July 31, 2013

Levi Coffin and Free-Labor Cotton Goods (the last)

For Quakers, such as quilt maker Elizabeth Margaret Chandler (1807-1834) who was homesteading in the Midwest, it was difficult if not impossible to obtain fabrics that were made without slave labor.  These materials were more readily --  if not widely -- available in cities like Philadelphia, Baltimore, and New York.  Elizabeth's letters to her family in Philadelphia include several requests to be sent free-labor fabrics from shops in Philadelphia, especially from the shop owned and operated by Lydia White.

Elizabeth Margaret Chandler. Frontispiece to Elizabeth M. Chandler, the Poetical
Works (1836) published posthumously by her friend abolitionist Benjamin Lundy.
 Source: Wikimedia Commons.  (For more about Elizabeth, refer to our posting
of April 15, 2013 titled "Elizabeth Margaret Chandler and the Free Produce Movement".)
 When Elizabeth was finishing a quilt in 1833, the closest free-labor store to her Michigan home was probably the one run by O. Fairfield & Company in Cincinnati, Ohio.  This store opened in 1831 but there is no evidence that it continued operation beyond that year.  Levi Coffin opened his Cincinnati warehouse of free-labor goods in 1847 but, by that time, Elizabeth had passed away and her unfinished quilt may or may not have been sent to Philadelphia to be completed by another.
Between 1817 and 1862, Free Produce (or free-labor) stores speckled the country.  Levi Coffin, alone, operated several free-labor stores in Indiana and Ohio between 1841 and 1857.  Unfortunately, the idea of boycotting anything other than free-labor goods never really took hold due to the complications of obtaining goods, their high prices, and the often inferior quality of their merchandise.
Still, the passion of those who eschewed using cotton derived from slave labor echoes in this excerpt of a poem titled "Slave Produce" by Elizabeth Margaret Chandler.
"Look! They are robes from a foreign loom,
Delicate, light, as the rose leaf's bloom;
Stainless and pure in their snowy tint,
As the drift unmarked by a footstep's print.
Surely such garment should fitting be
For woman's softness and purity.
Yet fling them off from thy shrinking limb,
For sighs have render'd their brightness dim;
And many a mother's shriek and groan,
And many a daughter's burning moan,
And many a sob of wild despair,
From woman's heart, is lingering there."
Levi Coffin.  Reminiscences of Levi Coffin, the Reputed President of the Underground Railroad; Being a Brief History of the Labors of a Lifetime in Behalf of the Slave, with the Stories of Numerous Fugitives, Who Gained Their Freedom Through His Instrumentality and Many Other Incidents.  Electronic Edition, Academic Affairs Library, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, 2001.  Find it at http://www.docsouth.unc.edu/nc/coffin/coffin.html.
Benjamin Lundy.  The Poetical Works of Elizabeth Margaret Chandler with a Memoir of Her Life and Character.  Philadelphia: Lemuel Howell, 1836.
Marsha J. Heringa Mason.  Remember the Distance that Divides Us, The Family Letters of Philadelphia Quaker Abolitionist and Michigan Pioneer Elizabeth Margaret Chandler, 1830-1842. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2004.
Ruth Ketring Nuermberger.  "The Free Produce Movement: A Quaker Protest Against Slavery".  In Historical Papers of the Trinity College Historical Society, Series XXV.  Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1942.
(c) Lynda Salter Chenoweth and Mary Holton Robare, 2013.


July 15, 2013

Levi Coffin and Free-Labor Cotton Goods (continued)

This is a continuation of our last posting about free-labor cotton goods and the difficulty in finding them in America until after the Civil War.

A granddaughter of the famous American Quaker abolitionist, Lucretia Mott, referred to this when she wrote about her grandmother's pre-Civil War visits to country Meetings.  "In driving, my grandfather enjoyed looking about him as he went along, noticing the landscape, and the crops, and the people; while my grandmother, on the contrary, regarded only the end of the journey and felt little interest in immediate objects.  She always took her knitting with her, and knitted on the way."  Her granddaughter went on to explain that Lucretia Mott had produced covers and quilts that "were made of English "marseilles"' but she had taken up knitting as a substitute technique for replacing worn-out quilts that were "manufactured from free cotton, [because] no more could be found in the American market, except such as were made from cotton raised by slave labor."

Lucretia Mott (1793-1880).  Library of Congress.  Image
courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Although we don't know what Mott's quilts looked like, the term "English Marseilles" probably referenced the technique of corded needlework.
Man's waistcoat, possibly England circa 1760, with cotton corded quilting.
A holding of the Los Angeles County Museum, Los Angeles, California.
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.  Originating in the area of Marseilles, France,
 this type of quilted white-work was popular in the 18th and early 19th centuries
 for quilts and coverlets.
When Levi and Catherine Coffin moved to Cincinnati in 1847, Levi also found that there were insufficient supplies of free-labor cotton goods to stock the warehouse he had agreed to operate on behalf of his Quaker investors.  So Levi, having grown up in the South, turned to his contacts there to identify farmers who were producing cotton without the use of slave labor.  His idea was to buy free-labor cotton that could then be manufactured into cotton products at mills in and near Cincinnati.
Elbert and Holly Hollingsworth, ages 10 and 7, picking cotton on their family
farm in Texas.  Prior to the Civil War, entire families were devoted to this time-consuming
chore when they could not afford to hire other help and did not, or would not, own slaves.
Photograph courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Levi soon discovered Pleasant Diggs, a Mississippi farmer who, along with many of his acquaintances, produced enough free-labor cotton to supply Levi's needs.  The problem, however, was that none of these farmers had a cotton gin.  All of their cotton was ginned and baled at sites that used slave labor.  Levi solved the problem by raising the money to buy, and have installed, a cotton gin in the vicinity of these Mississippi farmers.  The gin became known, locally, as the "Abolition Gin".
Eli Whitney's patent for the cotton gin dated March 14, 1794.  Photograph
courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
The next problem was to chart a route from the source of the cotton to Cincinnati that did not involve the use of slave labor to load, unload, or in any way handle the cotton on its way north.  This, too, Levi accomplished with the help of both northern and southern friends sympathetic to the free-labor cause.  He then made arrangements with Gould, Pearce & Co. of Cincinnati to spin cotton yarn, carpet warp, twine, and candle wicking, and with the firm of Stearns & Foster to make batting and wadding from the cotton he purchased.  He later induced Gould, Pearce & Co. to erect looms and make brown muslin for his warehouse.  All of these goods he exchanged with Philadelphia and New York Free Produce distributors for their woven cotton goods from England and elsewhere.  In this way, the Cincinnati warehouse was able to supply housewives with the free-labor cotton products they needed for a variety of domestic uses, for quilt making, and for making clothing.
Levi Coffin.  Reminiscences of Levi Coffin, the Reputed President of the Underground Railroad; Being a Brief History of the Labors of a Lifetime in Behalf of the Slave, with the Stories of Numerous Fugitives, Who Gained Their Freedom Through His Instrumentality and Many Other Incidents.  Electronic Edition, Academic Affairs Library, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, 2001.
Ann Davis Hallowell, ed.  James and Lucretia Mott: Life and Letters.  Cambridge, MA: The Riverside Press, 1885.
(c) Lynda Salter Chenoweth and Mary Holton Robare, 2013.




July 1, 2013

Levi Coffin and Free-Labor Cotton Goods

Quakers Levi Coffin and his wife Catherine are best known for their perilous and persistent efforts to assist slaves escaping from the South and making their way north to freedom.  These efforts earned Levi the title "President of the Underground Railroad" but his work in support of the Free-Labor (or Free Produce) movement is less well known.

Levi Coffin (1798-1877).  Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.  The
original image is from Coffin, Levi, Reminiscences of Levi Coffin,
R. Clark & Co., 1880, page xii.
Born in North Carolina where he daily witnessed the effects of slavery, Levi resolved early in life to fight this oppressive institution through acts of his own.  As a teenager, he and his father assisted several slaves seeking freedom in the North or returning to their lives as freed men who had been captured in the North and sent back into southern slavery.  Today the campus of Guilford College in Greensboro, North Carolina, "is an historical site where famed abolitionist Levi Coffin, a Quaker, began his Underground Railroad activities prior to the Civil War.  Escaped slaves came to the woods of New Garden and were aided in their flight to freedom in the North by Quakers in the community."  (Guilford College web site.)
Catherine White Coffin (1803-1881).  Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.  Same
original source as cited above, page xx.
Levi married Catherine White in the fall of 1824 and, two years later, they joined other members of the Coffin family in Indiana where Levi established a prosperous mercantile business in Newport (later renamed Fountain City).  The Coffins soon discovered that they were in an area where large numbers of fugitive slaves sought out local free blacks for help moving north.  They also found that local whites, including some fellow-members of the Religious Society of Friends, were not actively supporting the fugitives.  As pacifists, they sought to avoid conflicts that might arouse violence.  There were also grave concerns about the consequences of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 which conferred steep fines on anyone aiding escaping slaves.
The Coffins followed their own leanings and, in the winter of 1826-27, they began to welcome fleeing fugitives into their own home and arrange for their transfer north to the next place of shelter.  As more and more fugitives came and were assisted by the Coffins, many of their neighbors took courage and began to contribute food, clothing, and means of transport to their efforts.
The Levi and Catherine Coffin house located in Fountain City, Indiana.
The house has been designated a National Historic Landmark.  Courtesy of Wikimedia
 Commons, author Nyttend.
Coffin estimated that he and his wife had assisted in excess of one hundred fugitives a year during the twenty years they lived in Newport.  During this time his home became known as the "Grand Central Station" on the Underground Railroad's path north.  A lady's sewing circle even met at the Coffin home each week for years making and repairing garments for those seeking freedom from slavery.  Although their assistance to fugitives and the activities of the sewing circle were generally known, the house was never searched due to Levi's powerful influence as a local businessman.
In 1846 a Quaker Convention at Salem, Indiana, funded an enterprise to establish a warehouse, in Cincinnati, Ohio, that would stock and supply cotton goods, spices, sugar, and other articles to Quakers and others who were boycotting products made and transported using slave labor.  This boycott, inspired by the Free Produce movement founded in Philadelphia in 1827, was gaining in popularity at the time and the demand for free-labor products was rapidly increasing.  Levi Coffin was selected to head up this enterprise and he and Catherine moved to Cincinnati in 1847.
Levi, in his Reminiscences cited below, wrote at some length about the difficulty he and other suppliers of free-labor articles had in obtaining cotton products to meet the growing demand.  He began by visiting Philadelphia and New York and buying, from Free Produce associations there, as many free-labor cotton items as could be had.  Some of these were being manufactured in England at Manchester mills under the auspices of free-labor associations and could be relied upon not to have involved slave labor.  But the supply of free-labor cotton was insufficient to meet the demands of Quaker housewives and other free-labor sympathizers for daily uses, including quilt making.  This was a problem that Levi would have to solve.
 (To be continued.)
Fernando G. Cartland.  Southern Heroes: The Friends in War Time.  Cambridge, MA: The Riverside Press, 1895.
Levi Coffin.  Reminiscences of Levi Coffin, the Reputed President of the Underground Railroad; Being a Brief History of the Labors of a Lifetime in Behalf of the Slave, with the Stories of Numerous Fugitives, Who Gained Their Freedom Through His Instrumentality and Many Other Incidents.  Electronic Edition, Academic Affairs Library, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, 2001.  Find it at http://www.docsouth.unc.edu/nc/coffin/coffin.html.  
(c) Lynda Salter Chenoweth and Mary Holton Robare, 2013.