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.




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