Thomas Jefferson Papers

To Thomas Jefferson from James Burnham, 15 February 1803

From James Burnham

Beverly February 15—1803


Having been informed by my Friend the Hon. Mr Cutler that he had shewn you some specimens of our Manufacture, and that you had asked him some questions, particularly respecting the Wadding, which he could not answer, I observed to him in reply that I would do myself the honor of writing you on the subject.—The cotton is carded in an entire fleece (as we call it), then laid on a board & wet with gum, and set aside until it is dry—My intention was when writing Mr. Cutler to have enclosed several samples of different kinds of our Manufacture, but find they will make a Package too large to incumber the Mail with, and shall embrace the first conveyance by water from this neighborhood—I requested of Mr. Cutler to lay in a Claim for a Patent for making the wadding: altho’ I cannot claim the invention of it originally, yet I can say that I made the first ever made in the United States, and without having seen a piece of imported larger than a cent— Large quantities have been imported within two years and some of it retailed at the enormous price of 80 cents pr. piece. We should be very glad to make almost any given number of Pieces, & sell them at a price which would afford the retailer a handsome profit at 33 cents—

As it is not convenient to send the samples by the mail as contemplated, I omit any observations which might otherwise be made on the several articles which we manufacture—

I flatter myself Sir, that any communications I may make respecting the subject will not be esteemed as troublesome—

I am Sir respectfully your humble Servant

James Burnham

RC (DLC); at foot of text: “Thomas Jefferson Esquire President of the United States”; endorsed by TJ as received 2 Mch. and so recorded in SJL.

James Burnham served for a number of years as superintendent of the Beverly (Massachusetts) Cotton Manufactory, among the earliest cotton mills in the United States. He represented Beverly in the Massachusetts House of Representatives for a term and in 1801 erected the water-powered Bass River Cotton Manufactory, which he ran until selling off his interest in October 1803. After this, he appears to have moved to Newburyport for a short time before settling in Portland, Maine (Robert W. Lovett, “The Beverly Cotton Manufactory: Or Some New Light on an Early Cotton Mill,” Bulletin of the Business Historical Society, 26 [1952], 227; William R. Bagnall, The Textile Industries of the United States Including Sketches and Notices of Cotton, Woolen, Silk, and Linen Manufactures in the Colonial Period [Cambridge, Mass., 1893], 267–8; John J. Currier, History of Newburyport, Mass. 1764–1909, 2 vols. [Newburyport, Mass., 1906–09], 2:405; Brookfield Political Repository, 10 June 1800; Newburyport Herald, 23 Jan. 1807; Portland Gazette, and Maine Advertiser, 13 Mch. 1809, 19 Mch. 1810).

Manasseh cutler, a Federalist congressman, recounted a visit he paid to the President’s House on New Year’s Day, 1803, and the interest shown by TJ and many of the women present in the textile samples he had left during a previous visit. “As soon as I came in,” Cutler wrote, “the President applied to me for further information respecting the piece of wadding on his table” and “the two samples of bed-ticking, which I had shown him, and which I had in my pocket-book.” The textiles “afforded the ladies much satisfaction” and “were pronounced much preferable and cheaper than that imported from Europe” (William Parker Cutler and Julia Perkins Cutler, Life, Journals, and Correspondence of Rev. Manasseh Cutler, LL.D., 2 vols. [Cincinnati, 1888; repr. Athens, Ohio, 1987], 2:115).

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