Listen closely and you might still hear the footsteps of the workers who tramped between their tenements and the textile mills. New Bedford is known mostly for its whaling past, but in the 19th century rolls of cloth overtook barrels of whale oil as the city’s primary commodity, and the city led the world in textile production.
In 1602, English explorer Bartholomew Gosnold recorded his observations of the area that would become New Bedford. By 1785, residents began to hunt local whales, “trying” their blubber into oil for use in candles, lamps, and lubrication. In 1841, Herman Melville shipped out from New Bedford on the whaler Acushnet. His experiences on the high seas became the inspiration for Moby Dick. In 1857, the city led the world in whaling with 329 ships employing 10,000 people.
In the 1840s, whaling investors began to shift their capital into textile manufacturing. Wamsutta Mills opened in 1849, and its success inspired other textile ventures between the 1870s and 1920s. New Bedford’s early mills employed experienced “operatives” from textile manufactories in Rhode Island, England, Scotland, and Ireland. As mills blossomed throughout the city, immigrants from French Canada, Portugal, and elsewhere fulfilled workforce needs. In addition to men, the mills employed thousands of women and children, and sometimes entire families went to work together.
By the 1850s, widespread overfishing led to the depletion of whales, forcing ships to travel further and stay out longer to make a profit. In 1871 and 1876, shifting ice trapped the Arctic whaling fleet, and thirty-four ships from New Bedford were lost. At the same time, petroleum-based products began to capture the market for commodities once made from whale oil and spermaceti.
While whaling was slowly dying, the textile industry flourished. The influx of workers to New Bedford required housing, and mill owners erected multi-family tenement buildings, two or three stories high, charging rent to their employees. By the end of the century, three-deckers, a form of worker housing unique to New England, dominated the streetscape of the north and south ends of the city, where the textile mills were concentrated. Between 1910 and 1915, New Bedford’s population reached 104,000 people, of whom 84% were first or second generation immigrants. The city led the nation with sixty-seven textile mills, and in 1910 alone there were applications for building permits for 290 triple-deckers.
The New England textile industry rode out many economic downturns. However, by the 1920s, mismanagement, outdated machinery, and lower wages and lower taxes in southern states caused many New Bedford mills to close or relocate. A six-month strike in 1928 was disastrous for mill owners and workers. By 1938, only thirty mills remained in New Bedford and production had dropped from its peak by 93%. Since then, the City of New Bedford has grappled with ongoing questions about the nature of its economy, the use of massive and empty mill buildings, and housing for the working poor.
The mills are mostly silent now, but their echoes remain in brick and stone mill edifices and in the rows of triple-deckers that line the streets in the former industrial areas of New Bedford.
Four texts were indispensable in the research for this project: Kingston Wm. Heath, The Patina of Place: The Cultural Weathering of a New England Industrial Landscape (Knoxville: U of Tennessee, 2001); Joseph D. Thomas, et al, A Picture History of New Bedford: Volume One, 1602 – 1925, (Spinner Publications, 2013); Joseph D. Thomas, et al, A Picture History of New Bedford: Volume Two, 1925 – 1980 (Spinner Publications, 2016); The Journal of the Society for Industrial Archaeology, New Bedford Theme Issue, Vol. 40, Nos. 1 & 2 (2014).