George Washington and the Weaving of American History

(The following is a guest post by Julie Miller, early American history specialist in the Manuscript Division.)

What stories can a little record book that George Washington assembled to track the productivity of his weaving workshop at Mount Vernon tell? The book, which is part of the extensive collection of financial records that are part of Washington’s papers at the Library of Congress, doesn’t look like much. Nine inches high and seven-and-a-half pages wide, it was rebound by Library conservators very simply in paper, having at some point lost its original binding, if it ever had one. Its 26 pages contain a series of tables, neatly drawn by Washington himself, each with the heading “An Account of Weaving Done by Thomas Davis &c in the Year . . . ” These describe the output of the weaving workshop from January 1767 to January 1771, show how much of what the weavers made Washington used himself and how much he sold to his neighbors, and tell less than we would like to know about the free and enslaved weavers who worked there.

Patterns for Ms and Os and Birdeye in John Hargrove, "The Weavers Draft Book and Clothiers Assistant" (Baltimore, 1792).  Reprinted in 1979 by the American Antiquarian Society, edited by Rita J. Adrosko.

Patterns for Ms and Os and Birdeye in John Hargrove, “The Weavers Draft Book and Clothiers Assistant” (Baltimore, 1792). Reprinted in 1979 by the American Antiquarian Society, edited by Rita J. Adrosko.

One story is about Thomas Davis, the weaver who ran the workshop. Skilled weavers were scarce in colonial America, and Washington probably hired Davis from England. The workshop’s output, as documented in Washington’s neat hand, is a testament to the range of Davis’s skills and knowledge. Washington carefully recorded the weight (of the thread before it was woven and then of the finished cloth), width, density (in a column headed “hundreds in the width,” referring to the loom’s warp threads), and length of each piece; how long it took to weave, its price per yard and what type of cloth it was. At intervals, he added up what the weaving workshop had earned.

Davis and the weavers under his supervision worked in cotton, wool, linen and silk. They produced a variety of weaves, patterns and types of fabric, including bird eye, in cotton and wool; cotton and wool plaids; a pattern called Ms and Os; cotton striped with silk; linsey-woolsey, a mix of linen and wool; fustian, a rough cloth of cotton and linen; shalloon, a woollen material used for linings; and jean, sometimes spelled “jane,” a thick, twilled cotton that only later was associated with the blue jeans we wear today. The name of another fabric the weavers produced, diaper, also had yet to take on its modern meaning. They also turned out fish nets, harness, carpets, counterpanes and coverlets, and bed ticking. (Given the detail in which Washington recorded this information, it is interesting that he never mentioned color.)

“What Kind of Cloth,” 1770, showing Ms and Os, “Janes,” striped silk and cotton, carpet and more. George Washington Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

Davis may have been at Mount Vernon as early as 1766, before the book begins, and he was still there in 1773, so Washington must have been satisfied with him. Davis, however, may not have been so happy. Washington notes that in July and August of 1767 Davis had two bouts of sickness, and his farm manager reported that during this time he had fits in which he lay so long that he appeared to be dead (Lund Washington to George Washington, Aug. 17, 1767). Davis was also lonely. In 1773 Washington responded to Davis’s “particular request & earnest entreaty” to bring his mother and sister to join him, recording in a ledger that he paid a ship captain for their passage.

What about the weavers Davis supervised? The only other weavers named in the book are slaves identified by Washington as Dick and George. References to them appear in the column headed “Sickness with other Remarks & Occur[rences]” that Washington used to record information about the weavers. The notation “wove by Dick” appears in this column twice, both times in July 1767, when he wove a total of 65-and-a-half yards of linen. George, who is mentioned more often, appears in 1769 and 1770 weaving linen, a mixture of cotton and wool, and a fabric called kersey. In January and February 1770, Washington noted that George, evidently a profitable worker, missed a total of 20 days of work, partly due to sickness, partly because he was working elsewhere.

In the last pages of the book Washington notes another set of workers: “one white woman” and “5 Negro Girls” – spinners. Washington’s identification of these women as “white” and “Negro” is his shorthand for free and slave. He hired the white woman, but the girls of African descent were probably slaves. Spinning, the process by which fluffs of raw fiber were twisted and counter-twisted with a hand-held spindle or spinning wheel into strong, smooth lengths of thread for weaving, was so ubiquitous a female activity that the word “spinster” was also used to mean an unmarried woman.

Spinning was a woman’s job, but weaving, especially in Britain and continental Europe, was a job typically held by men. Weavers were skilled craftsmen who had been trained in apprenticeships and formed guilds, trade unions and other associations to protect their craft. As a group they occasionally rose up to protect their rights. In the second half of the 1760s, just as Washington was documenting the work of his Mount Vernon weavers, the silk weavers of Spitalfields in London staged a series of uprisings to protest undercutting of their prices. In one such protest a crowd of hundreds of weavers descended on a colleague they believed was “working under price,” cut the work out of his loom, set him backwards on an ass and rode him through the town, “hooting, hallowing, and making a great uproar.” (Pennsylvania Chronicle, and Universal Advertiser, Sept. 11, 1769.) This was the same sort of ritualized violence, rooted in British tradition, that the American revolutionaries were soon to visit on the loyalists in their midst.

At Mount Vernon, the enslaved weavers and spinners and the ill and isolated Davis had little opportunity to follow the example of the Spitalfields weavers and assert their rights. But George Washington did. In the 1760s, the Anglo-American colonists were becoming annoyed by what they felt were unjust taxes, such as those imposed by the Stamp Act of 1765 and the Townshend Act of 1767, and other British impositions that the Continental Congress would later list in the Declaration of Independence. In 1769, Virginia, like other American colonies, began boycotting British goods. George Washington, a member of Virginia’s legislature, the House of Burgesses, supported the boycott (see his letter to George Mason, April 5, 1769, click here for a transcription). In this period Washington was also looking for ways to diversify the production of his Virginia estate. At the end of the 18th century, tobacco, which had been so valuable to the earliest Virginia settlers, was declining as a profitable crop. Like other Virginia planters, Washington began to rely more on crops such as wheat and flax, and sources of income such as milling and fishing. The weaving workshop — which made linen out of his flax, nets to catch his fish and cloth to supply his estate and sell to his neighbors — was part of that effort.

“Wove by Dick,” 1767. George Washington Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

For years, Washington had been buying textiles, along with other goods, from London merchants in exchange for his tobacco. Now he was reconsidering that practice on both financial and political grounds. On the last pages of the book are notes that show him calculating what it cost him to manufacture textiles at home compared to the cost of importing them from Britain. Or as he put it (with the creative capitalization, spelling and punctuation of the 18th century): “A Comparison drawn between Manufacturing, & importing; the goods on the otherside.”

Washington’s realization, in the 1760s, about the connection between manufacturing and national autonomy appears to be the story George Washington created this book to tell. He had hired weavers before 1767 and continued to do so after 1771, but it was only during this period of political and economic turbulence that he chose to create a separate record of his Mount Vernon weaving business and to calculate exactly what it earned and what it cost him. After he became the first president of the United States, domestic manufacturing became central to the program advocated by his treasury secretary, Alexander Hamilton, and by Washington himself.

In the fall of 1789, soon after he became president, Washington went on a tour of the New England states. In Boston he visited a “duck manufacture,” a workshop that wove duck, a sturdy cotton fabric. Proto-factories like this one were forerunners of the steam and water-powered factories that would appear in New England in greater numbers in the decades to come. Once again Washington paid close attention to the details, counting 28 looms and 14 spinners, mainly girls and women from local farming families who were paid for their labor. The workers, he remarked in his diary (Oct. 28, 1789), “are the daughters of decayed families, and are girls of Character – none others are admitted.” He did not dwell on the similarity between their predicament – worn-out farms (this is the “decay” he mentions) and his own 20 years earlier. Nor did he predict that one day these early factory workers would organize for better pay and working conditions. But he did record his approval:  “This is a work of public utility & private advantage” he remarked in his diary, something he had learned long ago.

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