Go to your closet and pick out a shirt or sweater, a blouse or a skirt, a pair of pants or a dress. It's not an easy decision, is it? We dress according to our mood, according to the occasion, according to the weather. And we have oodles of choices a wide variety of fabrics, colors and styles. Our closets are full to overflowing. We can even resort to closet organizers to keep our many clothes neat and tidy.
If we'd been born 200 years ago, this would definitely not be the case. Unless we'd had the good fortune to have been born very, very rich or unless we'd earned gobs of money on our own we would have been lucky to own a set of work clothes and a set of Sunday-go-to-meeting clothes. And we wouldn't have needed a closet to keep them in. A drawer would have sufficed.
Why were things so different then?
It's a question with an easy answer: because before the late 18th century, all of our clothes would have been made by hand. Somebody would have sheared the sheep or picked the cotton by hand. Somebody would have spun the yarn by hand. Somebody would have woven the cloth by hand. Somebody would have cut and sewn our clothes by hand.
Then came the invention of the mill and our closets began to fill up.
The founding of America's first textile mill in the 1790s marked the beginning of the industrial revolution in North America. At first, textile mills were powered by water (then later by steam). In picturesque mill towns throughout New England, water-powered machines began to transform the face of America and eventually made it possible for all of us to dress like peacocks, to suit our mood, the occasion and the weather.
The transformation from a made-by-hand economy to a machine-dominated marketplace is the subject of "Mill Times," a PBS documentary hosted by David Macauley and based on his acclaimed book, "Mill." The hour-long program mixes live-action footage with animated segments to tell the story of the industrial revolution as well as the story behind the story.
Macauley focuses on water-powered textile mills and the changes they made in American life, and in the lives of the people who founded them and the people who worked in them. He introduces his audience to both technology and history and answers interesting questions: How does a power loom work? How does a river make machines run? What was life in a textile mill like for the workers? And what happened when steam freed mills from rivers?
At times especially during the animated segments the audience may feel as though it's trapped in a sixth-grade history class. But, on balance, Macauley demonstrates once again why his PBS specials win Peabody and Emmy awards. In "Mill Times," he takes a complex subject and skillfully weaves fact and drama to make the history of textiles, and the whole of the industrial revolution, understandable and even interesting.
And it'll give you food for thought the next time you're staring into your closet trying to decide what to wear.
"Mill Times" airs Wednesday, Jan. 2, at 8 p.m. on PBS-TV.