American Textile History Museum
What is the story of textiles? Where did it first originate? When did mass-production of cloth first begin?
Today I visited the American Textile History Museum. This museum was similar to the Boott museum in that both are old mills that were converted into museums. It was, however, different in all other respects.
First, I visited the Home Front and Battlefield: Quilts and Context in the Civil War temporary exhibit. Because the exhibit was a collection of quilts from various sources, I was not allowed to take any pictures. But, while reading the signs next to the quilts, I realized I didn’t need them. I did manage to find pictures of a few items in the collection that came from the original source of the artifacts.
In every war there is a lot of effort put in on the Home Front that history books do not often mention. Textbooks mention the patriotism of those on the battlefield, but not of those at home. I realized that all these artifacts with patriotic motifs were designed to manifest the deep emotional reactions. The shawl shown above, for example, was created for Gov. Andrews’s wife during the war to commemorate the couple's abolitionist efforts, and for the governor's part in leading Massachusetts troops to war. One quilt was created by a mother of two sons from their uniforms, one Union blue, and the other Confederate gray. Her name was Susan and she lived in Anna, Illinois One question remains: Why would two brothers fight on opposite sides in a war?
Flags, like the one on the shawl mentioned previously, not only represented patriotism and nationhood, but also honor to the soldiers who fought and often gave up their lives to protect them. The memories associated with these symbols drove people to sometimes walk to face their own deaths in the hope that the deaths of those who perished previously would not have done so in vain. Though the women could not vote, they expressed their feelings through their words and their needlework. One set of patriotic bed covers was done by Margaret English Wood Dodge. Of this set, one was eventually presented to President Lincoln. A picture is shown below.
What does this have to do with mills you ask? Good question. As the war started mills ran overtime. They ran extra shifts to produce shoddy cloth for uniforms. When demand for cloth couldn’t be met solely by the mills, cloth was imported from abroad to meet demands.
Still, sometimes demands were too great for industry to satisfy. This was especially true in the south, where there weren’t as many mills as in the North. To solve this problem, many women brought out old spinning wheels and manual looms that they had put up in their attics at the start of the Industrial Revolution, and made their own cloth. They created uniforms when factories couldn’t. They rolled bandages, knit stockings, scraped lint and preserved food. Sometimes, not satisfied with the quality of the cloth produced by factories, women even spun their own wool!
After the Civil War exhibit, I moved on to the rest of the museum. I saw the exhibit Textiles through Space and Time. We started at the origins of American cloth; the Native Americans. Then we moved on production of cloth pre-Industrial Revolution. A farm building with a water wheel powering a simple device owned by the farm owner was shown. This is the origin of the water powered machine system of textile creation.
From there we moved on to the introduction of different types of cloth, like silk, linen, and cotton. Cotton used to be the least used fabric when settlers first came to the United States. Because cotton required a warmer climate than that of England, the settlers were unfamiliar with cotton. But by the Industrial Revolution, cotton was the most used fabric in the US.
Next on our tour came color. Color makes an instant impression. Color has meaning. Color was initially created by permutations and combinations of different natural dyes. Some come from animals. The natural dye for deep purple (no relation to Smoke on the Water) comes from snails in the murex family. Because these snails were so hard to find, purple was color associated with royalty. That is, until 1856, when William Henry Perkins invented aniline, the first synthetic color dye, using coal tar, a waste product of industrialization that people thought toxic and thus useless. Both a jar of the murex mollusks and a tank of coal tar are shown. The snails are above and the coal tar is below.
At one point we reached an exhibit that really struck me. It was a comparison of a girl’s wardrobe in the 19th century to a girl’s wardrobe today. It struck me because it makes us as a society seem really wasteful. That exhibit cast us as a society who throws away clothes regularly and buys new ones to replace them. The people in the 19th century had very few clothes that were durable and were kept for a long time because people back then knew the value of the clothing. They knew how much time and effort it took to make each piece of clothing, and so clothing was replaced very infrequently, almost never.
Eventually we got to a section on modern times. In one of the blurbs in this section, we were asked to identify the number of textiles in a car. Try your luck before looking at the picture at the bottom of this post. How many textiles are there in a car? (Hint: some of them aren't obvious).
As you can see, there are a surprising number of textiles in things that I wouldn't have thought of as textiles. I certainly wouldn't have thought of a bicycle as a textile. But it is. Modern bicycles are made of carbon fiber, which I wouldn't have thought of as similar to cloth.
Then we saw a video. About what, you may ask? The video was about baseball. A baseball is a textile. In the 1990s, many people believed that the MLB baseballs were being juiced, or tampered with, by the baseball maker. This belief arose as a conspiracy theory to explain the increased home run rates. The MLB started sending baseballs to a lab to make sure that they weren't being tampered with. I've actually seen this lab from the outside. It’s on North Campus at UMass Lowell, in the Engineering Building. In this lab, first the baseballs’ liveliness is tested. Then, a single baseball from the sample is dissected to bring out the pit, or core of the baseball. Then this pit is tested to determine if the ball is tampered with. A baseball is tampered with if the pit is tampered with. If the pit bounces abnormally, or out of a certain acceptable range as deemed by the MLB, then the ball has been juiced.
There we ended our tour of the museum. Some exhibits in the museum struck me, but some I just ignored. One thing makes me somewhat upset. After looking in the Civil War exhibit, and writing this post, I realized that all the feelings and war-related patriotism still applies today with the war in Afghanistan. Both the candidates for the upcoming election claim that they are taking the “populist” view. The Republicans all say that Democrats are being unpatriotic by taking an anti-war status. How would they know the pain of losing a loved one? Though they may talk of patriotism as a grand thing, it won’t be so grand if everyone ends up dead. They simply do not know the feeling because neither they nor members of their families are going to fight in the war.
I would like to take this opportunity to compare and contrast the two museums I visited in the past two weeks. The Boott cotton museum was more about life in the mills specifically, whereas the American Textile History museum was about the history of textiles in America, starting before the mill era and ending in modern times. Only a small part of the 2nd museum was about the mills, whereas the Boott cotton museum was focused only on this part. I would say that the museums both contribute to telling the tale of Lowell: the American Textile History Museum tells of the entire tale, and is very detailed in every aspect except the mill era. This is where the Boott cotton museum picks up, and covers the era in great detail, but doesn’t cover everything else. Taken together, they tell the tale of textiles.