New Bedford and Wamsutta
Like many other New England cities with access to the sea, New Bedford developed ocean trade very early. Instead of diversifying, however, New Bedford increasingly specialized, first in the whaling trade and later, while turning away from the sea, she chose fine textile goods. Twenty years after the last whaler sailed, whaling was still near and dear to the people however: the most famous monument was “The Whaleman’s Statue.” None of the writers mention a statue to the textile worker. (Wolfbein)
Textiles Come to Town. White’s “Factory” built by the White brothers about 1799, was the first cotton yarn mill on the Acushnet River. In 1814, Capt Whelden, a retired whaling captain and shareholder in the White Bros. mill, apparently saw further need for textiles and built the stone building just upstream from White’s Mill. Whelden Mill is reputed to be the first all-inclusive cotton factory in Massachusetts. Photo by G D Kingman, New Bedford Free Public Library. Boss and Joseph
Whelden Mill First Cotton Factory
Thomas Bennett, Jr. and Joseph Grinnell
The seed for the great Wamsutta Mills, named for the Indian who deeded land to found a settlement at New Bedford, was sown in 1840 when Thomas Bennett, Jr., of the nearby village of Fairhaven accompanied his employer on a trip to a cotton mill in Georgia. Upon his return to New Bedford, Bennett set about trying to raise enough capital to start another mill in Georgia or other suitable location. It took years to get the mill in operation, but once it was underway in 1846 it grew and became one of the survivors. Bennett served as superintendent until 1874. Joseph Grinnell, president of the First National Bank would invest but only on the condition that it be located in New Bedford. For all the credit he received, he contributed only $10,000 of the $160, 000 raised. Wamsutta was incorporated in April 1846. A mill with 10,000 spindles was decided upon. The first cloth, Wamsutta shirting, was produced in March 1849. As second mill, 200 feet long, was built and placed in operation by 1855. The third mill, a duplicate of the second, was built in 1860. By 1883, the Wamsutta Co. had six mills and produced 26 million yards of cotton cloth per year. Standard Times photo
New Mills and Machinery section of The Textile Record of America, December, 1880. Courtesy of Peter Metzke
Wamsutta Mill No. 1
Source: Boss and Joseph
Painting of Wamsutta Mill No. 1
Source: New Bedford Whaling Museum
The founding of a second company in New Bedford came in 1846. The New Bedford Steam Company, was not as successful and lasted only until 1852. This company struggled at every turn to make things work. Excerpts from the owner’s diary are recorded in an appendix in Wolfbein.
The discovery and commercial exploitation of oil in western Pennsylvania in 1859, hastened the decline of whaling as America switched from whale oil to less expensive gas and refined fuels for light and energy. As the whaling industry declined and investors were looking for opportunities for investment, New Bedford’s next textile business, Potomska Mill, was organized in 1871. The first mill, located on South Water Street, was 427 feet long; four stories high, and housed 48,000 spindles and 1,006 looms. A second building was built in 1877. The mills produced fine lawns, sateens, print cloths, cretonnes and jeans. The population of New Bedford grew steadily from 15,000 to 27,000 in 1870s as the textile factories expanded. Many of these were French-Canadian immigrants who were attracted to the mills. The population doubled again in the 1880s as New Bedford grew faster than any other city on the Eastern Seaboard. During the period 1880-1899, 14 new mills were organized.
French-Canadian Textile Worker
Source: Boss and Joseph
French-Canadian women were especially likely to work in the mills since the Canadians tended to immigrate in families. Some girls began work by the time they were 7 years old. Mothers worked as parishes established day care for the youngest children. The workday extended from 5:00 AM and continued with short breaks until 7:30 PM. Wamsutta continued to expand and added a seventh mill in 1893. Percale, introduced in the late 1890s, was very popular for bed sheeting.
In 1894 the Draper-Northrup automatic loom was introduced. This was one of the most important technical development of the late 1900s. Bobbins were automatically exchanged – the loom continued to weave. By 1900, New Bedford, a name once synonymous with whaling, was now “the” name in fine cotton goods. The city was second in size only to Fall River and Lowell in the entire textile industry. Seventeen new mills were incorporated between 1900 and 1910. Everything textile was booming. Capital invested, employees hired, and earnings, all hit new highs. Competition from the South was growing but was of no real concern – yet.
Immigrants poured into the mills. By 1905, less than 20 percent of the population was native to New England. The largest group was the Portuguese, with Cape Verde Islanders, Azoreans, French-Canadians and many different Europeans. The Jewish rabbi came from Poland.
The Nashawena Mills was incorporated in June 1909 – William Whitman, President. The first building was located on Bellevue Avenue, north of Manomet Mills. It claimed to be the largest weave shed in the world with 500,000 square feet of space. A book written by Whitman has been digitized.
The WWI business caused a shift from fine goods to coarse goods thereby placing them in direct competition from the South. Tire fabrics, which formerly used fine yarns, now required coarse yarns for the balloon –type tire. The mills failed to modernize and this would do them in. In 1928, 40 per cent of the looms were over 20 years old. The industry reached a peak in terms of workers employed in 1924. That year was also the end of whaling. The last ship sailed on August 15 and never returned. It was shipwrecked almost in sight of the harbor while returning home. How prophetic. Whaling was gone and never returned; and textiles started to follow. Poor management with nepotism rampant, poor accounting procedures and thick-headedness led the city down the drain.
In 1925, Nashawena purchased and enlarged Manomet No. 3 and converted that mill to weaving. Nashawena, with 5835 looms, was the largest in New England. 1928 – 40 percent of the looms in New Bedford were over 20 years old.
The Strike of 1928. Business in the form of sales, slowed in the mid-twenties, but the owners kept producing goods for market. Inventory swelled. Accustomed to very comfortable living and high salaries, a group of the mill owners decided to voluntarily cut production by 20 per cent but other mill owners would not cut production. Overproduction continued. The group decided that the workers should take a pay cut of 10 per cent starting the Monday after Easter Sunday. (Georgianna)
The Depression of the 1930s was the last blow. Two-thirds of the remaining mills closed during this decade. New Bedford was in dire straits. Employment of factory workers in 1940 was the lowest since 1907 with the exception of 1932. Of the 40 mills founded since 1846, only 13 survived as World War II began. The fact that most mills were antiquated and poorly stocked with skilled workers meant that business went south, literally and figuratively. Young, productive labor migrated. (Wolfbein) A total of 21,000 jobs were lost between 1919 and 1937.
The surviving mills as the 1940s began were:
Wamsutta, Hathaway Manufacturing, Columbia Spinning Co., Soule, Gosnold, Kilborn, Nonquitt, New Bedford Cotton, Quissett, Fiske (tire fabrics), Firestone Tire, Kendall, and Naushawena. Many of the older, famous mills were gone: Potomska, Acushnet, New Bedford Manufacturing, Grinnell, and City. Beacon moved to Swannanoa, North Carolina.
Wamsutta Mills 1898
Ad for Quisset Mill. New Bedford, MA
Source: Cotton, July 1934
Courtesy Peter Metzke
In 1952, Nashawena was liquidated. (Boss p182)
M. Lowenstein and Sons purchased the controlling interest of Wamsutta Mills on August 19, 1954. At the time, Wamsutta was running at near full capacity. Business slowed, as costs in the South were much lower. Late in 1958, Wamsutta closed in New Bedford and moved south.
The decline of the cotton textile industry in New Bedford between 1925 and 1955 was astonishing. Population dropped from 130,000 in 1924 to 105,000 in 1955. Immigration stopped and exodus began. It was estimated that 50% of the French-Canadian families left during the first three years. Generally, the English, Irish and Portuguese remained. (Boss 184)
Former textile mills along the waterfront today. Source: EPA
- Boss, Judith A., and Joseph D. Thomas. 1983. New Bedford: A Pictorial History New Bedford, MA: New Bedford Five Cents Savings Bank.
- Georgiana, Daniel with Roberta Hazen Aaronson. 1993. The Strike of ‘28 New Bedford, MA: Spinner Publications, Inc.
- Wolfbein, S. L.1944. Decline of a Cotton Mill City: A Study of New Bedford. New York: Columbia University Press.