Before discount department stores became popular, New Bedford had Mars Bargainland. In the 1960s and 70s, the enormous high-ceilinged space contained a treasure trove of cut-price clothes, toys, and household items. A bit further inside the massive building shoppers found Food Mart, where workers boxed their groceries and slid them down rollers to be collected outside at street level. For many New Bedford residents, the memory of Mars Bargainland is still vivid, but few people remember this building’s original purpose.
Designed by architects Charles Makepeace of Providence and Benjamin Smith of New Bedford and built between 1896 and 1917, Whitman Mills contained the highest density of looms in the region. The endless floors were relieved by tall windows, and spire-like chimney stacks exhausted plumes of smoke from the coal-fired boilers that powered the mills’ steam engines. The complex included an engine house, pipe house, pump house, machine shed, and office building, visually unified by Romanesque Revival details. Behind the mills loading docks extended into the Acushnet River, and across Riverside Avenue stood a large weave shed.
The 1917 issue of the Official American Textile Directory gave a sense of the output of the Whitman Mills at their peak. $2 million of cloth were produced per year. Adjusted for inflation, this would equal more than $48 million in 2016. Whitman’s primary products included “Plain and Fancy Cotton and Silk Goods and Cotton Yarns,” produced on 138,128 ring spindles, 36,960 mule spindles, and 4,932 looms powered by steam and electric power.
William Whitman, who built the mill, was a leader in New England’s textile industry for more than four decades. Whitman headed one of the world’s largest cotton textile manufacturing organizations and served as president of the Association of Wool Manufacturers. He also developed tariff policy related to the textile industry and advised Congress on trade matters.
Despite Whitman’s business expertise, the mills he developed were not immune to economic pressures, and this one was no exception. Although the mill closed in 1932, the complex housed a variety of businesses including a cannery, in addition to Mars Bargainland, but they filled a small fraction of the space and employed a total of only about 500 people, less than a third of the Whitman Mills’ peak of 1,750 employees.
Today, where once thousands of machines created continuous deafening noise, more than one-hundred elderly residents live in cozy studios and apartments. Named Whaler Place with unintentional irony, the development references the city’s more illustrious past rather than the textile industry that sustained the city long after the end of whaling. The floors once covered with a layer of cotton fiber now gleam with refinished wood and plush carpeting. The 18-foot ceilings are perhaps the only reminder of the buildings’ former use.