I wish I knew why George and Matthew didn’t quit the
whale fishery entirely in 1871. George was 66 years old,
Matthew 58; they were still rich men and had virtually
unlimited opportunities to invest in forward-looking
enterprises—textile mills, railroads, banks, real estate
developments. . . . Was it sentiment? Did they honestly
expect a return to the old prosperity; did they really believe
there would be no more losses in the Arctic? . . . Whaling
always was a kind of gambling, and after winning for
five decades, their time had come to pay.
—LLEWELLYN HOWLAND III, “Children of the Light” (1964)
Disasters that are more abstract, while no less damaging or terrifying, are more difficult to perceive than a crushed whaleship. Their true scale and ramifications may not be seen until they are well advanced. They take men by surprise in the middle of a normal day when they look up and find the world changed forever.
The Whalemen’s Shipping List and Merchants’ Transcript scarcely knew what to think about the state of its industry following the arctic disaster of 1871. It reported, in February 1872, under the headline “Review of the Whale Fishery for 1871”: “We have to record another year of poor success in the whalefishery, both as concerns oil taken and pecuniary results.” Poor results might occur in any year, but the prospects for the future had never looked so ominous: “Of the 34 vessels now in port, half are for sale.”
Also for sale in New Bedford, but not selling, despite the enormous losses in the Arctic the previous summer, were thousands of barrels of oil, covering wharves and filling warehouses. Prices were depressed, and their owners were holding on to them, hoping for an improvement in the market. “With the uncertainty in [oil] prices, partly from substitutes [petroleum], and low prices of them, only good prices can be hoped for, and not counted upon.”
Yet three weeks later, the newspaper peevishly dismissed the summary of its own reports reprinted elsewhere: “The following which we clip from the Philadelphia Commercial List, shows how near home, an idea erroneous, may be disseminated:
THE WHALE-FISHERIES—A review of the whaling business for 1871 states that the past year was one of disaster and discouragement. The constant decrease of whaling vessels by loss, condemnation and sale is very ominous, and as no new vessels are added, it is believed that the trade will soon die out.
The Whalemen’s Shipping List vigorously rebutted such dire conclusions—“We don’t believe in the dying of whaling”—citing a confusing series of numbers meant to reveal the Philadelphia paper’s ignorance of the difference between the sperm and right whale fisheries, and the returns from bone and oil sales. But a month later the Shipping List carried the following two articles:
A PARALYSED INDUSTRY—The depression of our ship building interest has continued so long that the race of hardy and intelligent mechanics whose works reflected credit upon the country, are now fast becoming extinct. Of course, in the present condition of business, no new hands engage in it, and the old ship-carpenters are rapidly adapting themselves to kindred trades which are still useful. Once we boasted of half a dozen or more yards. . . .
OPIUM EATING—We are told by one of our Apothecaries, who does a large and flourishing business, that the sales of opium amount to 20 p. cent more than they did ten years ago. It is a sad state of things if we are relinquishing rum for opium. . . .
In New Bedford, business was down, self-medication was up. In October 1872, the Whalemen’s Shipping List lamented that another three New Bedford whaleships, the Helen Snow, the Roscoe, and the Sea Breeze, had been lost the previous August in the Arctic, and that the season there had again been a poor one, although “ships had done as well as usual walrusing.”
Joseph Grinnell’s Wamsutta Mills—four of them built and operating at a profit at the time of the disaster in the Arctic, and a fifth under construction, to open in 1875—saved New Bedford from complete economic collapse. While work along the waterfront and whaling’s attendant service and product industries slowed and ground to a halt, many whalemen, particularly the Portuguese immigrants and their families living in the shanty neighborhoods along the river, found steadier work, even a growing demand for employment, in the mills. The city’s poorer inhabitants had no investment or long family history in the whale fishery to tie them to it or keep them hoping, unrealistically, for an unlikely turnaround. They wanted only work and wages, and to get these without leaving home for years at a time was an added benefit.
No sudden, calamitous depression overtook New Bedford as a whole. Rather, there was a washing away, as if by a slow but inexorable tide, of an old order, and its concurrent replacement by a very different one. And in the course of this exchange, the nature and tone of New Bedford changed. It lost its elite position as a headquarters for a fabulously wealthy plutocracy and began to establish itself as a working-class city that was soon in the vanguard of the burgeoning textile industry. Just as whaling and the Industrial Revolution had fueled each other’s growth, the development of the railroads and the use of mail-order catalogues, like Sears, Roebuck’s, created a continent-wide market for cotton and textile goods—in the form of clothing for farmers and their families in the expanding West—while conveniently supplying New Bedford with a new industry, just as the old one withered. Workers’ homes and whole new neighborhoods sprouted up in the immediate vicinities of the proliferating mills, while the genteel center of the town began to calcify and grow brittle. Large houses that had remained in families for generations were put up for sale.
THE HOWLAND BROTHERS did not know how to change. They noted what had happened; they were certainly aware of the general depression in their industry; yet they pressed on as before. They had never learned financial versatility. They were not businessmen in the truest sense, doing business for its own sake, or for the sake of making money. That had never been their primary concern. For two centuries their family had been engaged in a compact with God to slay the leviathan in the sea; wealth and station and power had derived from their unswerving adherence to this agreement. Efforts at diversification—their father George Howland’s attempt to invest in other towns and other businesses, adventures motivated purely by financial interests—had ended badly, in failures all too human, and conspicuously lacking the wondrous returns of the whale fishery. And there remained good reasons for them to persevere at whaling: their ships—those that remained—were all paid for, and still earning a profit; sales of bone were still encouraging. They simply had no idea of the speed at which their world was passing away.
George Jr. was largely uninvolved, and little interested in the running of the business. Like Matthew’s wife, Rachel, he used the family business and the social platform it gave him to perform good deeds. He was, as always, about town and the region with his civic responsibilities: a trustee of banks, of railroads, of Brown University, and he continued to enjoy the respect of others who believed him to be—as he correctly believed himself to be, in 1871—rich. He still saw no reason not to reaffirm what he had said a mere seven years before, toward the close of the Civil War: “ ‘Can these improvements continue? And will science and art make the same rapid strides for the next fifty or one hundred years?’ The only answer I can make is the real Yankee one: why not?”
It was Matthew who daily walked down the hill to the counting house that stood at the head of Howland’s Wharf, and there, bent over ledgers and inkwells, busied himself, as he had every day for more than forty years, with the numbers: the prices of whale oil, sperm oil, and “bone,” the percentages of lays, the cost of provisions, of preserved meats, of whaleboats and oars and shooks. There were still great numbers of numbers, and in these he continued to absorb himself, taking comfort in the familiarity of routine.
And it was Matthew’s line—his sons, warm and well fed on dry land, not men in tiny boats in peril from whales or icebergs—who, in a single generation, would play out the whale fishery’s most vertiginous plunge from securest ivory tower to bottommost condition and, for one son, tragedy.
As circumstances constricted around him, Matthew grew increasingly absorbed in the careers of his three sons: Richard Smith Howland, twenty-three years old in 1871; Matthew Morris Howland, twenty-one; and William Dylwyn Howland, eighteen. Like his own father (and the fictional but authentically representative Caleb Wellworthy) he had groomed his sons to follow him in the whale fishery. They had been devoutly and purposefully educated: first, of course, at the weekly Meeting, then schooled at the Friends Academy, and, inevitably, in light of Uncle George’s trusteeship, at Brown University in Providence. In 1874, Matthew dispatched Dick to California to act as their San Francisco agent. Morrie did not actually “go to sea” as a sailor but made several voyages between New Bedford, Honolulu, and San Francisco aboard Howland vessels. And young Willie went into the countinghouse with his father. Between the three of them, Matthew hoped, they would acquire a complete, complementary, and valuable experience to carry on the family business. For two years, as the boys confidently served out their apprenticeships, the seven remaining Howland whaleships sailed between New Bedford, Honolulu, San Francisco, and the Arctic. The whale fishery, Matthew still believed, was, and would remain, part of the natural order of things. Many agreed with him: “The [arctic] disaster,” the Boston Post reported in November 1871, “was merely one of those deviations from natural laws against which all precautions are futile. Such an event would probably not occur again in a lifetime.”
But it occurred again five years later. In 1876, twelve of the much smaller twenty-vessel fleet venturing into the arctic grounds that summer were once again trapped by ice. This time, bearing in mind the change in conditions that had occurred after the crews left in 1871, and the possibilities for salvage, at least fifty men remained behind to spend the winter, as caretakers, aboard their ships. Only three were still alive when whaleships returned the following season. All twelve ships were lost. Four of them—the Onward, the Java, the Clara Bell, and the St. George—belonged to George Jr. and Matthew Howland. For them this was a far greater catastrophe than the disaster of 1871. Seven of their ten ships had been destroyed in five years. Now Matthew saw that the earth had tilted on its axis, throwing all natural and ordained laws out of balance, and the specific gravity of the whale fishery had unraveled.
His boys were forced to look increasingly to their own devices to make a living. Dick, who had bought a farm in Menlo Park, south of San Francisco, and stocked it with 200 hens, began to import “duck”—cotton from New Bedford’s Wamsutta Mills, bought by Matthew and sent out to him to sell in the Bay Area. Morrie spent time in New York, dabbling as a trader in various commodities. And Willie went to work for Wamsutta management.
Late in 1878, another in an accelerating cascade of losses hit the family: “Hastings has failed,” Matthew, Morrie, and Willie all wrote to Dick in September.
Hastings & Company—comprising George, John, and Waitsill Hastings, and partners—were oil and candle manufacturers, and their factory stood at the foot of Grinnell Street in New Bedford. The Howlands, and many others, sold them oil and traded with them. George Jr. and Matthew owned stock in what had been a seemingly unassailable bulwark of the whale fishery—of the very economy itself. The shock of such a failure, to the Hastingses, to the Howlands, and the business world at the time, was not unlike the failure of Bernard L. Madoff Investment Securities in 2008 (though there was no evidence of fraud in the Hastings operation). What had once been unassailably secure had dissolved like an apparition. The seismic tremor that passed through the Howlands’ industry was of an unprecedented magnitude. Their world was breaking apart.
There was, too, a peculiarly unhinging sense of abandonment felt by the Quaker whaling merchants. They had felt themselves to be God’s elect people. They had done great philanthropic deeds in His name, they had supported the emancipation of slaves, funded colleges; they had done His work on earth as diligently as perhaps no other group in postcolonial America. How could God so turn His back on them?
Matthew’s boys were as unprepared as their father was for the dreadful loom of penury. “The business of America is business,” said Calvin Coolidge during the giddy boom years of the 1920s; but this observation was more urgently, and physically, true fifty years earlier, in the second half of the nineteenth century, with the rise of the great enterprises of oil and the railroads, foreshadowing and laying the infrastructure for the unprecedented juggernaut of the automobile industry, which was already under way (Henry Ford’s Quadricycle appeared in 1896) before the century’s end. Failure in business then—as opposed to the widespread, equal-opportunity crash that soon followed Coolidge’s remark, or, for that matter, the financial unraveling of 2008—was accompanied by a shame akin to a moral transgression. Now it stalked the Howlands. “Beneath the crust of solvency lay stark, unyielding terror,” wrote Matthew’s great-great-grandson Llewellyn Howland III. “It had, almost, a human character and shared the family table as a ravenous, unbidden guest.” For Matthew, the only defense was to conserve those assets he still had with a caution that left him paralyzed. He kept his last three ships in port, afraid to send them to sea, but unwilling to sell them—for without ships there could be no whaling, and then what was he? And he held on to his real estate, stocks, and shares, always hoping for improvement.
His privileged (though not, thanks to Quaker austerity, lavishly pampered) sons had to reinvent themselves in adulthood as tradesmen, and they were woefully ill-equipped to do so.
“Sometimes I feel quite encouraged about the future and can almost see my way to establishing a good business,” Dick wrote from California to his brother Willie, younger by five years, whom he was closer to than to Morrie—
and then again it clouds over and things don’t look so rosy. Taking it all together, however, I see no cause for despair. For I am learning all the time how to use money and perhaps I will one day get hold of enough to make a good start.
But the abrupt loss of security was devastating to him. As children do, he looked on what had befallen his father with an all-knowing hindsight, and felt with great resentment his own lack of preparedness for his present circumstances:
Father . . . must remember that if the ships lost in the Arctic in 1871 had been insured, [he] would have been all right. . . .
The great trouble of all of us is, we were brought up in ignorance of the problems of existence and were turned into life as green as leeks, then left to blunder toward the light without advice from anyone. My career was blighted by lack of insurance.
Matthew, in turn, was disappointed by his sons and their apparent inability to cope with their setbacks: “Father wrote me one of his utterly demoralized letters,” Dick complained to Willie. “He said he was ready to despair about us.”
Dick repeatedly wrote to his father, advising him to sell property, stocks, shares, and ships; Matthew wrote back asking him to say no more about it, that he, Matthew, was the better judge of his affairs.
Dick’s mother, perhaps the gentler messenger, wrote to him: “We are trying to square things up, but there is no use forcing sales now. It would be ruinous. We must wait—just the hardest thing for some of us to do. . . . As for Christmas, I don’t know whether we can raise much money. We are so poor now.”
“Poor” was still, in 1878, a relative term.
Dick’s anxiety about his father was a surrogate for his own concerns. His efforts at selling Wamsutta cloth were not supporting him and his family. Dick’s 220 hens were paying his kitchen bills and encouraged him to think of expanding to 1,000, as well as adding cows and a vegetable garden. There was only one source to turn to for backing for this plan: “I’ve written Father about my idea of farming at Menlo and am collecting all the information I can get,” he wrote to Willie. Nothing came of the expanded farm. Instead, alternately inspired and burdened by his family’s great history of enterprise, he dreamed up moneymaking schemes, and—because of his family’s supposed wealth—was approached by would-be entrepreneurs who had no idea how broke he really was.
I had a proposition made to me yesterday: to go into partnership with E. G. Pierce, the drayman, whom Morrie will know. He has built up his business until now he runs four heavy trucks, and he has a chance to extend it by . . . receiving grain and produce from Oregon and selling it . . . here. He says I can make $300 a month from $4,000.
Nothing came of Dick’s draying dreams—the unrealized ingredients of a colorful historical novel: son of a whaleman goes into business with a teamster hauling produce up and down the West Coast through the years of explosive growth following the gold rush. But without ready capital, it was difficult to put any of his ideas into action. Some now seem speculative and fanciful—the gathering of egg albumen (for animal feed) from bird rookeries along the California coast—and might have lost the family even more money in the boom-and-bust cycles of the nineteenth century, during which the failure rate for new businesses, even sound ones, was high. But Dick was inventive and intelligent, and many of his ideas were practical and full of potential, such as coastal whaling, which would have required nothing more than the loan of one of his father’s idle ships.
But Matthew was disinclined: “I cannot afford to lose 10 or 20 thousand dollars more. . . . It will not be prudent, to say the least, to fit out DESDEMONA at an expense of 12 to 15 thousand dollars for trading or whaling on the coast of California.”
Dick’s response to his father’s caution was to stop writing home with accustomed regularity, and he could sound bitter in his letters to his brothers:
From my early childhood I always rebelled against some portions of the life on Hawthorn Street. . . . Those grim Sundays and Quarterly Meetings and travelling Friends—the whole horrible system of Quakerism, in its attempt to crush out all natural feeling. . . . I don’t want to be hard on Father and Mother. . . . They thought they were acting for the best. . . . But the theory was wrong and would have utterly crushed me, if I had not struck out for myself.
Matthew had a more harmonious relationship with his two younger sons. They remained closer to home, in both spirit and geography, and they asked less of their father.
Morrie, a popular, peripatetic socialite, flitted between his parents’ home in New Bedford and Providence and New York City, making desultory connections as a trader of whaling-related and other merchandise (including mustard seed), to little effect. His diary (each of Matthew’s boys kept one) shows that he was always more engaged in his social connections with old moneyed families:
Left home yesterday afternoon and reached New York this morning. Went to the Astor House for breakfast. . . .
Just after dinner today a note came over from Isabel Rotch, asking me to go sailing. . . .
This afternoon quite a large party went out on the MAGIC with Frank Weld. . . .
Was busy all this morning preparing for my sailing party on the TERESA. . . . Got into a comfortable place with Miss Hunter and spent the time talking with her until our return. . . .
About noon time, got up from the office as early as I could and went to the Delano’s to play lawn tennis. . . .
All the usual set assembled at the Delano’s. . . . After a little archery, we separated.
In November of 1879, Morrie, then twenty-nine, moved to New York full-time to set himself up as a serious businessman:
Left home today for New York, for the purpose of going into business there as a metal broker. . . .
Having established myself in an office at 21 Cliff Street last week, I began business today by leaving my card with the various purchasers of lead. I was politely received by nearly all.
Matthew wrote to Morrie almost daily, concerned for him, encouraging him, happy to see him finally making a real attempt at business, and unable to refrain from offering him fretful advice:
Has thee sold that last lot of Mustard Seed yet; and the lot thee sold, has thee received pay for it . . . ?
Thy letter to Mother has been received and we are very glad to hear thee has really commenced making sales of lead. . . .
Why doesn’t thee sell thy mustard seed? I would not keep it much longer. . . .
How many tons of lead has thee sold thus far? It is now three months since thee started. Can we judge of the next three months by the past? I think, from what thee has told me, thee has not thus far sold more than three or four different lots of lead. Do please continue to write and tell us all that transpires with thee. . . .
After a year in New York, Morrie was still not making his expenses. Matthew was floating him, anxious about the cost, but always, as for all his children, unguarded with his love:
Thee must try to keep thy expenses down all thee can, so they will not much exceed thy earnings. Does thee find any difficulty in keeping thy bank account [balanced]? It is very important always to have something in the bank. . . .
When we came home to tea last evening we missed thy company very much.
Another letter from Matthew to Morrie begins simply: “I have missed thee very much today.”
In the fall of 1881, Matthew sold one of his last three ships, the George and Susan, built by his father and launched on his parents’ wedding day in 1810. He got $9,500 for it, a good price in a depressed market for an aging (but obviously well-constructed) wooden ship that had paid for itself many times over. “Well!” he wrote Morrie. “She is gone from us after being in the family seventy years. It seems as though we are to part with everything of a material nature that is near and dear to us.”
It was the industrious Willie, the youngest boy, who seemed the only one destined for any kind of financial stability, and, in time, he appeared to be making a real success by his own efforts, unaided by his father. In 1877, Willie took a low-level managerial position at the Wamsutta Mills, started by his uncle (by marriage), Joseph Grinnell. He apparently did well there, but the pay was low. “Dear Will works away bravely at the mill,” Matthew wrote to Morrie. In 1881, Willie moved a few blocks south to the competing Potomska Mills. Here, too, he was well thought of, helping management draw up plans for a new mill, but he was ambitious and soon decided to start his own mill. His plan was to purchase an existing flour mill and convert it to cotton-yarn production, running 10,000 spindles. To do this, he began looking for subscribers for $125,000 worth of stock. Matthew was doubtful he could raise the money, for the new Acushnet Mills had just opened after raising $800,000. But Willie was dogged, and by then thoroughly experienced in the mill and textile business—and, of course, he was well connected. Perhaps because of the dilatory examples set by his brothers, he would surprise his father.
“It is rather lonesome in the office,” Matthew wrote to Morrie. And, a month later: “I find it rather lonely in the counting room.” The great house of Howland, the last of New Bedford’s larger, older, historic whaling businesses, did not go out with a bang, but with the scratching of Matthew’s pen in the empty Howland countinghouse, as he disbursed his remaining assets.
In February 1882, he sold his last two ships, the venerable Rousseau and the Desdemona, to the whaling firm of Swift & Allen, for $8,300. “It is a very low price,” he wrote to Morrie, “but we did not think we could keep them longer.” (It was a far better deal for Matthew than anyone knew. Whatever Swift & Allen’s plans for them might have been, the ships never left New Bedford’s waterfront again. They sat and rotted and sagged into the mud, a perfect symbol of whaling’s decay.)
Matthew sold his Michigan Central Railroad stock, and then began dismantling his real estate holdings in New Bedford, rod by rod. And quietly: “Please tell R. Anthony as soon as thee can,” he wrote to Morrie, “. . . [to] make me an offer for my lot (70 rods) and I will consider it, promising that no one shall know.”
It was a comfort to note that “Will is driving about trying to obtain the subscription to his yarn mill and we think that so far he has done remarkably well. The subscriptions amount to very nearly $100,000, so that Willie is pretty sure it will go.”
By late 1882, Matthew and his wife, Rachel, were also trying to sell their house (and block-wide, eminently divisible property) on Hawthorn Street, which they had built in 1840 and lived in for more than forty years. At the same time, Matthew was declining physically. “I should have written thee sooner, but have been very busy taking care of Father who has been quite ill,” Rachel Howland wrote to Morrie in November 1882.
2nd day night he suffered extremely with what I suppose might be called a stoppage of the bowels. . . . I got the Doctor here and he staid three or four hours trying to allay the pain, which he finally accomplished by several doses of morphine injected into the arm. . . .
William Crapo [state representative, later president of the Wamsutta Mills] is still trying to get this place, but says he will not give over $30,000, while Father asks $40,000. What shall we do?
I think Father is very poorly indeed and very low spirited. What shall we do with him or for him? Thee must come and see him. . . .
Crapo has not treated us handsomely. . . . He seems to think he could just gobble us up and turn us out of house and home at his pleasure. And so the big fish eat up the little ones. . . .
Father has gone down to Meeting and I am alone. How often my heart aches to see more of thee.
The meetinghouse would have been as lonely as the Howland countinghouse. Like the whale fishery—in tandem with it, actually—New Bedford’s Quaker community was diminishing in size and importance to the city. Schisms had sent many Quakers to other churches. The influx of outsiders and the broadening of New Bedford’s ethnic population—initially because of whaling and, later, with the rise of the textile industry—left Old Lights George Jr. and Matthew Howland to walk around in their eighteenth-century garb, looking like anachronistic totems from a world that had all but disappeared. “The golden era of meetinghouse and countinghouse coincided,” wrote historian Everett S. Allen. “And when the golden time was gone for one, it was gone for the other.”
In 1883, Matthew had to borrow $4,000 from Willie to pay a debt—“Please do not say anything about it,” he wrote to Morrie, asking him in the same letter for a loan of $300 for household expenses.
In September 1884, Matthew wrote to Morrie:
Willie informs us thee intends coming home next first day. We shall be very glad to see thee. I have been confined to the house since last 1st day with feet and legs much swollen. . . . The Doctor says I may drink a little Sherry, the very best. Could thee furnish me a small bottle and then bring it with thee. If not, perhaps we can get it here.
Leander Plummer died last evening.
In great haste, thy affectionately attached
Shortly after he wrote that, “in great haste,” Matthew himself was dead. Rachel was besieged by creditors. She moved in with Willie, his wife, Caroline, and their seven-year-old son, Llewellyn, while lawyers put the house and property on Hawthorn Street up for auction. Today, 81 Hawthorn Street, New Bedford, is occupied by professional medical offices. A plaque on the building gives the date of its construction and the names of its first two owners: “c. 1840; M. Howland; W. W. Crapo.”
Over the course of their life, Matthew and Rachel gave away, largely though her philanthropic endeavors, more than half their income.
During his last two years, Matthew’s deepening impoverishment and ill health were offset by the thrill of watching his youngest son’s dream come to fruition. By November 1882, Willie had, against steep odds, raised his capital, converted the flour mill, fired up his steam-driven spindles, and was doing business as the New Bedford Manufacturing Company.
From the beginning, the mill was a conspicuous success. After two years of operation, its stock, when it could be purchased, was selling for $110-$118 per share, compared with $85 and $87 per share, respectively, for stock in the larger, more established Wamsutta and Acushnet mills. Willie seemed to have a golden touch. The hallmark of his business was the smoothness of its labor relations. His mother, Rachel, had filled him with a strong sense of fair play and with advanced, frankly idealistic notions of workers’ rights, and Willie sincerely tried to provide the best for his employees. He paid them more than the other mills, and when strikes stopped production at Wamsutta, Potomska, and Acushnet, the New Bedford Manufacturing Company continued running. Working for his father, Willie had learned austerity in business, but he had also seen Howland ships sent to sea equipped with the finest gear, food, and men, and the results of running a quality operation. As a consequence of both these influences, his product was superior, and his sales were commensurate. He had no trouble raising a further $350,000 to build a brand-new mill in 1888, the Howland Mill, doing business as the Howland Mills Corporation. In 1892, he founded, along with William Rotch, a descendant of New Bedford’s other premier whaling family, the Rotch Spinning Company.
With the capital he was now able to raise, Willie launched an ambitious scheme to create Howland Village, a 150-acre company housing park for his workers. He hired the Boston architectural firm of Wheel-wright and Haven to produce three different house designs in a Dutch Colonial style, each varying in window, roof, ornament, and other details. The first fifty houses in Howland Village were built by 1889 (fifty-eight years before groundbreaking at Levittown, Long Island, New York). These were not cramped worker bungalows: thirty-five of the houses had five bedrooms, the remainder, three bedrooms; all had indoor plumbing, bathrooms with toilets and tubs, rare luxuries for the 1880s. Howland Village was sited on a hill west of the mills, with winding roads, and the houses and their lots were laid out in a pleasing, nonuniform effect. Rents for the houses ranged between $8.50 and $10 per month, for both skilled and unskilled Howland workers, who were earning between $50 and $80 per month.
By the 1890s, New Bedford had turned away from the sea. Its ships lay for sale and rotting along its depressed waterfront. Its industry looked landward over the rising, flourishing brick mills, and the railroads were now carrying raw materials into the city and its cottons and yarns away to market. With 1,000 workers operating 78,000 spindles in 200,000 square feet of floor space in two plants, the Howland Mills Corporation ranked third in size of New Bedford’s textile mills, and was thought to be on its way to overtaking the Wamsutta and Potomska mills by the end of the century.
Willie’s commitment to the welfare of his workers was tested and proven through the depression that gripped the American economy and created strife between capital and labor during the early to middle 1890s. In 1892, a state law reduced the working hours of mill employees from sixty to fifty-eight hours a week; while the other mills in New Bedford reduced their workers’ pay, Willie kept pay rates at their former levels. In August 1894, the New Bedford Manufacturers Association, of which Willie was a member, recommended a 10 percent wage cut-back for the city’s 10,000 textile employees. The textile unions called for a citywide strike. Willie attempted to reach an agreement between the workers and the manufacturers, and when asked by the New Bedford Evening Standard what he would do if that failed, he replied that he would continue to run his mills at the former pay rates and do nothing that would disrupt “the smooth and friendly relations we have in our mills at present.” When his efforts to break the strike failed, Willie kept his word. While the Wamsutta, Potomska, Acushnet, and other mills and related concerns remained closed for the next two months, the Howland mills continued at full operation, their employees still earning their old pay rates. Even when the State Board of Arbitration and Conciliation finally reached a compromise agreement with the unions for a five-percent pay cut, workers at the Howland mills continued to receive their prestrike pay. The New Bedford Evening Journal reported that Willie was “almost worshipped” by his employees, who subsequently presented him with a framed address in appreciation of his stand.
William Howland was seen, not only in New Bedford, but around the country, as a model employer. The Cleveland Plain Dealer featured an article describing the wages, housing, annual steamboat excursion to Martha’s Vineyard enjoyed by Howland workers, and Willie’s plans for their further benefit, which included a cooperative insurance scheme, and expansions at Howland Village that would provide a gymnasium, library, and an evening school for his employees and their families. “A few more such ventures as this and we shall see the beginning of the end of the great struggle between capital and labor,” concluded the article.
New Bedford’s newspapers frequently noted that “the most cordial relations have always existed” at the Howland mills; they compared the “air of comfort, contentment, and prosperity” in Howland Village with the “squalor” of the housing provided to Potomska mill employees, and described Willie as a “sagacious manufacturer, a man who has long shown it to be his belief that it is good business to treat the help fairly and liberally.” The Quaker ethic, learned from his parents and grandparents, and in his father’s countinghouse, seemed to be paying off for Willie in his great enterprise.
But the downturn in the American economy, and its effect on the textile market, could not be averted through goodwill. On April 15, 1897, the New Bedford Evening Standard reported irregularities in the finances of two New Bedford mills, the Bennett and Columbia mills, Howland competitors. It was soon revealed that management of both companies had paid out excess dividends, made false reports to state officials, banks, and stockholders, and embezzled hundreds of thousands of dollars. On April 16, both mills were placed in receivership. On April 23, William Howland requested a loan of $200,000 from New Bedford’s National Bank of Commerce to cover his own mills’ debts that were about to fall due. There had also been rumors of financial difficulties at the Howland mills, which Willie’s request seemed to bear out. Notwithstanding that the bank had been founded by his father, Matthew Howland, and that Willie himself was on its board of directors, the business climate in New Bedford had suddenly grown wintry, and bank officials now asked to see the Howland books.
Willie returned to his office. His bookkeeper, Harry M. Pierce, later reported their conversation to the Evening Standard: “Well, Harry, the game’s up,” Howland told him. “The bank has refused to let us have any more money, and they want to put a man on the books to see if I’m a thief. It’s too much for me, and all that’s left for me to do is go and hang myself.” Pierce tried to calm his employer, and then Willie said he was going out for a walk.
He was not seen again for thirteen days, until May 6, when his body was discovered floating under the wharves along the waterfront. He was forty-four.
The New Bedford Manufacturing Company, the Howland Mills Corporation, and the Rotch Spinning Company were all declared bankrupt and put into receivership. The mills were reorganized. Within a year, the employees of the former Howland mills had joined the city’s other textile workers in a long and bitter strike. The renters in Howland Village were turned out and the houses sold, and New Bedford’s workers’ utopia vanished forever.
Virtually all of the shareholders Willie had successfully persuaded to invest in his mills had been his immediate family—his mother and father, Dick, and Morrie—other Howland relatives, and lifelong friends. Like New Bedford’s whaling interests, the mills and their stock had been owned by the city’s oldest, most venerable families. The failure—and the deepening troubles overtaking the city’s other mills—had, like whaling’s failure, struck deepest at the core of New Bedford’s once brilliant plutocracy.
WILLIAM HOWLAND LEFT BEHIND a wife and two sons, and a gold Patek Philippe pocket watch. The watch was found on him when his body was recovered. Its ruined original works were replaced by a less expensive mechanism.
Willie’s son, Llewellyn Howland, eventually passed that watch on to his grandson, Matthew Howland’s great-great-grandson, Llewellyn Howland III. A few days before that young man left home to start his freshman year at Harvard in the 1960s, the elder Llewellyn called him over to his house. He wished him luck, offered a few words of general advice, and then told him about the end of his own abbreviated single year at Harvard:
When your great-grandfather died, I, of course, had to leave Cambridge and come right home. It was a nasty April day, raining, grey, bitter. I hated to leave Cambridge and I hated the stink of the New Haven cars and I hated the dreadful stretch of tenements by the track and the soot and the dirt. And when I looked out and saw the old men picking garbage in South Boston and the ragged children playing in the streets, God! how it frightened me to see them there. The squalor of it. The hopelessness of being poor. . . . Well, I’ve been fortunate, the family has been fortunate. But don’t ever forget, don’t ever forget what it would mean, being in those people’s place. How hard it is to rise, when you’re really, truly down.
Barrels of unsold whale oil on the New Bedford waterfront.
(Courtesy New Bedford Whaling Museum)