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Activating The Henry Ford Archive of Innovation

"Sampling" the Past: Fabrics from America's Textile Mills

December 13, 2020 Archive Insight

In 2017, The Henry Ford acquired a significant collection of materials from the American Textile History Museum (ATHM) when financial challenges forced that organization to close its doors. Founded in 1960, ATHM was located in Lowell, Massachusetts, a city key to the story of the Industrial Revolution and to the American textile industry. For decades, ATHM gathered and interpreted a superb collection of textile machinery and tools, clothing and textiles, and an extensive collection of archival materials. The Henry Ford was among the many museums, libraries, and other organizations to which ATHM's collections were transferred. 

The Henry Ford acquired textile machinery, clothing, and textiles, as well as archival material that includes approximately 3,000 cubic feet of printed materials and fabric samples from various textile manufacturers, dating from the early 1800s into the mid-to-late 1900s. As part of the William Davidson Foundation Initiative for Entrepreneurship, The Henry Ford has digitized many sample books, as well as product literature, from the archival material within the ATHM collection.

So, what is a sample book? Textile manufacturing companies – commonly referred to as mills or print works – kept a record of fabrics produced by the company within a given year or season. These records typically consist of a fabric sample attached to a blank page in a bound book, and are often accompanied by information including pattern name, inventory number, dyestuffs, and in a few cases, the retail company for which the fabric was made.

The pages of these books offer a rich look at the broad range of fabrics produced by an increasingly mechanized textile industry, allowing researchers to see the evolution in textile design, materials, and manufacturing techniques. They also allow a glimpse into the various methods of recordkeeping among the many companies represented in the collection. Finally, the books—and the fabric samples within them—provide us with a broad view into the rich color palate of American textiles of the 1800s and 1900s. This is especially helpful for exploring clothing and textiles in the era before widespread color photography, where our understanding of the period is dulled by black-and-white depictions. The sample books are strikingly beautiful, offering an intriguing glimpse of the evolution of styles and patterns over time.

In addition to the sample books, we had the opportunity to digitize several examples of product literature from the 1900s, including catalogs and brochures. The product literature was used for marketing and sales, rather than as a record of production. These materials offer insight into the fabric and designs available for clothing or domestic use during the 1900s.

Have I piqued your interest? Below are a few favorite items I’ve come across in this collection.

Sample Books

 

Cocheco Manufacturing Company (Dover, New Hampshire & Lawrence, Massachusetts)


GIF cycling through three sheets containing rectangular fabric samples in a variety of colors and patterns in rows; also contains handwritten numbers and text
Fabric Samples from the Notebook of Washington Anderton, Color Mixer for Cocheco Print Works, 1876-1877 / THF670738, THF670787,
THF670757


GIF cycling through three sheets containing rectangular fabric samples in a variety of colors and patterns in rows; also contains handwritten numbers and text
Fabric Samples from the Notebook of Washington Anderton, Color Mixer for Cocheco Print Works, November to December 1877 / THF670668, THF670707, THF670697

Sheet containing two rows of rectangular fabric samples in a variety of colors and patterns; also contains handwritten numbers and text
Sample Book, January 9, 1880 to April 22, 1880 / THF600226


Hamilton Manufacturing Company (Lowell, Massachusetts)


GIF cycling through three sheets containing one large rectangular fabric sample per page; colors and patterns vary
Sample Book, April 9, 1900 to May 27, 1901 / THF600027, THF600141,
THF600167

Lancaster Mills (Clinton, Massachusetts)


GIF cycling through two sheets each containing four rectangular fabric samples in stripes and plaids; also contains typed or printed numbers
Sample Book, "36 Inch Klinton Fancies," Fall 1927 / THF299907, THF299924

GIF cycling through two sheets each containing four rectangular fabric samples in plaids and geometric patterns; also contains typed or printed numbers
Sample Book, "Glenkirk," Spring 1928 / THF299970, THF299971


Product Literature

 

Hellwig Silk Dyeing Company (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania)


¬Rows of fiber or thread samples in a variety of colors accompanied by text
Sample Book, "Indanthrene Colors," 1900-1920 /
THF299990

 

Montgomery Ward & Co. (Chicago, Illinois)


Page with illustration of two men in suits and hats, accompanied by rectangular fabric swatches and text
Suit Catalog, "Made to Measure All Wool Suits," 1932 / THF600534

I.V. Sedler Company, Inc. (Cincinnati, Ohio)


Sheet with illustration of woman in hat and striped dress; text; two square swatches of striped fabric
Catalog, "The Nation's Stylists Present Sedler Frocks," 1934 / THF600502

Carlton Mills, Inc. (New York, New York)


Black-and-white photograph of man’s head and collar in middle of page with an oversized yellow striped necktie extending below; additional tie colors and patterns in shapes that look like the bottom of neckties on either side of middle illustration with numbers under each; text at top and bottom of page
Sales Catalog for Men's Fashion, 1940-1950 / THF670587

Harford Frocks, Inc. (Cincinnati, Ohio)


Illustration of blonde-haired woman in blue and white plaid dress and wide black belt; page also contains smaller black-and-white line drawing of back of woman in the same dress, a fabric swatch in a red plaid, and text
"Frocks by Harford Frocks, Inc.," 1949 / THF600604

Sears, Roebuck and Company (Chicago, Illinois)


Left side of page contains photo of room with green carpet and chair; red-and-green floral sofa and matching wallpaper; other occasional furniture and knick-knacks; right side of page contains images of fabric swatches and text
"Sears Decorating Made Easy," 1964 / THF600561


Samantha Johnson is Project Curator for the William Davidson Foundation Initiative for Entrepreneurship at The Henry Ford. Special thanks to Jeanine Head Miller, Curator of Domestic Life at The Henry Ford for sharing her expertise of the textile industry and for reviewing this content.

furnishings, entrepreneurship, by Samantha Johnson, fashion, manufacturing

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