Textile Society of America


Date of this Version



Crosscurrents: Land, Labor, and the Port. Textile Society of America's 15th Biennial Symposium. Savannah. GA. October 19-23. 2016.


Copyright 2016 by Linda Jean Thorsen.


Histories of dyeing in the United States have tended to emphasize home craft processes, early textile manufacturing, or the growth of synthetic dyes. But in the first decades of the nineteenth century, a vibrant independent dyeing service industry emerged in U.S. port cities. Using natural dyes, working with a variety of fibers, colors, and finishing processes, and developing sophisticated skills and equipment, these dyers served import merchants, retailers, elite households, and businesses such as hotels. They received cloth, garments, or home furnishings, cleaned, bleached, and/or dyed them, and then returned them “like new.” To satisfy customers, these businesses had to at least approach the original materials’ quality of dyeing and finishing, which meant adapting state-of-the-art practices from London and Europe. Through a case study of businesses owned and operated by the Barrett family of Malden, Massachusetts and Staten Island, New York, this paper illuminates the nature and growth of the industry in the early nineteenth century. Operating through a succession of partnerships, the Barrett dyeing business expanded rapidly after 1800, aided by internal improvements, and was highly profitable into the 1820s, when the Barrett family opened a second business on Staten Island to serve merchants and households in New York and further south. The enterprise soon grew to incorporate printing as well as dyeing. Profits declined in the 1830s and 1840s as competing dyers and cheaper cloth drove prices down. It seems that at least before 1830, these independent dyers, rather than the early textile manufacturers in Pawtucket, Waltham, and Lowell, drove technical advances and commercial success in high-end dyeing in the United States. Access to a profitable household market (referred to as the “retail” arm of the business) helped to mitigate dyers’ dependence on powerful merchants. In effect, profit from dyeing for households subsidized the significant “wholesale” dyeing business that reduced merchants’ import risk and increased their profits.