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The Wamsutta Mills in New Bedford is the oldest textile manufacturing company in the city. The creation of these mills may arguably be the most important development to the industrial city of New Bedford in the 19th century. The Wamsutta Company was created by a group of investors in New Bedford in 1847. It was a pioneer in textile manufacturing, modern factories as well as market research and advertising.  Although the Wamsutta brand is no longer produced in New Bedford it still remains a recognizable brand of bedding in the U.S. 

In a letter from William Crapo to Ridley Watts it was written that the Wamsutta Corporation was created in 1846 by Abe Howland, Joseph Grinnell, and Thomas Bennett to offset the whaling economy of New Bedford. The corporation was originally created to manufacture cotton, wool and iron, a large number of purposes for one corporation to take on. Thomas Bennett was born in a Fairhaven and got his education in textile corporations in New Orleans and Georgia. He brought expertise to the group and allowed the business to start with focus and purpose. Now solely focused on the manufacturing of cotton goods Wamsutta began actual operation in 1847. Fine woven cotton sheets such as these had never been successfully mass-produces before in the U.S. Because if this they had a difficult time raising funds from the whaling segment. The Whaling segment was used to gaining a 100 to 300% return on a 2 to 4 year voyage and the idea of a 6% return per year on their investment was not appealing to them. 

The first meeting help by the Wamsutta Corporation was on June 9th 1847 where Joseph Grinnell (Founder of New Bedford-Taunton Railroad) was elected the chairman and Thomas bennet was elected both treasurer and superintendent. For $7,500 ($244,256.71  in today’s money) the corporation purchased 5 acres of land with a wharf on the Acushnet river as well as water private to the property. The first mill built was specified by Bennett and designed by Seth Ingalls. This costed $36,000 at the time ($1,172,432.20 today). It was the first large steam mill in New Bedford at 212’x75′ and 5 stories tall with the first large scale machine shop in New Bedford in its basement. Single family homes were built to the north and west of the mills for the laborers. production began in 1849 and by the end of the fiscal year over 1 million yards of cloth had been made. By 1855 the success lead to the stockholder’s to increase capital to construct a second Wamsutta Mill. By 1860 the combined capital was 1,000,000 ($32,175,180.72 today) and a 3rd Wamsutta Mill was constructed. 

The Civil War was a blow to the industry causing the mills to enter a virtual standstill. Cotton had more or less disappeared from the northern markets; However they assured themselves the cotton industry would bounce back after the war. By the year 1868 Wamsutta was worth 2,000,000 ($37,613,239.44 today) and a 4th mill was constructed much bigger than the previous 3. In 1871 textile stock became a main focus of New Bedford after 32 Whaling ships were lost to the Arctic Ice at a 1 million dollar loss. By the year 1875 Wamsutta was worth $2,500,000 ($60,694,090.91 today) and the 5th mill was constructed. Thomas Bennet retired in 1871 followed by the death of Joseph Grinnel.

The later part of the 19th Century was very profitable for Wamsutta who had begun to produce a fabric called Percale “a fabric unmatched for its texture, elegance and strength by even the higher quality hand made products” Wamsutta was faced with 2 strikes 1 in 1867 and one in 1894 as well as competition from other mills and the south. These setbacks combined with the effects of World War I took a tole on Wamsutta. In 1921 Wamsutta began to control all aspects of its field of textile manufacturing namely sheets and pillowcases. They estimated it would be more profitable to manufacture exclusively luxury goods. The term Wamsutta began appearing in the dictionaries a the time meaning “a fine cotton cloth made in New Bedford”. Prices collapsed in 1922 and 4 mills in New Bedford were liquidated. By 1939 20 had folded. In 1924 the worst textile fire in New Bedford History destroyed most of Mills 1 and 2 with a loss of $750,000 ( $11,712,894.74 today). 

World War II proved to boost Wamsutta’s production and kept it alive as it began producing cloth for the military. Wamsutta Mills was bought out by M. Lowenstein and Sons, a corporation with holdings all over the U.S., in 1954. In 1985 a tarriff law called the Reciprocal Trade Act allowed imported textiles from countries with cheaper labor forcing Wamsutta to close down. The machinery wash shipped to other Lowenstein mills and Wamsutta Mills Buildings were sold to various clothing companies.

Information Source > MA Historical Society

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