The American Textile Industry: Promoting the Image, the Process, and the Product

Article excerpt

The collections of the American Textile History Museum in Lowell, Massachusetts, have been in the making for almost fifty years - not a significant number when compared with the antiquity of other New England institutions, but unusual for collections that focus on a specific industry. The museum was founded in 1960 to collect the documentary evidence of woolen manufacturing in New England, both industrial and preindustrial, as well as the machinery, tools, and textiles that the industry built and created. Over the years, the museum enlarged its purview, collecting information and artifacts about other natural fibers and expanding geographically to include the entire United States. The responsibility of the museum's Osborne Library - to collect the supporting paper documentation - also expanded to include more than books, periodicals, and business records. The industry's visual history - the finer arts of painting and prints as well as its more commercial and ephemeral aspects - was deemed significant enough to become an important part of its collecting mandate.

To discuss the library's image collections, all sorts of boundaries will be crossed. Engravings, lithographs, photomechanical images, and more will be included. Books, trade catalogs, and ephemera as well as specific genres such as insurance maps, labels, and advertising will be addressed. Expressions of civic and corporate pride (and by extension labor), technical illustration and instruction, and the promotion of commerce will be considered - all subjects easily applied to the textile industry and the museum's library collections.

Promoting the Image: Management and Labor

A novel example of industrial harmony on cloth is a textile swatch attached to illustrated card stock (Figure l). Although officially residing in the textile collection, this is a hybrid piece interesting for its images on paper and cloth. The selling agent for the Cocheco Mills of Dover, New Hampshire, produced the folder in 1886 for Cocheco's line of cotton-printed house dresses or wrappers. What appears to be a textile mill is featured in the left corner. In the center, labor grasps the hand of management. The banner reads: "The Two Powers in Accord." The only trade specifically mentioned on the textile is that of the ironworkers, who may have commissioned the piece, although it is more likely to have been the Knights of Labor, which represented a variety of trade unions under its banner. The engraver's sheet that came with this sample card is initialed "K. of L.," which lends credence to this view. But it remains a mystery piece. Why go to the trouble of manufacturing such cloth for what could have been a very small run and market? Nonetheless, the print is a dynamic one: the smoking "iron horse," the mill, and the foundry being classic images of Victorian energy. And what hopes must have been pinned to the image of the handshake between "Labor" and "Management." Indeed, the Knights held that strikes were "productive of more injury than benefit to the working people," a view that ironically led to their demise.1

Yet another type of coexistence is reflected in those early views of planned textile manufacturing sites like Lowell and Lawrence, so often pictured in fragile harmony with the countryside. Many have written perceptively about the social significance of these views, which captured, in each passing decade, America's love affair with technology and the transformed landscape. As one examines a range of images over several decades, "the artist had to move to higher ground in order to take in the spreading vista of the city"a These transitional prints (Figures 2 and 3) of textile towns and cities were produced primarily between 1825 and 1865 and were often recycled and modified for other more commercial uses, such as the lithographed flap of a textile sample folder. The library's most coherent example of this type is J. B. Bachelder's 1856 view of Lowell (Figure 3) printed in New York by Endicott & Co. …