The Life Of A Pound Of Cotton

The life of a pound of cotton in 1841This piece was written a lot longer ago than many might realize. (See end paragraph to find out just how long ago.) It beautifully takes us, the reader, through the process that a piece of cotton would experience as it traveled through the mills of the Great Falls Manufacturing Company.

The Life Of A Pound Of Cotton
Written By Itself

The sharp clap trap if the looms made such a din that I was fearful of some operation which would prove my ruin. I was disappointed. The process of weaving, so far from injuring me gave me more strength.

The loom is so constructed as to require little attention for the girl, after the threads were properly adjusted, and one girl often tends four looms. Some mills are large enough to contain four or five hundred looms. The machine is in fact so perfect that the girl has no part of the operation to perform other than changing shuttles, mending thread when broken and cleaning the loom.

The warp is divided into two shades. That is, every alternative thread is drawn into a separate harness – one thread bearing down into the eye of the back harness, the next thread being drawn between the eyes of the back harness and into the eye of the front harness. By a contrivance underneath, the harness passes up and down, each harness carrying its shade, or row of threads with it, at every beat of the lathe which drives the shuttle through between the two shades, leaving a thread of filling with every pass. The lathe not only throws the shuttle but holds the reed and beats every thread of the filling, side by side into the warp, thus forming cloth.

Cotton Mills In Great Falls NHDuring this process, the warp was unwound from the beam (filled in the dressing room) just fast enough to be filled with filling, and the cloth wound into a roll fast as woven. This was done with such precision as to give me exactly sixty- six threads to the inch, which I thought pretty nice work for machinery. Here it was that I found my other half filling; and by its union, I was manufactured into cloth No 30 fine, at the rate of about thirty-four yards per day. From the time of my thrashing in the whipper till I was rolled up in a roll of cloth, which was about seven days, I had passed through seventeen machines.

Happy Girls Were All Around

In my rapid progress through the various departments, I could but observe the cheerful, happy appearance of the girls while at work. Some were laughing and talking, some braiding or otherwise fixing their hair, while others were clearing their work, or watering a favorite plant. Not being allowed to read, they passed their leisure time in this manner – but occasionally a girl would have a book in hand at which time she would keep one eye aloof watching to see if the overseer were near – in which case, books vanish in a twinkling, and the girl is innocently at work on the machinery.

I was next carried to the cloth room, where I was examined, trimmed measured, and found to be just thirty-four yards in length, folded and marked, :No1,” sent to the Print Works for printing.

Off To The Print Works You Go…

Print Works machinery in the early 1900'sWhile at the Print Works, I was run through some thirty different machines. I shall stop only to describe one particularly.

My debut in this establishment, was to pass over a copper cylinder, heated to a red heat. This was done by sewing some dozen pieces together, and while running over the hot cylinder, was would from one roll to the another by means of a crank. The operation completely singed off the little down and larger fibers of which I felt so proud. I next found myself in the Bleach House where I received an absolution which would have satisfied the most devote Catholic.

After having gone through sundry performances on various machines for various purposes; and having received a pulling here, a thumping there – a knock this way, and a kick that way and doing penance to a multifarious horde of other operations; and, as if I had not been sufficiently dealt with, I was run through a box about six feet square, extending up through four stories of the building, filled with gas. This prepared a good surface for receiving and retaining the colors ; it also prevented them from spreading in the cloth. When thoroughly dried, I was brought up to the Printing Machine.

This machine has not only excited the wonder of the curious, and well nigh turned the brains of the inquisitive, but has been admired by the intelligent and learned, and yet, is perfectly simple in every part. It consists of a square frame work, (which might be placed in a common bedroom) in the center of which revolves a cylinder about four feet in diameter, underneath which, were one, two or three copper rolls, according to the colors to be given. These rolls are about four inches in diameter, and on them are engraved the figures to be printed on the cloth. These engraved rolls, revolve in a box of dye, the color of each box being different, according to the design of the pattern. A thin strip of spring tempered metal, called ‘Doctress” with the edge pressed hard against the rolls, removed every particle of color which was adhered to their surface, except what the engraved figure contained.

I was now passed around the large cylinder, while the engraved rolls were brought to bear hard against me. Their were all thrown ‘into gear’ and all moved in exact harmony. As a part of each figure was engraved on each roll, they must necessarily revolve with great precision, in order that each roll may deposit its color in the proper part of the figure. It was certainly curious, if not astonishing, to notice the change which has come over me in passing through this simple machine, and that too, at a rate of 1630 yards per day. The engraved rolls sometimes cost $600 each; and when the figure becomes old and unfashionable, new rolls are procured. As I was marked “No. 1” they tough best to adorn me with four colors ; and this is down with the same ease and speed as through I had received but one shade.
While the machine was in operation, I was conducted into a small apartment which was so warm that the thermometer (I think they call it) air measure, indicated 160 degrees. The object of this machine was to dry the colors before they came in contact with any thing to damage them.

Printing Machine Comes Next

Finishing Rooms at Cotton MillsThus, having first been singed to death, then soaped, washed and bleached enough to destroy any ordinary substance, then running through the gas box, and, forsooth, I must run the gauntlet of the Printing Machine, and before I had even time to take breath, away went poor I into the hot room to be roasted and finally, after having performed my other no enviable pranks, I was brought up to the Hydrolic Press, to receive the enormous squeeze of 200 lbs, to the square inch, when I was tumbled into the finishing room; where, after a good deal of handling, I was neatly folded, packed in a large box, and laid by to rest.

New York, New York For Me But Not For Long.

When I was again permitted to breath the fresh air and behold the light of day, I found myself in a wholesale store in the city of New York. I did not long remain here, for I was selected by a country trader, who again boxed me up, and sent me to several hundred miles into the country, where I was once more exposed for sale.

finished dress made from cotton circa 1840 -60For several days I was not disturbed, and in my conspicuous place in shelf had an excellent chance to observe my proprietors customers. As he had all sorts of things for sale, he had all sorts of people for customers. Among them, two doctors, the minister and all the lawyers of the village: for they had but one minister, hence the necessity for seven lawyers. Blue noses were more frequent than lawyers, but I judge that salt fish was their chief diet, for they frequented the back room, as they said, for the purpose of examining the article.

At length, a gentlemen and his wife came in, and the merchant directly handed me down for examination; declaring that he had left me on purpose for her, as I was very beautiful, and he knew I should suit. The price being ascertained, the gentleman (the readiness of whose eyes and nose I could but remark) whispered to his wife, “We can hardly afford that; the price is too high ‘ and you know there is a heavy mortgage on our farm yet and – ‘Well,’ said his wife, in reply, ‘I shall not get anything that I do not really need. You know it is a rare chance to get anything here so handsome – it is certainly beautiful – a splendid piece of goods, I know. Bedsides, you have recently paid fifty dollars on the mortgage. I have decided to take it.” By this time, the clerk had actually measured and rolled me up, with the fixtures, ready for another adventure.


This piece was first published in the Thursday Sketcher that was circulated weekly in Great Falls or as we know it now, Somersworth. This original piece was written in 1841 and gives us a clear idea of the workings of the Mills back then. There was a piece that was published before this about the way in which the cotton was transported, picked and carded before this final part of it’s journey began. Unfortunately this copy of the Sketcher is long since lost.

I hope you enjoyed this trip back in time though as much as I did.  You can find the original of this issue  of the Sketcher at the Summersworth Historical Museum, which is located at 157 Main Street, Somersworth, NH


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