On February 21, I presented a pecha kucha for my colleagues in the FiberSpace at Wheaton College. The FiberSpace is an extension of the WHALE Lab, which is Wheaton’s makerspace. This year, Social Sciences Liaison Lauren Slingluff and Assistant Archivist Megan Wheaton-Book have teamed up to do some programming at the FiberSpace, and the event was one of a series they have been working on since classes started at the end of January. My presentation was only a small part of Friday’s program; after a brief question period, it was followed by an opportunity to make squares for a community quilt that will decorate the space. Hooray for making!
Below are the slides from this public event with a transcript of the narration for each, followed by a list of sources keyed by slide number.
This presentation takes its theme from a pamphlet that Laban Morey Wheaton collected when he visited the International Exhibition that opened in London on May first, 1862. Wheaton and his wife, Eliza Baylies Wheaton, visited London in the spring and summer of 1862.
The pamphlet was produced by the Royal Italian Commission, and it concluded with a paragraph that offers a window on Wheaton’s position as a businessman whose interests included cotton mills in Norton, Massachusetts.
The slides include an example of the kinds of account books that Laban Morey Wheaton used to keep track of some of his business affairs. And some of the slides illustrate the place of Norton’s textile mills in the overall map of textile production in Massachusetts and the United States as a whole.
I quote now from the final paragraph of the Royal Italian Commission’s pamphlet:
South Carolina produces five hundred thousand bales of cotton, with a population of seven hundred and fifteen thousand inhabitants. In Italy there is no want either of inhabitants or land to commence at once an extensive cultivation of cotton,
Which might, perhaps, prevent the recurrence of one of the most fearful commercial crises which could take place, and possibly not a little contribute to the solution of that vital problem of modern civilization—the abolition of slavery in the United States.
The fearsome crisis—the so-called cotton famine of 1862—stilled approximately half of the four million spindles in mills north of the Potomac River.
A global shortage of raw cotton began when the Confederate government withheld the commodity from the international market in an effort to draw Great Britain into the U.S. Civil War, and the Union blockade of Confederate ports perpetuated the shortage.
After the introduction of power looms at Waltham and the rapid transformation of the village of West Chelmsford into the city of Lowell in the 1820s, the state of Massachusetts collected statistics on the number of factories and spindles within its boundaries.
Compared to those cities and as a proportion of the number of mills and spindles in the state as a whole, the four textile mills in Norton were so small in number at to seem insignificant.
Norton mills, however, fit into a mixed economy not unlike those of other rural towns and villages in the early nineteenth century.
Persistence of agriculture combined with industrial outwork and factory employment in such towns.
Cotton manufacture had begun in Norton when the first spinning mills were erected in the town in 1810. The manufacturers who built the mills combined the system of outwork with factory production, distributing at first the raw cotton and later the yarn from the mills to local families for the next stage of production.
The cotton-spinning mill known as the Norton Manufacturing Company had been built on the Wading River in 1810, and it was incorporated in 1837. When the failed firm was sold at auction, Wheaton joined with one of the former partners and another Norton resident to incorporate the Wheaton Manufacturing Company in 1844.
The accounts of another Norton textile mill point to one of Wheaton’s connections to the larger Atlantic economy through the cotton industry. In 1846, Wheaton purchased the Centre Mills, which had been established on the Rumford River in 1828.
He employed his brother-in-law, Samuel A. Chapin, as his agent to run the mill, and Chapin’s accounts constitute a rich source of information about the running of a rural mill that produced cotton batting in the mid-1840s.
The account book identifies the operatives—men and women—who worked in the mill as well as the broker from whom Wheaton purchased raw cotton. Providence merchant William Jones King provided cotton to Wheaton’s mills from Charleston, New Orleans, and Apalachicola.
A prominent broker on both the New York and Providence exchanges, King was also a trustee of Wheaton Female Seminary between 1848 and his death in 1885.
As these maps demonstrate, efforts have been made since at least 1861 to illustrate the relationship between slavery and cotton in the antebellum United States. And this relationship poses a conundrum for our view of Laban Morey Wheaton and the family wealth that supported Wheaton Female Seminary.
During the same years that Laban Morey Wheaton was establishing himself as a cotton manufacturer, he was also involved in antislavery activity. In 1846 and 1848, he ran for Congress on the ticket of the Liberty Party, a single-issue party devoted to the abolition of slavery.
The problem of opposing slavery philosophically and politically while at the same time needing raw cotton for economic success led to the production of numerous examples of the sort of thinking represented by
the Royal Italian Commission’s pamphlet.
When Laban Morey Wheaton brought the pamphlet home from the London International Exhibition, he demonstrated the place of Norton and Wheaton Female Seminary in what Harvard historian Sven Beckert has called the “worldwide web of cotton production” in 1862.
Slides 2, 3, 4, and 12: Wheaton Family Papers, M089, Wheaton College Archives and Special Collections, Wheaton College, Norton, Massachusetts.
Slide 5: Samuel Batchelder, Introduction and Early Progress of the Cotton Manufacture in the United States (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1863), 56, accessed 02/27/2013, HathiTrust.org, http://hdl.handle.net/2027/miun.ael6663.0001.001.
Slide 6: Batchelder, 1863, 80; George Faber Clark, A History of the Town of Norton, Bristol County, Massachusetts, from 1669 to 1859 (Boston: Crosby, Nichols, and Co., 1859)341-343.
Slides 6-11 and 14: Tables and charts from statistics in Clark, Chapter XXII.
Slides 15 & 16: GoogleEarth, last accessed 02/20/2014.
Slide 17: Susan Schulten, “Mapping the Cotton Kingdom,” http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/09/28/mapping-the-cotton-kingdom/, last accessed 02/27/2014.
Slide 18: Matthew B. Hammond, The Cotton Industry: An Essay in American Economic History, Part I. The Cotton Culture and the Cotton Trade (New York: Macmillan, 1897), 60f.
Slide 19: TeachingAmericanHistory.org/neh/interactives/civilwar/lesson1/, last accessed 10/10/2012.
Slide 20: Sven Beckert, “Emancipation and Empire: Reconstructing the World-Wide Web of Cotton Production in the Age of the Civil War,” American Historical Review 109, no. 5 (Dec. 2004): 1405-1438.