 5). Technology unlike the theory of Continental Drift can move in both directions.

I should mention that Oliver Evans' brother Joseph became the front man, he would travel 150 thousand miles around the country (before he stopped) selling his brother's system of automated flour milling.

Program Conclusion: Part 2 - Images and Drawings that Show what Happened to Mills because of Oliver Evans.

Program's Source: Interpretive programs by Theodore R. Hazen, Master Miller (mill operator), Millwright, Curator of Molinology, Site Supervisor, and Lead Interpreter, Pierce Mill, Rock Creek Park, National Park Service, National Capital Region, The Department of the Interior, 1984-1995.

Program Source Narrative Text: The above narrative text uses as much of the original reference material (word for word) as possible. Very little is no of this period in life of Oliver Evans, and I did not want to accidentally introduce any material that is not true. So in this manner, in its telling or interpretation from this narrative, it would be only interpreted first hand, with little or none second hand information accidentally introduced.

Paragraphs that begin with a (*) are examples of the types of things that Oliver Evans could have and more than likely witnessed when he began to visit mills in the local are or anywhere in the world at that time.

Program Reference Material:

Bathe, Greville & Bathe, Dorothy, "Oliver Evans, A Chronicle of Early American Engineering," Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, 1935. reprinted by Arno Press, New York, New York, 1972, Ayer Co., Salem, New Hampshire, 1984.

Bennett, Richard and Elton, John, "Watermills and Windmills,", volume 2, "History of Corn Milling," London, 1898, reprinted by Burt Franklin, New York, 1964.

Ferguson, Eugene S., Oliver Evans, Inventive Genius of the American Industrial Revolution, Greenville, Delaware, Hagley Museum, 1980.

Kick, Friedrich, "Flour Manufacture, A Treatise of Milling Science and Practice," second English edition 1888, first German edition 1871, London, Crosby Lockwood and Son, 1888.

Kozmin, Peter A. (of The Polytechnic Institute, Petrograd - Editor of The Russian Miller), "Flour Milling, A Theoretical and Practical Handbook of Flour Manufacture for Millers, Millwrights, Flour Milling Engineers, and others engaged in the Flour Milling Trade," translated from the Russian by M. Falkner and Theodor Fjelstrup, London, George Routledge & Sons Ltd., Broadway House, 68-74 Carter Lane, E.C., 1917.

Major, J. Kenneth, "The English Watermill," Eno, Volume 7, Special Issue, papers from the seminar on water mills and windmills held in Durham, North Carolina, July 1878, in the Bicentennial year of West Point on the Eno River, pages 6-10.

Sharrer, G. Terry, "Oliver Evans and the Beginning of Automated Milling in Maryland and the Upper South", Eno, Volume 7, Special Issue, papers from the seminar on water mills and windmills held in Durham, North Carolina, July 1878, in the Bicentennial year of West Point on the Eno River, pages 11-24.

Sharrer, G. Terry, "The Merchant - Millers: Baltimore's Flour Milling Industry, 1783-1860,"Agricultural History, volume 56, number 1, January 1982, pages 138-150.

Storck, John, and Teaque, Walter Dorwin, "Flour for Man's Bread, A History of Milling," Minneapolis, Minnesota, University of Minnesota Press, 1952.

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Copyright 2003 by T. R. Hazen