February Meeting, 1962

    A STATED Meeting of the Society was held at its House, No. 87 Mount Vernon Street, Boston, on Thursday, 15 February 1962, at three o’clock in the afternoon, the President, Mr. Clifford Kenyon Shipton, in the chair.

    The records of the Stated Meeting in December were read and approved.

    The Editor, in the absence of the Corresponding Secretary, reported the receipt of a letter from the Right Reverend Monsignor Francis Joseph Lally accepting election to Resident Membership in the Society.

    Mr. J. Bruce Sinclair, Director of the Merrimack Valley Textile Museum, North Andover, Massachusetts, read a paper entitled:

    The Merrimack Valley Textile Museum:

    A New Institution for an Important Aspect of American History

    THE Merrimack Valley Textile Museum is a new museum. It was incorporated in 1960, to preserve and communicate the history of wool manufacturing in this country.381 In its beginnings, the museum was the result of a happy combination of naïveté and a deep-rooted desire to add to man’s store of knowledge. The innocence made for a certain freedom of movement which permitted rapid action; the creative passion produced an unusually specialized museum.

    Most museums are started either because of an idea, the Smithsonian, for example; or a collection, the Shelburne Village museum, for instance. The Merrimack Valley Textile Museum was the result of these two forces joined. The most easily identified beginning was the impending acquisition, by the North Andover Historical Society, of a large collection of antique hand looms, spinning wheels, winders and other devices related to the hand manufacture of textiles. These objects had been collected over the course of his lifetime by Samuel D. Stevens, a local resident, prominent textile manufacturer, and founder of the North Andover Historical Society. In all likelihood, Mr. Stevens intended that the collection ultimately should come to the Historical Society. But he made no such specific disposition and by a hand-me-down process typical of New England, the orphans landed on the Historical Society’s doorstep some thirty-five years after his death.

    In trying to determine what to do with the collection, the Historical Society’s Board of Directors first hit upon the idea of putting everything in an old red barn which they would find somewhere and move to the Society’s back lot. Looms and spinning wheels would be set up in the barn and at periodic intervals a costumed lady might demonstrate the use of these ancient machines. But this notion soon gave way to the impulse to do something more creative with the collection, and at that juncture the collection ceased to be the motivating force behind the museum. In its place came an idea for a new institution.

    The idea which gradually took form was that the Historical Society would use the Stevens collection as the introduction to the history of a period later than that of most of the objects in the collection. These early devices of colonial times would be used as a preface in museum exhibits showing the early factory production of textiles, and the museum which housed the exhibits would mainly be concerned with early American industrial history. The decision to develop a museum of industrial history, rather than a barn with colonial handcraft exhibits, was a logical and creative use for the collection the Historical Society had inherited. However, once made, the decision led just as logically to the creation of an independent institution, separate from the Historical Society in physical plant, operation, and objectives. Thus, in the early spring of 1960 a nonprofit, educational corporation, the Merrimack Valley Textile Museum, was chartered under the laws of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. A new building was begun that year and completed in the summer of 1961.

    In the process of deciding to build a museum of industrial history, the Trustees of the new institution also concluded to direct the museum’s attention especially to the history of the wool industry in this country.

    It is difficult to realize the past importance of textile manufacturing, not only in New England, but throughout the nation. The early textile factories of New England represented the Industrial Revolution in its earliest American stages. Of all types of manufacturing, textile mills first presented to the eye all the good and bad aspects of industrialization and in 1825 when one spoke of the factory system, capitalists, or the working class, these terms were most readily identified by new developments in textile manufacturing. Textile manufacturing was the beginning of the nineteenth-century industrial transformation of this country.

    Like the book everyone has heard about but few have read, the history of textile manufacturing is generally familiar but little understood. The conclusion is implicit in the dramatic and much neglected story itself. Even a summary review instantly reminds one of the continuing importance of the subject, from the time of the first settlements. Many of the first settlers of New England came from cloth-making districts. Lacking the means to buy good English broadcloth (and there is no question that fabrics from home were preferred), the earliest colonists were forced to make their own. And in the honorable New England fashion, they made necessity a virtue, rewarding those who would establish a fulling mill, for the finishing of homemade cloth, and encouraging those who would grow flax and wool.

    The long series of legislative enactments to stimulate domestic industry illustrate the nature of the problem. “Forasmuch as woolen cloth is so useful a commodity, &c., by reason of the cold winters, and being at present scarce and deare,” the General Court of Massachusetts in 1645 urged towns in the colony to preserve and increase their sheep.382

    One of the first attempts to manufacture cloth was in Rowley, Massachusetts in 1639, by the Rev. Mr. Ezekial Rogers and those of his parish who had followed him from Rowley in Yorkshire to settle Rowley in Essex County. There, “they built a fulling mill, and caused their little ones to be very diligent in spinning cotton wool, many of them having been clothiers in England, till their zeal to promote the Gospel of Christ caused them to wander.”383 Almost every settlement had a fulling mill and a weaver as soon as the first pioneer stage was ended—and this pattern was just as true for new western communities in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries as it had been for those coastal settlements of the seventeenth century.384 Typical of the efforts of early settlements to secure the services of textile craftsmen is the 1682 resolution of the Andover town meeting:385

    Granted liberty to any man, that the town or committee shall choose, to set up a saw mill, fulling mill, and grist mill upon Shawshin river near Rogers brook, to take up 20 acres of land adjoining said place, and to enjoy the same forever with the privilege of a townsman.

    In a relatively short period of time following initial settlement, a system of household manufacturing was developed which lasted without much change until around 1760. Many elements of the household system are familiar, but to examine them again is to be reminded of the extent to which the system entered into the lives of Americans during the colonial period. To clothe oneself is a basic necessity of life, to do so in an “underdeveloped nation” requires a great deal of time and energy and is an activity in which the vast majority of the population must engage.

    The dominant feature of the household manufacture of textiles was local, small-scale production. Most people performed some of the processes themselves—usually raw material preparation, spinning, and sometimes weaving—and hired someone else to perform the more difficult processes, certainly all the finishing operations. One of the elements of the household system was the local fulling mill. Cloth directly from the loom was loosely woven, and to make a durable, warm fabric required shrinking and washing, usually with a compound known as fuller’s earth. The process matted the fibers, drew them closer together and gave a stiff, felted appearance to the cloth’s surface. The finishing of coarse cloths often ended with the fulling process, but fine cloths also required napping, shearing and pressing for a quality finish. These operations, along with dyeing, were carried out at the local fulling mill.

    It is important to realize, however, that the local fulling mill never manufactured cloth. There were skilled artisans in the textile trade who practiced their crafts in the very earliest stages of settlement, but there never developed in this country, to any significant degree, a handcraft textile industry with all stages of manufacturing performed by artisans. There were weavers who wove the yarns spun at home and fullers who finished cloth, whether woven at home or by a professional weaver. But spinning, weaving, and finishing were never performed under one roof during the colonial period and it would be safe to say that during the same period, the various operations were seldom, if ever, entirely performed by artisans who were occupied solely at that trade. Most Americans of that time either made their own clothing according to the system described, or purchased imported goods. There was no guild system to provide a third alternative.386

    The household system of operation, as it was practiced in this country (and in contrast to systems employed in Great Britain or on the Continent), gave a special character to cloth manufacturing here. Governor Moore, in a letter to the Lords of Trade, excellently described the system as it existed in 1767: “every house swarms with children, who are set to work as soon as they are able to Spin and Card.”387

    The household system of textile manufacture touched practically every colonial home. A basic part of every child’s education was to learn one of the processes; the virtue of a young lady was cast in terms of her dexterity at the spinning wheel and the touchstone of domestic felicity was household manufacture.

    The system lasted without change at least until 1760. There were mild variations, such as the spinning crazes which periodically visited Boston. The first of these eccentricities occurred in 1721 when three hundred young spinsters gathered on Boston Common to commemorate the fourth anniversary of the Boston Society for Promoting Industry and Frugality. But these fevers were of momentary duration and did not alter the main outlines of the system.

    The significant change in the household system came with the incidents immediately preceding the War for Independence. The dramatic crisis of the Stamp Act served to mobilize opinion and activity favoring domestic manufacture. A poem in the Massachusetts Gazette of 19 November 1767 well illustrates the spirit:388

    Young ladies in town and those that live round,

    Let a friend, at this season, advise you,

    Since money’s so scarce, and times growing worse,

    Strange things may soon hap and surprise you.

    First, then, throw aside your high top-knots of pride,

    Wear none but your own country linen.

    Of economy boast, let your pride be the most

    To show cloaths of your own make and spinning.

    What if homespun, they say, is not quite so gay

    As brocades, yet be not in a passion;

    For when once it is known this is much wore in town,

    One and all will cry out, “’Tis the fashion.”

    And, as one and all, agree that you’ll not married be

    To such as will wear London Factory;

    But, at first sight, refuse; tell ’em such you do chuse

    As encourage our own manufactory.

    Spinning bees became popular and the patriotic motives for the occasions are clear in the descriptions of such gatherings.389 The same spirit prompted the October, 1767 Boston town meeting resolution:390

    That some effectual measures might be agreed upon to promote Industry, Œconomy, and Manufactures, thereby to prevent the unnecessary Importation of European Commodities, which threaten the Country with Poverty and Ruin.

    Wartime conditions influenced the system of domestic textile manufacturing in two ways. In the first instance, patriotic desire to exclude English fabrics led to a limited development of the putting-out system, a situation which might be described as halfway between home and factory production. The Pennsylvania Packet for 4 December 1775 carried a notice of the managers of the American Manufactory, stating their earnest desire to employ “every good spinner that can apply.” Women were offered cash for hemp, flax, or woolen yarn, to be spun at home or on the premises. In the same notice the managers expressed their appreciation “to all these industrious women who are now employed in spinning for the factory. The skill and diligence of many entitles them to the public acknowledgement.”391 In a small measure, there was actual change in the household system and the change was toward a factory system. At the time, few people would have imagined the American Manufactory as an instrument of transition, leading the textile industry out of the home and into the factory. However, the impetus for cloth of “our own manufacture” did lead in the immediate postwar period to the establishment of the earliest factories.

    It is at this point that we see the second principal effect of wartime patriotism. Independence, economic as well as political, provided the rationale for the early American textile mills. The overwhelming preponderance of notices for new mills alluded to a patriotic motif, sometimes also including the praiseworthy desire to provide “honest employment for the industrious poor.” America was a rural country, with something of the peasant’s suspicion of towns and a working-class proletariat. Jefferson’s comment, “I consider the class of artificers as the panders of vice and the instruments by which the liberties of a country are generally overturned,” illustrated the feeling. Early manufacturers had to overcome this spirit and, consciously or not, they attempted to do so by casting their enterprise in noble terms.

    Motivation for the establishment of American textile mills coincided with technological advance. Several English inventions in the period before the Revolutionary War—Kay’s flying shuttle for weaving, Arkwright’s and Hargreaves’ spinning machines and the carding machine—had made possible vastly increased production. By the end of the war, knowledge of the improved machinery spread to America, coinciding with the temper of independence. A woolen mill was established in Hartford, Connecticut in 1788, a cotton mill in Beverly, Massachusetts in 1787, and other early factories were built in Newbury, Massachusetts, in Wilmington, Delaware, in North Andover, Massachusetts, and in towns throughout New England and south to Maryland.

    All of the early factories established in the period between the War for Independence and the War of 1812 experienced common problems. Without exception they suffered from competition with imported goods, limited working capital, and lack of experience. Many were simply the old fulling mill, with new machinery added for carding and spinning, mostly small enterprises, adding to their business with local custom work. The industry was beginning to change, but there were still elements of older methods. Until 1815 or 1820, the early mills continued to be local in spirit, bucolic in setting, and casual in attitude. The situation is best described by an 1802 advertisement in the Pittsfield, Massachusetts Sun, wherein Arthur Scholfield advertised the services of his wool carding mill, and added the note:392

    At the same place is carried on by different firms,—Dyeing of wool of various colours; Pressing of Cloth;—Making of chairs of different kinds;—Cut and Wrought Nails;—Marble Monuments; Rumford Fireplaces and Common Stones for Building;—Hulling and Pearling of Barley; etc., etc.

    The diffuse nature of manufacturing activity carried on at Scholfield’s mill fitted into a scene where many people still wore homespun. However, enthusiasm for more highly developed practices was strong. It was reported of Providence, Rhode Island: “There was never such a spirit of Industry and Zeal, to promote Manufactures in this Town and vicinity, as at present prevail.”393 The writer had reference to wool and cotton manufacturing and was especially interested in the application of new machines to the various processes.

    The War of 1812 provided a major impetus to factory development. The demand for cloth occasioned by the nonimportation of foreign fabrics, gave to American mills a market of proportions never before enjoyed. Mills by the hundreds were built to supply that demand. Optimism ran high among manufacturers and they expressed their feelings in advertisements for employees:394

    Wanted, Immediately, several apprentices from twelve to seventeen years of age, to the woollen manufacturing business. From the high wages paid to manufacturers, parents will only be consulting the interest of their children, by placing them in a situation to acquire a knowledge of this important branch of our own growing manufactures, and as the manufactory now establishing will be upon the most new and improved principles, apprentices will have an opportunity offered them to become masters of this useful art.

    The palmy days of 1812 did not last long and in the immediate postwar period, the country was flooded with English and Continental fabrics and many mills were forced out of business. Partial recovery was achieved by 1820, but those mills that remained were hard-bitten veterans and in their attitude reflected little of the casual early days.

    For those mills which survived, brilliant prospects were opened as the nation exploded westward. In expanding to capture the riches offered to the west, manufacturing activity exhibited that curious turnabout which seems to characterize business pursuits. The strong who remained from the last struggle profited, and their successes once more lured investment back to the factory. Profits of twenty to forty per cent were reported as manufacturers developed an increasingly efficient industrial machine.

    This new start—beginning around 1830—was the end of transition for the textile industry. The local woolen mill of 1810, which represented the beginnings of movement out of the home was, by 1830, largely replaced by a factory in which all processes were performed under a single roof by what would later be known as an industrial proletariat. Manufacturing was carried forward with an experienced shrewdness which easily matched earlier ardor. There were vast new markets; population seemed almost magically to double every twenty years; turnpikes, canals, packet ships, railroads and new telegraph lines not only opened up a populous western area to transportation and communication, but forever removed the factory from the simple comforts of local operation. Sales and distribution became a nationwide venture and to plunder this vast treasure became the consuming ambition of single-minded men. It was no place for the weak or faint of heart.

    The early woolen factory was often managed by an owner-operator who frequently provided housing for his employees, board and room for single males, and operated a company store. The paternalism of the early factory system occasionally even encompassed moral supervision as well, especially in the case of female employees. However, in the period following 1830, ownership tended to become absentee and management was left in the hands of overseers.

    Labor and laboring conditions reflect as well as any other aspect of manufacturing some of the results in the shift from household operation to total industrialization. When the independent craftsman sold his product, he retained his person, but when he sold his labor, he sold himself. Once-proud craftsmen resented the change and bitterly complained, “The capitalists have taken to bossing all the mechanical trades, while the practical mechanic has become a journeyman, subject to be discharged at every pretended ‘miff’ of his purse-proud employer.”395

    In an earlier day, mill hands were often as not part-time farmers, or had some other craft, and a temporary layoff had a certain holiday air. That system was replaced by a fourteen-hour day, beginning at half-past four in the morning. “A clerk placed as a watch, observes those who are a few minutes behind the time, and effectual means are taken to stimulate punctuality.”396

    The time was past when manufacturers described their activities in high moral tones. The spirit of patriotic self-sufficiency was exchanged for a profit motive and the change is exquisitely illustrated in an 1843 notice to employees:397

    Notice. Those employed at these mills and works will take notice that a store is kept for their accommodation, where they can purchase the best goods at fair prices, and it is expected that all will draw their goods from said store. Those who do not are informed that there are plenty of others who would be glad to take their places at less wages.

    If the year 1810 is called the starting point for factory development, then the transition to full industrialization was completed in less than a single generation. In about twenty-five years, the most widely practiced household industry in our history—the manufacture of textiles—was dramatically replaced by a factory system. In the process, as Professor Clark noted, “Not only did the household lose a traditional employment, but simultaneously industry—for the first time in our history—began to disintegrate the family.”398 An occupation once as warm and comfortable as the family hearth became an industrial discipline, increasingly devoid of sentiment or personal concern.

    But the first half of the nineteenth century was a period drmaatic for many reasons. The development of the textile industry foreshadowed change in many other lines of manufacturing. It is a complex period of history and does not easily lend itself to quick damnation for the harshness of the industrial discipline or romantic praise for the accomplishments of the factory system.

    Immigrant labor in New England’s textile mills effectively lowered the wage scale and the laborer’s standard of living. The necessities of competition produced exactly the same conditions in the whaling industry during the same period of time. Ocean commerce, until 1818, depended on a full cargo and passenger list, as well as favorable wind and tide. Once regular packet sailings were instituted, however, the stern rigors of a timetable eliminated such relative luxury; ships of the sea and the men who sailed them came under the same kind of discipline as mill workers.

    * * * * *

    It is to this period, with all its complexity and dramatic change, that the new Merrimack Valley Textile Museum addresses itself. To study the subject in fine detail, the museum will focus its attention on the wool industry. To make its findings meaningful, the museum will present the history of the wool industry against the broad background of American history.

    The museum will pursue these objectives by engaging in two major activities, the exhibition of historic objects and the maintenance of a library. The library will provide the means for detailed study, and it encompasses both an archives of business records as well as a library of reference materials. In addition to the records of wool manufacturing firms, the archives will house records to document such related subjects as sales and distribution, raw material procurement and textile machinery manufacturing. The reference section includes books on the wool industry and related subjects, plus a wide variety of materials ranging from periodicals to dealer’s catalogues, from maps to broadside advertisements.

    The exhibits will portray the development of the wool industry in this country. Their central theme will be technological change and its impact on American society and culture. Major emphasis will be placed on the period during which the industry changed from household production to factory production, a time of revolutionary consequence for the wool industry. Succeeding years brought refinement, but after 1850, and for the next one hundred years, there was nothing as dramatic as the preceding half-century. The exhibits will capture some of that drama, what it meant to people then and what it means to people now.

    These are the hopes of the Board of Trustees. Very much different from a red barn, the museum is an institution to house all the historical remains of the wool industry—be they books or machines—for the education and pleasure of those who would know more of our history.