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New Bedford: The Commercial & Industrial Evolution of an American Port City
New Bedford and the SouthCoast of Massachusetts, despite its recognized economic development challenges, does, by virtue of it’s mature workforce, institutions of higher education, geographic proximity to Boston and Providence, working port infrastructure, historic and cultural assets and entrepreneurial heritage, is seeing signs of rebirth, innovation and productive industry. Modern-day industries, including high tech, renewable energy, medical devices and biotechnology, some a direct outgrowth of industries from the region’s more recent history, are gradually gaining a foothold as testament to the historically strong entrepreneurial, innovative and daring spirit that still capture the imagination.
While the focus of New Bedford: The Commercial & Industrial Evolution of an American Port City will be on the historic and humanities aspects of commerce and industry, an important opportunity exists for the narrative to eventually continue to more recent times, demonstrating that the present, recent, and more distant past are part of an evolutionary continuum in which themes, concepts, and experiences are often more familiar across time then one might imagine, that lessons from the past really do inform and motivate the present.
The project will emphasize five influential commerce themes which either grew along with, or were financed because of, the men and families who created New Bedford’s highly lucrative whaling industry: Banking, Finance & Insurance; Railroads; Diversification & Textiles; Product Manufacturing & Trade, and Commercial Fishing.
Banking, Finance & Insurance
The City of New Bedford benefits from an architectural legacy of banking that is truly striking—in the sheer number of historic bank buildings in its historic downtown, in the aesthetic beauty of these architectural treasures, and in the state of preservation of most of these buildings. Although historic bank buildings citywide help explain the story of the City’s early commercial development, the less visible story of the evolution of the City’s influential financial infrastructure is equally compelling.
“Following the money” is a key—and yet poorly explored—aspect of this region’s history. While the fascination with whaling voyages has dominated the narrative, the financial and business aspects can be equally fascinating, if the story is told holistically. For instance, Hetty Green, also known as “The Witch of Wall Street” and the wealthiest woman in America in her day, started with the family whaling fortune.
Whaling ship builders and owners were instrumental in starting the first commercial banking operations in the city. These and other businessmen were directors or incorporators of these banks. In order to protect their investments they also developed the first local insurance companies, often contemporaneously with the establishment of each bank. Eventually, insurance operations separated from banking operations and were consolidated outside of New Bedford in places like Boston, Springfield, Hartford and New York. Understanding how New Bedford enterprises throughout history have creatively leveraged, diversified, and cooperatively financed their progress—by following the money, beginning with whaling and moving to textiles, railroads, coal transport, etc.—will be key elements of the exhibition plan.
The Whaling Museum is well positioned to explore and tell this little-examined financial aspect of the development of a port city due to a major acquisition and collection processing project recently completed with IMLS funding. In 2008 the Whaling Museum’s acquired the records of New Bedford’s Merchants Bank spanning the years 1825-1939 in 1,053 financial volumes and 82 linear feet of additional materials.
These detailed records are rare survivors of the financial background of a complex financial community such as New Bedford. Such records not only provide valuable insight into the workings of the very commercial and industrial enterprises to be explored in this exhibition, provide opportunity for social history and business history analysis of particular individuals and firms, but provide a window into the business of banking itself, a central aspect of the success of cities such as New Bedford.For example, the exhibit’s interpretation of specific people, from the working class to mill owners, will be enhanced by data on the banking activities of New Bedford’s financial actors. Records in the NBWM collection also support the stories of numerous female borrowers, Portuguese and members of other immigrant groups.
Although the whaling industry thrived through mid-century (good markers of the onset of its decline are the discovery of oil in Pennsylvania in 1859 and the impact of the Civil War), New Bedford’s whaling merchants began to diversify their economic base in the 1840s. One of the first moves to expand from simply a maritime city was the introduction of rail transport. In 1840 the New Bedford and Taunton Railroad provided the first non-water-based reliable method of getting people, raw material, and goods, to and from the city. Investors included whaling merchants Joseph Grinnell, William Rotch, Jr. John Avery Parker, William W. Swain and George Howland, Jr.
In 1876 a branch line to Fall River was constructed, linking the two great textile centers of the region. Rail transport dramatically altered the industrial landscape of the city, triggering the development of industries such as the Morse Drill Company which evolved into a national brand known for innovation of essential tools and tool-making techniques and expanding the viability and success of the city’s textile mills. The city also became a major shipping hub of anthracite coal coming from Pennsylvania and utilized to power the second phase of regional economic development, the post-water-power phase up and down the east coast.
Diversification and Textiles
As whaling merchants looked to diversify their investments, a group began to explore textile production as an opportunity. Curiously, two of the first major efforts to incorporate textile mills left their options open upon incorporation. The New Bedford Steam Mill Company was incorporated in 1846 by Samuel Rodman to manufacture cotton and grind corn. By 1847 the mill was manufacturing 25,000 yards of cotton sheeting per week. Yet, owners struggled to manage the complexities of such a factory. Unable to coordinate capital needs, wage and labor negotiations, and market demand, the plant was abandoned after only five years in 1852.
Meanwhile, at the same time Abraham Howland, Joseph C, Delano and Henry T. Wood formed the Wamsutta Mills in 1846 with a charter that allowed production of cotton, wool, or iron. They soon brought aboard Joseph Grinnell (the aforementioned originator of the local railroad) who soon rose to long-time President. Wamsutta rapidly expanded, growing from its original 16,000 spindles and 200 looms to 8 mills operating 236,000 spindles and 7,300 looms in 1885, one of the largest in the nation employing over 2000 people. This set the trend for rapid growth in New
Bedford and nearby Fall River which quickly found themselves an early example of an economic cluster of textile mills, drawing immigrant workers from French Canada, Portugal, Azores and Cape Verde and many different Europeans.
By 1920 cotton was the economic force driving the city, having stepped in for its explosive growth just as whaling met its final days. The last whaler left New Bedford in 1925. In that year there were 70 mills making cotton cloth on nearly 3.6 million spindles and 55,679 looms. A workforce in the mills of 41,380 certainly changed the face of the city – its physical layout and the social and political dynamic.
Life in the mills was hard, a fact that drew the attention of now famed photographer Lewis Hine who was documenting mill conditions and children for the National Child Labor Committee. On his first visit to New Bedford in 1911 he was denied admission to the Acushnet, Hathaway, Kilburn, and Butler Mills, so he focused his work outside the mills – children entering in the early morning, applying for work permits, in mill yards, and in their homes. He returned a year later and successfully gained entry into the Bennett, Wamsutta, and City mills.
In turn, after World War II, the textile industry was succeeded by an important dress, shirt, pajama and suit manufacturing industry, all of which have gone out of business or moved elsewhere. New Bedford now hosts only one true clothing manufacturer – Joseph Abboud Manufacturing − which was established in the past twenty years on the basis of the city’s substantial labor pool of cutters and stitchers. Virtually all of the once 40-45 mills operating in the city beginning in 1846 had closed their doors to Southern and eventually off-shore competition by 1958. Fortunately, many of the mill buildings still exist and are popularly known by their original names. They are now used for everything from warehousing to small scale manufacturing to market rate, affordable and elderly housing. Having presented the highly-successful Needle/Work - Art, Craft, and Industry in a Port City exhibition in 2007, the Whaling Museum is especially prepared to integrate the story of the textile industry, a story with which many local residents still identify with, with the other waves of economic development that have shaped the face of New Bedford.
Product Manufacturing and Trade
Trade in goods across a wide variety of enterprises is evident from the early days of the city’s founding in the early 17th century. Apart from its deserved fame as a whaling center, in the early 19th century the port of New Bedford developed into an industrial manufacturing center, as many of the key components commonly associated with the Industrial Revolution—and integral to the successful establishment of heavy industry—were already present along the banks of the Acushnet River.
Concurrent with growth in textiles, other industries arose along the river, including boiler makers, large-scale wood milling, carriage manufacture, decorative glassware, gold and silver plate, shoe manufacture, copper production, iron work and a widening range of niche products that supported the manufacturing process. The Morse Twist Drill Company provides an example of innovative diversification, with products including industrial blades, cutters, and jigs–reamers, milling tools, lathe chuck, gauges, mandrels, and threading tools. The New Bedford Cordage Company, founded in 1842 to furnish rope and line to the whale fishery, actually expanded with the explosion of new industries and the many new demands for cordage and by 1888 boasted a production facility covering four acres. They manufactured binder twine for farmers, transmission rope for textile mills and hoist line for coal mines and oil well operations.
After the Civil War, with the whaling industry beginning its precipitous decline, New Bedford became almost as famous for the manufacture of art glass as it was for whaling. American culture changed slowly but perceptibly after moving beyond the burden of the Civil War. Economic and social change accelerated and created new tastes in art, architecture and decoration, literature, fashion, recreation and everyday business and residential lifestyles. This included a growing interest in art glass which had originated in 1837 with the Mt. Washington Glass Works, originally from the Mt. Washington section of South Boston, which relocated to New Bedford in 1870 to take advantage of its skilled workforce, mill space and water and rail shipping capabilities. Here it produced a wide range of pressed glass, fine cut and engraved glass, lighting and other products. Between 1870 and 1890, Mt. Washington introduced a series of brilliant, innovative and exotic glass formulae and decorative treatments that, according to the Mt. Washington and Pairpoint Glass Society, established New Bedford as the Art Glass Headquarters of the country.
A diverse manufacturing industry continued to thrive into the late 20th century, when the national trend of off-shoring manufacturing led to steep declines. A few successful, and highly innovative, manufacturers remain, however, such as Titleist, which evolved from the historic Acushnet rubber company to an international leader in golf ball, golf equipment, and apparel manufacturing. Even today, innovative new companies continue to succeed, creatively leveraging knowledge, skills, and applications from historic whaling and maritime trades to new industries as diverse as photo voltaic cells, medical devices, and materials research.
Of particular interest as a case study is Nye Lubricants, a company whose products have evolved from whale oil to synthetic lubricants used in spaceships during 150 years of rapidly changing American life. Founded in 1844, shortly after the height of the whaling era, the company’s best-known product for more than a century was whale and dolphin-based lubricating oil; the company has since transformed into an innovative synthetic lubricant developer, with increasingly short product development cycles and a product line supporting worldwide engineering research and development.
From before colonial times until the late 1800s, fishing led the Massachusetts economy: one of the richest fishing areas in the world, George’s Bank, lies just off Cape Cod. As the American whaling industry declined in the early 20th century, fishing from the port of New Bedford along Cape Cod and the islands grew as an occupation for local mariners. New Bedford has maintained the number-one fishing port in the nation based on value of product landed for nearly ten years due primarily to the dominance in the lucrative Scallop trade. The fishing fleet lands over 145 million pounds of product annually, leveraging $241 million in direct sales; the port generates economic activity in excess of $1 billion annually.
Today's New Bedford commercial fishing fleet includes more than 500 vessels, and the harbor’s seafood processing industry includes 25 wholesale and 35 seafood processing operations. With a fleet nearly identical in size to the whaling fleet at its peak, today’s fishing industry similarly inhabits the nexus of nature and human industry. Family life has evolved similarly in fishing and whaling, as overfishing led to declining catches near shore, necessitating longer offshore trips. Similarly, economic forces in both industries increasingly favored consolidation of fleets over individually owned boats.
The local fishing industry experienced a period of growth and innovation in the 1930s and 1940s, influenced by immigrants from fishing communities in Norway and Newfoundland, technological innovations with worldwide influence, and a move to larger vessels. The New Bedford ground fishing industry again experienced substantial growth in the 1960s, fueled by market demand for previously less utilized fish species (sea scallops, in particular, as well as lobster, cod fish, haddock, and flounder), a wave of Portuguese immigrant labor, improved processing and delivery, and technological improvements in the fleet.
(Thanks to our funders: National Endowment for the Humanities, Massachusetts Humanities, Wood Foundation, Nye Lubricants)