Filed Under Mills

Wamsutta Mills

In 1847, a building without precedent in New Bedford began to rise north of the harbor in a grassy field along the banks of the Acushnet River.

The building was five stories tall, of rough-hewn local granite, and about as long as the distance between streets in the older whaling center of town. A steam engine designed and built by Providence’s George H. Corliss powered ten thousand spindles, which began producing cotton goods in 1849. As the city’s first successful large-scale textile mill, Wamsutta set the standard for those that followed.

Wamsutta Mills became known for its production of top quality cotton shirting and sheeting. Business thrived, and in 1853, Wamsutta built a second mill adjacent to the first, followed in 1862 by Wamsutta 3. Production declined during the Civil War due to labor and material shortages, but the company added a fourth mill in 1870. Wamsutta 4 was powered by another Corliss steam engine, the largest of its kind in the world. When the company added Wamsutta 5, the engine doubled in size, surpassing the famous steam engine that Corliss provided to power Machinery Hall during the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia.

By 1892, Wamsutta owned seven mills and was the largest cotton-weaving factory in the world. Five years later, it operated more than four-thousand looms and employed more than two-thousand workers. By the mid-1920s, Wamsutta updated its facilities from steam power to electric and refurbished its machinery. When the Great Depression struck the nation in 1929, more than two-dozen textile mills closed in New Bedford. Wamsutta, however, managed to survive and thrive throughout World War II. The company adapted its product line to include items needed for the war effort: uniforms, hot air balloons, gas mask material, and canvas supplies.

Wamsutta closed in 1958 when the company’s owners relocated its operations and much of its equipment to South Carolina to take advantage of cheaper labor costs. In 2006, Wamsutta Mills 4 & 5 were redeveloped as loft-style apartments. Many other Wamsutta structures remain including Wamsutta 6, a weave shed, the mill pond that provided water for steam engines, and an historic ice house and weave shed.

Images

Interior of Wamsutta Mill, 1912. Lewis Hine identified the boy on the right as Wilfred Pepin, about 13 years-old. Pepin lived at 42 Bowditch Street (now Ashley Boulevard) and had been working for a few weeks at Wamsutta Mills. Source: Hine, Lewis Wickes. Interior Wamsutta Mill, Wilfred Pepin, 42 Bowditch St. (Youngest Boy, Appears 13 Yrs. Old). Has Been Working a Few Weeks in Mule Room #4. Location: New Bedford, Massachusetts. 1912, //http://www.loc.gov/pictures/resource/nclc.02458/. Creator: Lewis Hine Date: 1912
Sanborn Fire Insurance Map of New Bedford, 1906 (detail) By 1906, Wamsutta Mills was a fully-developed industrial complex. Source:
Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. 20540 USA. “Sanborn Fire Insurance Map from New Bedford, Bristol County, Massachusetts.” Image. Accessed April 26, 2022. https://www.loc.gov/item/sanborn03803_003/.
Date: 1906
Postcard, Wamsutta Mills, ca. 1900 The New Bedford and Taunton Railroad predated Wamsutta by about eight years, and provided the mills with the option of transporting raw materials and finished goods by water or rail. This color postcard is based upon an 1895 photograph of Wamsutta Mills looking north. Date: ca. 1900
Workers at the main entrance to Wamsutta Mill, 1912. A group of workers can be seen standing outside the main entrance to Wamsutta Mills. According to Lewis Hine, the young women passing by ran “the gauntlet of vile-speaking men and boys,” whose “remarks are sometimes beyond belief.” Source: Hine, Lewis Wickes. Main Entrance Wamsutta Mills. Young Workers Also Indolescent [i.e., Adolescent] and Young Girls Running the Gauntlet of Vile-Speaking Men and Boys. The Remarks Are Sometimes beyond Belief. Location: New Bedford, Massachusetts. 1912, //http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/ncl2004003355/PP/. Creator: Lewis Hine Date: 1912
Wamsutta Mill near the main entrance, 1912. Lewis Hine traveled to New Bedford to document child labor within the textile industry on behalf of the National Child Labor Committee. His subjects often regarding Hine with suspicion. For this photograph, Hine noted, “Boy running is one of the workers in Wamsutta Mills. He is very small and appears considerably under 14. He has been dodging me for some time and did his best to avoid being photo'd.” The work of Hine and other reformers eventually led to new national child labor laws and practices. Source: Hine, Lewis Wickes. Main Entrance, Wamsutta Mills. Boy Running Is One of the Workers in Wamsutta Mills. He Is Very Small and Appears Considerably under 14. He Has Been Dodging Me for Some Time and Did His Best to Avoid Being Photo’d. Location: New Bedford, Massachusetts. 1912, //http://www.loc.gov/pictures/collection/nclc/item/ncl2004003352/PP/. Creator: Lewis Hine Date: 1912
Wamsutta Mills, 1968. Wamsutta’s boiler house, mill buildings, and clock tower are visible across the mill pond that supplied water heated to create steam to power the mill machinery, 1968. Source: HABS MASS,3-NEBED,24--7, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. Creator: Jack E. Boucher Date: 1968

Location

800 Acushnet Ave, New Bedford, MA 02740

Metadata

Sean Briody, “Wamsutta Mills,” Rhode Tour, accessed September 29, 2022, https://rhodetour.org/items/show/72.