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Echo of the Industrial Revolution

142 years ago São Paulo’s first modern steam-driven factory was born

Leo Ramos

Furnace which received wood for burningLeo Ramos

In Brazil back in 1885, “everyone” knew how to weave, observed a foreign consular official at the time, according to a 1976 essay by the North American historian and Brazil specialist Warren Dean. This habit came from a time when there were few spinning and weaving factories in the country, so that most families had to be conversant with this art in order to make their own clothes. In England, the textile factories of the eighteenth century used hydraulic energy and got a major boost in 1785, when they were the first ones to use steam-driven engines – the stars of the Industrial Revolution. In Brazil, one of the most successful applications of steam engines was at the São Luiz textile mill, in 1869. Founded in the city of Itu, in inner-state São Paulo, it was the first company in the state that could be called modern and it became a model for other similar ventures. São Luiz’s main contribution was using a steam engine that operated machinery for de-seeding the cotton, spinning it and weaving it. “Because they didn’t rely on hydraulic energy, the factories with the new technique could be built anywhere, it no was no longer necessary to put them next to rivers,” explains the historian Anicleide Zequini, from the ‘Convenção de Itu’ Republican Museum, an extension of USP’s Museu Paulista (Paulista Museum), who specializes in industrial archeology. “Another important consequence was that it showed that remunerated free work functioned well and that slave labor was unnecessary in the industry that was beginning to take shape.”

The establishment of textile factories in the Itu and Sorocaba areas – most of them using hydraulic energy – was due to the need to manufacture textiles and sacking, but also as a consequence of the American Civil War (1861-65), which got in the way of exporting raw cotton to Europe. The Englishmen from the São Paulo Railway company, which connected the São Paulo plateau to the port of Santos, saw Brazil as an alternative source of the product for importing and they encouraged cotton planting.

São Luiz had five founders. The largest shareholder, Luiz Antonio de Anhaia, was also the project’s creator. Everything was purchased in the United States from the Lidgerwood Company, including the  mill’s project, the machinery, the planning and the training of the workers. With its 15-meter high smoke stack, the mill began operating with 62 machines, of which 24 were looms. The boiler produced the steam to operate the spindle of the transmission system which crossed the room where the looms were installed. Each loom was connected to this spindle by a belt. When it spun, the spindle moved the belt, which triggered the looms that in turn were operated by the factory workers. “In 1873, 24 women, 10 men and 18 boys worked there,” says Anicleide. Production was earmarked for the clothing of slaves and rural workers, and for sacking for salt and coffee.

In 1903, the factory also began to run on electric energy. It was in operation up until 1982 and was registered as an historic site. It now belongs to the Pacheco Jordão family and is used for cultural and fashion events. Although it was important for São Paulo, São Luiz was not the first Brazilian factory to use steam engines. According to the historians Francisco Foot Hardman and Victor Leonardi in História da indústria e do trabalho no Brasil: das origens aos anos 20(History of the industrial sector and of labor in Brazil: from the beginning to the 1920s) (Global Editora, 1982), the São Pedro de Alcântara factory in Rio de Janeiro was using steam as early as 1852. In addition, in the State of Bahia, Conceição dos Mares was operating on hydraulic and steam energy back in the 1840s.