Professor Jenks makes an inquiry

Mr. Jenk’s card, in the Smithsonian Archives, among the letters and memoranda documenting the Institution’s work at the World’s Industrial and Cotton Centennial Exposition, (New Orleans, 1884- 1885):

Prof. Jenks' card, in the Smithsonian archives

Prof. Jenks’ card, in the Smithsonian archives

Prof. Jenks' inquiry

The back of Prof. Jenk’s card

He’s inquiring about Samuel Slater’s spinning frame, one of the treasures of the Jenks Museum, then, and the National Museum of American History, now.

Slater spinning frame at the National Museum of American History, Catalog  T11197

Slater spinning frame at the National Museum of American History, Catalog T11197

Several mysteries here… Was Prof. Jenks in New Orleans? Who was Mr. Attfield? We do know the answer to his question: the Slater frame was on display in New Orleans.

But the card raises another question. Who gave the Slater frame to the Smithsonian? The Smithsonian records offer one answer, Prof. Jenks, another.

Here’s the label on the spinning frame at the National Museum in 1912:

“This 48-spindle spinning machine, the oldest piece of cotton machinery in America, was built by Samuel Slater, and first operated by him on December 20, 1790, at Pawtucket, Rhode Island. One hundred years later, 1890, it was lent to the city of Pawtucket for exhibition at the Cotton Centenary, a celebration of the 100th anniversary of the beginning of cotton spinning by power machinery on the Western Hemisphere, and yarn was spun on it by an old man who had tended the spinning frame in the ‘Old Slater Mill’ when he was a boy. In 1876, it was exhibited at the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia, and in 1885, was lent by the National Museum for exhibition at the World’s Industrial and Cotton Centennial Exposition in New Orleans. Presented by the Rhode Island Society For The Encouragement of Domestic Industry.”

Jenks’s card says “given by Brown University to the National Museum.” The National Museum label, a few years later, credits the Rhode Island Society for the Encouragement of Domestic Industry.

The Slater spinning frame came to the Jenks Museum in 1879. Jenks proudly referred to it in his annual report that year. “The Rhode Island Society for the Encouragement of Domestic Industry,” he reports, “have transferred our care the varied collection in their keeping.” Those included Syrian and Egyptian agricultural instruments, hatchets, spinning-wheels, etc., of “ye olden time;” but, most valuable, “the first carding machine and spinning-frame (of 48 spindles) used in this country, erected in Pawtucket by Samuel Slater…”

“Transferred to our care” apparently meant that it was on loan. There’s another letter in the Smithsonian archives, in the accession files, dated 1883, from the RISEDI: “This relic,” it reads, “is most valuable—the first spinning frame ever started in America (1790)—the rude beginning of all that vast New England industry—cotton spinning and weaving.” Although the society hesitated to let the spinning frame leave the state, it believed that the Smithsonian was the place “where the citizens of our Common Country may view it and learn of its history. No place offers a superior claim to your Department for the preservation of this valuable historical relic.”

One wonders why the Society took the spinning frame away from the Brown Museum and gave it to the Smithsonian. Perhaps the upcoming Cotton Centennial was the appeal. The Smithsonian was organizing the display there, and one could imagine that they were most eager for this relic. And Jenks was probably not too pleased with the amount of room the Slater machines took up in his museum, room that could be better used for more taxidermied animals.

And so it was that the most precious relic of Rhode Island’s industrial history left the state for the Smithsonian, and for a tour to New Orleans. The story didn’t quite end there, though. Jenks noted in his 1885 report that he was about to leave for an extended tour for Mexico, Hawaii, Alaska, and “our Northern States,” to collect for the museum. No doubt he stopped by the Cotton Exposition, in New Orleans, to check on the Slater spinning frame – and to get some credit for Brown University, in the note on the back of his business card, for its role in preserving the relic.


Jenks’ card is in the Smithsonian Institution Archives: 1884-1885. MS Exposition Records of the Smithsonian Institution and the United States National Museum, 1867-1940: Series 6 World’s Industrial and Cotton Centennial Exposition (New Orleans, 1884- 1885), 1884-1888, 1893 Box 19, Folder 16.

The 1912 label is reproduced in the catalog entry for the spinning frame, here.

The letter that accompanied the donation is reproduced at the Smithsonian Legacies website, here.


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