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Beginning with the establishment of a glass factory at Jamestown in 1608, manufacturing grew slowly during the colonial era to include flour mills and, by 1715, an iron foundry. During the 19th century, the shipbuilding industry flourished, and many cotton mills, tanneries, and ironworks were built; light industries producing a wide variety of consumer goods developed later. The strength of the Commonwealth's diversified manufacturing sector is shown in its 10.2% employment increase between 1970 and 1993. During this time period, national manufacturing employment declined by 8.3%.

Richmond is a principal industrial area for tobacco processing, paper and printing, clothing, and food products; nearby Hopewell is a locus of the chemical industry. Newport News, Hampton, and Norfolk are centers for shipbuilding and the manufacture of other transportation equipment. In the western part of the state, Lynchburg is a center for electrical machinery, metals, clothing, and printing, and Roanoke for food, clothing, and textiles. In the south, Martinsville has a concentration of furniture and textile-manufacturing plants, and textiles are also dominant in Danville.

The total value of manufacturing shipments in 1997 totaled $87 billion, or 15th in the nation. In 1997, Virginia was the headquarters for 16 Fortune 500 companies.

Earnings of persons employed in Virginia increased from $129 billion in 1997 to $138.3 billion in 1998, an increase of 7.2%. The largest industries in 1998 were services, 29.6% of earnings; state and local government, 10.5%; and retail trade, 8.7%. Of the industries that accounted for at least 5% of earnings in 1998, the slowest growing from 1997 to 1998 was federal civilian government (7.0% of earnings in 1998), which increased 0.4%; the fastest was finance, insurance, and real estate (7.0% of earnings in 1998), which increased 9.9%.