New Bedford, MA
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
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
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 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
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.
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)
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
Wolfbein, S. L.1944. Decline of a Cotton Mill City: A Study of New Bedford. New York: Columbia University
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Page Copyright Gary N. Mock 2008-2011
Thomas Bennett, Jr.
Wamsutta Mill No. 1
Source: Boss and
Source: Boss and
Right: Painting of
Wamsutta Mill No. 1
Former textile mills along
the waterfront today
New Mills and Machinery section
of The Textile Record of
America, December, 1880.
Courtesy of Peter Metzke
Ad for Quisset Mill. New Bedford,
Source: Cotton, July 1934
Courtesy Peter Metzke
Wamsutta Mills 1898