Wednesday, July 8, 2020

Domestic Manufacture in 1839

Collection of the International Quilt Museum, dated 1839

The dark square with white streaks shows fabric that crimped in
the roller, hardly high quality printing.

One window into early American cotton manufacturing just before our cotton fabric industry really matured in the 1840s is in the exhibitions and fairs that manufacturers staged. 

The Mechanic's Fair was held at Boston's 
Quincy Hall September 23-October 5, 1839

Records of Massachusetts Charitable Mechanic Association Fairs give us some insight into American cottons and their relative quality compared to European goods. In 1839 the organization held it second bi-annual fair displaying manufactures by factories and individuals. Nearly 1200 contributors sent articles for display and judging. Many New England women sent quilts---

but that's another topic.... Discussed here:

The up-and-coming New England mills sent samples of their domestically produced cloth, wool, silk, cotton and linen to vie for medals and diplomas (certificates). The judges produced critiques as well as lists of winners.

Wessacumcon Mills changed their name to Bartlet Steam Mills in 1840.

Newburyport's Wessacumcon Steam Mill entered their Bleached and Brown Cottons---the most basic of domestic cloth. The just-opened steam-powered mill won a silver medal and compliments.
"The goods here exhibited are of a very superior order, remarkably even and closely wove; and altogether of a better fabric than has ever before been produced in this country. They are in all respects equal to any British fabric of the kind that the Committee has ever seen."

We most often see the domestic sturdy cottons on the back
of quilts. It's often called homespun, and technically it is---
Spun in factories here rather than in Europe.

Finally---in 1839--- an American mill using British-invented steam spinners and looms had produced a plain unprinted, undyed cotton sheeting that was as good as one could import.

Display of coarse cotton cloth woven at the Boott Mills.
In the middle bleached and brown sheetings?

Lowell's Boott Cotton Mills also entered Brown Sheetings and earned a diploma.
"Well known in the market, and in good repute with consumers, which is sufficient proof of their good qualities. The specimens here exhibited are finer and closer than they ordinarily produce, and show a farther improvement in the manufacture." So Boott's cloth was also improving.

The Boott Mill buildings are part of the Lowell National Historical Park. 
The mill specialized in simple cloth, the sturdy cotton of everyday life.

A later Boott specialty was toweling.
The pictures are from the museum at the park.

A Wilmington, Delaware shop advertised at the bottom of its list
of dry goods "brown and bleached Domestic Muslin" in 1823.
Several small mills produced domestic cloth in the early 19th century.

Management at the Palmer (Massachusetts) Manufacturing Company must have been mortified to receive their critique. L. P. Whitman entered one piece of White Cambric a plain weave, rather fine cotton like a cotton lawn.
"The piece exhibited was uneven and not well finished; the fabric and general appearance, however, is sufficient to shew that such goods must soon take the place of British cambrics, which at this day are imported in great quantities." A rather confusing assessment with perhaps some misplaced optimism.

Back of a quilt dated 1808 from Julie Silber's inventory

I couldn't find any more about Whitman's Palmer Mill. Was poor quality cloth their downfall?

Photo of  the 1878 Massachusetts Fair
New York Public Library
Photography became viable in 1839

More elegant fabric was still not up to par. The American Print Works in Fall River exhibited Chintz Furnitures---the kinds of large-scale fabrics used for slipcovers, drapes and fancy quilts. 
"The drawing and printing of these goods exhibit great skill and perfection; and the colors are very brilliant and rich. The designs, however, are not so light and airy as is desirable in such goods; and they are not so well dressed as they should be; but in the main they are fine specimens of workmanship, and entitled to much commendation."
They received a paper diploma for one set of "Chintz Prints. Rich goods — clear and fast colors and exceedingly well printed — good finish, and do great credit to the manufacturer."

We can wonder if some of these large-scale florals in limited colors
were American.

 Merrimack Mills, years later. Quality fabric led to success.

Lowell's Merrimack Mills did a more impressive job, winning a silver medal. Judges enthused:
"Blue Ground Chintz Prints. A gorgeous production. The width, durability and beauty of texture, the rich and original designs, the superior execution, and the brilliancy of coloring, are beyond any work of the kind that has before been brought to the notice of the Committee.

Light Plate Prints. These goods have been long known, and universally admired, for their superior fabric and inimitable printing. The specimens exhibited have attracted much notice on account of the great simplicity of the designs, and finished execution....The work approaches so nearly to the most delicate of France, as almost entirely to have superseded the use of French Plates; and to judge from the present specimens, the importation of foreign articles of competition must soon be entirely abandoned."
Again some misplaced if patriotic optimism.

It's interesting to hear that American-made plates (actually large copper plates??? I doubt it---more likely metal rollers) are compared to the French Plates, which the mills had apparently been using. One could import French pattern machinery and perhaps the patterned plates and do a competitive print---if one could print as well as the French.

Quilt signed Mary Julian, dated 1839

Detail of the border shows how poor the registration is on the blues.
No prize for this print.

 But sophisticated printing in general was still a problem. Printers who produced paper goods like art prints also showed their wares only to receive a rap on their ink-stained knuckles.
"There is much yet to be done, in the art of Copperplate-Printing, before perfection will be attained. One of the best qualities of a good printer, is, an ability to keep his work always of about the same uniform shade of color. The English engravings have a uniformity, in this particular, which we do not see in the generality of impressions from American-printed plates; and we wish all our Printers would direct their attention, more particularly, to this important point. There were some specimens in this Exhibition, which were very beautiful; but yet there is great room for improvement."

Toile (plate print monochrome cotton) memorializing Benjamin Franklin. 
The subject was American but it was not printed here.

Plate printing with ink on paper is a skill; plate printing on cotton with mordants and dyes---even more complex---one reason we don't see American toiles of any quality.

Small-scale calico prints were also exhibited. New Hampshire's Cocheco Mill showed "Fall Prints,"  winning praise and a silver medal.

English prints from about 1840, complex
calico printing with sharp registration, many colors
and sophisticated if busy design.
"In appearance these Prints are strikingly like English work. The designs are very simple and effective; they are skillfully and delicately executed, and the colors are very brilliant and permanent. They are, in the whole, a beautiful specimen of Calico Printings, and do great credit to the source whence they came, and must find favor in the eyes of the consumer."
Swatches from an 1880s Cocheco sample book in the
collection of the Cooper-Hewitt Museum


Calicoes became the specialty product of American mills, but it took a few trade wars, an American Civil War and a lot of technological and artistic improvements to make the U.S. self-reliant in cotton manufacturing towards the end of the 19th century.

A. Robeson of Fall River received a mixed critique for "Chintz prints" or "calico printing."
One set: "These are beautiful goods. There is about them a nicety of design and coloring that renders them a decidedly genteel Print. They do great credit to the taste and skill of the contributor, and must be well received in the market."
Another was faulted on design. "The design, coloring, and execution of these, exhibit first rate workmanship; but the figures are too much crowded together to make them a popular or desirable style."
English prints from the 1820s. Collection of the Cooper-Hewitt Museum.

We can see by the criticism here by Massachusetts professional men who wanted to compliment local industry that the New England mills in 1839 still had a long way to go to compete with English and French manufacturers in luxury imports.

Not a quality piece of fabric

Poor greige [gray] goods---the basic cotton fabric,
rather unsophisticated melding of background and figures,
limited color, prone to fading. Could be American but Europe
exported cheap prints too.


  1. Thanks for another great post. Funny story about the "crimped" printed fabric. We had a quilt in an exhibition at our state show 6 or 7 years ago which had a similar misprinted fabric in it. Apparently there was a trend at the time in women's clothing that was printed this way deliberately (my neighbor actually had one). A lady walked up to the quilt and said,"oh look, they made fabric just like my shirt way back then". She was a good sport when I explained that is was more of a misprint than a fashion statement. We both had a good chuckle. As for the clothing trend, it seemed to last only one season. I suspect some manufacturer actually did make a mistake and needed to use the thousands of yards in some clever way. My husband is ever so happy it didn't last long. He laughed every time he saw one.

  2. Thanks for this interesting article. I've seen some photos, some samples and some interesting things before, but not going back quite so far. I want every one of those fabrics in the first photo of the squares ... and I don't even like pink! =)

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