Before 1900, Texas had an agricultural economy based, in the common phrase, on "cotton, cows, and corn." When the first US Census of Manufactures was taken in Texas in 1849, there were only 309 industrial establishments, with 1,066 wage earners; payrolls totaled $322,368, and the value added by manufacture was a mere $773,896. The number of establishments increased tenfold by 1899, when the state had 38,604 wage earners and a total value added of $38,506,130. During World War II, the value added passed the $1-billion mark, and by 1982, the total was $53.4 billion.

In 1997, the value of all shipments by manufacturers was $302 billion, 2nd only to California. Three of the state's leading industrial products—refined petroleum, industrial organic chemicals, and oil-field machinery—all stem directly from the petrochemical sector. Major oil refineries are located at Houston and other Gulf ports. Aircraft plants include those of North American Aviation and Chance-Vought at Grand Prairie, General Dynamics near Ft. Worth, and Bell Aircraft's helicopter division at Hurst. In 1997, Texas was the headquarters to 36 Fortune 500 companies, including Exxon, which ranked as the 3rd-largest industrial corporation.

Earnings of persons employed in Texas increased from $355.7 billion in 1997 to $388.3 billion in 1998, an increase of 9.2%. The largest industries in 1998 were services, 26.3% of earnings; state and local government, 10.3%; and transportation and public utilities, 9.1%. Of the industries that accounted for at least 5% of earnings in 1998, the slowest growing from 1997 to 1998 was state and local government, which increased 5.1%; the fastest was wholesale trade (6.7% of earnings in 1998), which increased 11.3%.