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At the end of the eighteenth century, George Rapp (1757-1847) planned to create a religious community in the wilderness as near to heaven on earth as was humanly possible. He succeeded to a large extent, but in the process achieved a different kind of success: he created one of the largest textile manufacturing enter­prises in the Pennsylvania of his time.

While still in his native Württemburg, Germany, Rapp developed strong religious convictions and began preaching to local Lutherans who espoused his beliefs. Although his doctrines were held in disfavor by the established church, by the mid-1780s he could claim at least 2,000 followers. After some mild persecution – con­sisting of small fines and an occasional jail sentence – Rapp and about 750 of his followers emigrated to America in 1803-04 and founded the town of Harmony in southwestern Pennsylvania. In order to institutionalize Rapp’s millennialist pietism and community of goods, they formed the Harmony Society in 1805. The Society’s original a intention had been to develop a small farming community; all Society members lived in the village and those engaged in farming went out to the fields every day.

George Rapp was not alone, of course, in envision­ing a perfect society in America. During the first half of the nineteenth century, many such colonies were established, only to fail within a short time. One of the distinguishing features of the Harmonist community, compared to similar ex­perimental societies, was its overall success. The majority of Utopian communities, like Channing’s Brook Farm and Owen’s settlement at New Harmony, lasted only a short time before internal conflict and economic pressures put an end to social experiment. The Harmonist organiza­tion, however, persisted until its dissolution in 1903. The experiment in Oekonomie, pietist socialism, began in 1787 in Württemburg and ended more than a century later in southwestern Penn­sylvania.

Part of the group’s success can be attributed to the similarity of its members’ religious convictions, their common ethnic background and language, and the charismatic personality of Father Rapp. None of these, however, sufficiently explains the economic prosperity which enabled Rapp’s followers to build three complete towns, primarily of brick, in thirty years; to support a large number of persons in comfort; and to make substantial investments in local commerce and industry. The sources of this sustained wealth, long after the initial contributions of its members had been exhausted, were the diversified manufacturing and marketing enterprises of Frederick Rapp (1775-1834), Father Rapp’s adopted son. The group manufactured a large number of items for sale before the 1860s, including shoes, harness, whiskey, wine, hats, cider, oil, flour, pottery, barrels and casks, wagons, ploughs, rope, tin goods, beer, butter and assorted household products. Among the most celebrated commercial goods, however, were textiles: cotton, wool and silk that were spun, woven and dyed in Harmonist mills on its own machinery.

The Harmonists’ woolen industry, established shortly after their arrival in Penn­sylvania in 1805, was the first of the group’s textile enterprises. Sheep flocks were begun in 1807 or 1808, and Rapp’s settlers are reported to have been among the first in Pennsylvania to raise Merino sheep, the first of the modern strains of “blooded” sheep to be intro­duced into the United States. Instead of only two to four pounds of short-fiber wool per head, the Spanish Merino produced six to eight pounds of long-staple wool. Like other agricultural groups of their time, the Harmon­ists were attracted by the greater potential for profit in Merino wool compared with the breeds they had known in Germany.

Before the first decade of the nineteenth century, most high-quality wool broadcloth sold in America was imported from England and Scotland. The Napoleonic Wars and America’s policy of neutrality cut off this supply in 1808 and created a large domestic market for wool fabrics. The Harmonists entered the market in 1809 with the construction of a small fulling mill, the first of their textile industrial enterprises. The fulling mill, which washed and raised the nap on already-woven wool cloth, served handweavers whose fabrics were in the loom state.

The abundance of wool from their Merino flocks, the prosperous seller’s market in wool fabrics and the avail­ability of water power convinced the Harmony Society that textile production was the best investment strategy for its abundant labor and limited capital. In 1810, the Society built a wool carding machine and two spinning jennies which were housed in a large 100-foot-long wooden build­ing; twenty weaving looms operated in a nearby brick building. The Harmonist mil!was, in modern parlance, an integrated operation.

Twenty handlooms of the period, operated year round, could produce as much as twenty-six thousand yards of fabric, consuming fifty thousand pounds of wool in the manufacture of broad­cloth, which required the longest fibers of wool, called tops. The noils, or short fibers, were used in the mak­ing of flannels, blankets and coverlets. Production of this scope required wool from about six thousand sheep, but with only about two thousand sheep producing between ten and fifteen thousand pounds of wool each year, the Harmony Society was unable to operate its looms full time. In an effort to expand their opera­tion to full capacity, the Harmonists began buying wool in the local market.

Since few other sources of good wool cloth existed at the time, fabric sales boomed. By 1811, the woolen mill at Harmony on the Connoque­nessing Creek was selling fine wool broadcloth al $10 a yard. Although this price was quite high by nineteenth­-century standards, Rapp claimed that they sold all they could produce. Most of the cloth not used by the Harmonists themselves was sold at their store, with some surplus marketed in nearby Pittsburgh.

The majority of wool artisans at this time seem to have been men, and of the 800 members living in the com­munity, 52 worked at textile occupations, including ropemaking. Although the Society adopted celibacy in 1807, members lived in “families” of seven to ten per­sons. In ordinary agricultural households of the day, each person was responsible for a number of chores. The communitarian system used at Harmony freed several members of each household for manufacturing, enabling the Harmonists to build and operate their mills. In the Society’s early years, many of the Harmonists were young and strong, and they contributed their labor without wages for the common good. The rewards were gratifying: in 1811 the Society, which had been virtually penniless in 1803, had a net profit of $6,000, of which an inn contributed $1,200 and manufacturing the remainder. The Harmony Society, then, was already suc­cessful by the standards of the period.

The War of 1812 contributed to the prosperity. The price of fine wool rose from about $.75 to $2 a pound in 1814, with corres­ponding increases in the prices of wool fabrics. By 1814 the Society garnered a net profit, not including the value of current inventory or depreciation, of almost $40,000, most of it from manufacturing. Although members working in the mills were not paid, the Society at this time began to charge off labor costs at $300 per household per year. (Common laborers earned about $200 at the time and a Pennsylvania family could live comfortably on $300 a year.) Despite the fact that Harmonist cost accounting was somewhat primitive by modern standards, it is nonetheless apparent that the Society was, by 1814, well on the way to substantial wealth. Frederick Rapp, the Society’s business agent, was proud of what he had accomplished in just ten years. He wrote, “I have a little manufactory established and in a way of making a considerable quantity of cloth every year besides other woolen goods, made mostly of my own raising of wool. … ” By the time the Society was ready to leave Pennsylvania, it operated a carding machine, two roving billies, six spinning jennies, twenty looms and a dyehouse for “blue-dyeing.”

In 1814-15 the Harmony Society moved to southern Indiana and built a new town, also called Harmony, on the banks of the Wabash River. This town, like the village in Pennsylvania, was a farming community, but built as much for industry as for farming. The town included a large steam engine, which ran the cotton mill, and, in 1817, power looms were purchased.

The Harmonists did not begin manufacturing cotton goods in any quantity until they moved into their second home at New Harmony. Although some cotton was grown locally, most was poled upriver from the South to their factory, but the Harmonists even grew some of it themselves. The New Harmony cotton mill employed principally young women, and the spinning machinery, according to early reports, was run by “two oxen walking on an inclined plane,” but the rest of the factory was steam-powered.

After their move, the Harmonists increased their sheep flocks, built new wool machinery and greatly expanded their textile business by selling through agents and wholly owned branch stores. The continuing success of their textile enterprises is all the more surprising in that the generally hard economic times following the War of 1812 proved only to be a temporary setback. While many textile businesses were failing as the price of wool plummeted from $2 a pound in 1814 to $.50 by 1821, Frederick Rapp persevered. Almost in despair, he turned to diversification: the Society began marketing wine, which, while not as profitable as wool and cotton, eventually proved a sound investment. The Harmonists experimented with new products and new markets, the end result of which was a broader-based product mix that carried them through what was up to that time the worst decade in American textile history.

By 1820, they owned four wool cards, four shearing machines and 400 wool spindles, in addition to eleven looms used both for cotton and wool, and four stocking frames. Their woolens, enjoying the reputation of being as good as or better than imported fabrics, were in demand in neighboring states. Ken­tucky, for example, was the market for a fabric called cassinet, a blended fabric with a cotton warp and wool weft. Blankets of Harmonist wool and cotton fabric sold well at frontier outlets that could be reached by water. The Harmonists resumed buying wool. now quite inexpensive, from sources outside the Society in 1822, acquiring large quantities from southern Indiana, Illinois and Kentucky. They found, however, that the best wool came from the region they had left behind – Ohio and Pennsylvania.

The Society had owned too little land on the Conno­quenessing in Pennsylvania and too much – 25,000 acres – in Indiana, where they found themselves too far removed from sources of raw materials and markets. On a business trip in 1824, Frederick Rapp found that land near “Dead Man’s Ripple” on the Ohio River in southwestern Pennsylvania was for sale. He bought it, hurried back to Indiana to pick up a crew of workmen, rushed them back to begin the building of Economy, Pennsylvania, and continued on his trip to Philadelphia. By May of that year enough buildings had been built to begin relocating Harmonist families from Indiana.

Upon returning to Pennsyl­vania in 1825, Frederick Rapp built a still more am­bitious wool factory capitalized at $30,000. Within two years, a traveler described the large steam-powered woolen mill where young women sang at their looms. The Harmonists had even had complete time to with lay a out a fountain garden, supplied by their own underground water system. By 1831, the Society employed fifty men, fifteen women and fifteen boys in the woolen mill. In only four years, between 1827 and 1831, the value of their wool products increased from $35,681 to $84,571, with wool profits generally running between 14 and 18 percent of sales.

At Economy, the Harmon­ists also built a cotton mill capitalized at $25,000, a large factory for the time. Their machinery was, according to a visitor to Economy in 1826, “of the common kind,” with 150 spindles per side. These would have been the standard roller-draft spinning frames invented by Richard Arkwright at the end of the eighteenth century. By 1827, Frederick Rapp was boasting of the speed and pro­ductivity of the sixty women and four men in his cotton mill, which turned out a product worth $22,966 yearly. Profits ran from 12 to 15 percent, except for the year 1830, during which profits fell to 8 percent because of intense competition.

The name of the new Pennsylvania town. on the Ohio River came from the word Oekonomie, the pietist term for the religious life one had to live to maintain a correct relationship with God. A deeply committed religious community, Economy was also a thriving factory town. Although agriculture remained important to the Harmonist economic system, the society’s third and last town was principally built as a manufacturing center. The neat rows of houses on a grid pattern formed a town of about sixteen square blocks. On each corner of the town was a manufacturing operation. The wool, cotton and flour mills stood along the river; the distillery, wine press, oil mill and large barns on the inland side. There was also a large tannery and a huge hemp brake for rope­making. By 1830, when these enterprises were well underway, the Society was processing 100,000 pounds of wool each year and a roughly equal amount of cotton. Products included wool and cotton yarn, broadcloth, sheeting, blankets, satinet, wool flannels, felt (for hats), hats themselves, cassinets, linseys, chambray, hemp for rope, and silk. Experiments were also made printing on cotton muslin, but business proved to be unprofit­able.

The Harmonists’ marketing methods had improved as well, and agents from Phila­delphia to Saint Louis, with business contacts reach­ing from New Orleans to Boston, handled their prod­ucts By the 1830s they sold their goods in large lots through commission mer­chants, one firm located in each town which would sell Harmonist products on a small commission. Surplus wool was marketed in Philadelphia. The agents were allowed to retain the money received from sales for about six months, forming what amounted to a Har­monist banking system in each of the market cities. These surplus funds were profitably loaned at interest. Of necessity, the Society’s bookkeeping system became more sophisticated.

In 1831 a religious schism splintered the Society. When the conflict was resolved in early 1832, about 250, or one-third of the 750 members, left. For the most part, those who departed were the younger and more skilled members. Surpris­ingly, their secession did not impair textile production at Economy. The Society was able to raise $105,000 from cash surpluses called in from agents around the country to pay off the seceders. Enough money remained from even this major capital outlay to purchase raw materials for their textile enterprises.

In 1833, at the height of the Society’s business success, the woolen mill at Economy burned to the ground. The fire was blamed on the seceders, but no proof could be found. In any case, the mill was quickly rebuilt and back in operation in time to produce for the fall market of 1834. It continued to operate until 1864, when the Harmonists ended their cotton and wool manufactur­ing business. Even the death of Frederick Rapp in 1834 did not deter production. The Society’s textile business continued to prosper under the guidance of the store­keeper, Romelius Langenbaker, who called himself Romelius L. Baker. Baker had a great deal of experience with the Society’s textile enterprises, having served as a wool buyer and textile agent under Frederick Rapp’s adminis­tration.

Silk manufacture was the last textile enterprise undertaken by the Harmonists. Under the direction of Gertrude Rapp, the nineteen-year-old granddaughter of George Rapp who had been trained for a leadership role, seri­culture was begun in 1827 at Economy. Following the trend of her day among textile entrepreneurs who hoped to make America a major power in the world silk market, she supervised the planting of white mulberry trees necessary for the feeding of silkworms. Because little technical information was available to the young mill “directress,” the Society hired an expert to help establish a small factory and collected books and other information on silk produc­tion in France and Germany. Gertrude also corresponded with experienced silk throwsters and sericulturists, and experiments were per­formed to determine the best methods for raising silk­worms and reeling the fiber from the cocoon.

As early as 1829 Gertrude was able to send samples of her “tow” silk to prospec­tive buyers. At this early point in its silk manufactur­ing, however, the Society did not yet have the expertise or equipment to reel the 120-yard-long fibers of silk from the cocoons, so workers chopped them into shorter pieces and spun them like the short or tow fibers of flax. Spun silk in this form could then be used for low-luster fabrics resembling Italian material called douppioni. It was not until the 1830s that Gertrude Rapp’s operation acquired the means to reel neat silk for the making of luxurious, high-luster silk, ribbons, vest­ings and kerchiefs.

In 1830, 100 pounds of silk fabric were produced and offers were extended to buy any available cocoons. In a further effort to expand production, thousands more mulberry trees were planted along the streets of Economy and in the fields near Legionville Creek. By 1839, the silk business was yielding an annual profit of close to $2,000 on vesting fabrics, lustrings, hand­kerchiefs, sewing silk, dress silks, figured and plain satins, and a variety of silk velvets. This success encour­aged Gertrude Rapp to install machinery for yet another branch of silk production: ribbon-making. The process used was an experimental one in which seven ribbons were woven on a single loom.

During the 1840s the silk business at Economy received much acclaim from advocates of domestic silk manufacture and Gertrude Rapp herself was widely praised for her initiative and business sense. Industry authorities pronounced Rapp’s goods equal to or better than imported silks and, at two exhibitions in New York and Philadelphia, awarded Gertrude and her silks the first prize for quality. The favorite colors for the Harmonists’ silk seem to have been royal blues, rich greens, shades of red and rose, and every hue of purple, from the deepest indigo tones to pale lavender. Their dyebooks, by the greatest good luck preserved at Old Economy Village, indicate that their silks were stock-dyed to their intense, vivid colors with natural dyes such as indigo, logwood and cochineal.

Despite the beauty and reputation of their silk products, the Harmonists faced stiff foreign competition. Notwithstanding diligent lobbying efforts by American manufacturers, Congress failed to impose a protective tariff on foreign silk. Imports, coupled with an aging work force, finally defeated Miss Rapp’s efforts. The silk business was closed down completely by 1853.

The 1830s and early ’40s were difficult times for industry in the United States, as financial instability brought on a major depression in 1837, followed by a decade of poor business conditions. Even though the Harmony Society survived these difficult times and prospered, time was not on its side. Young people were not recruited after the founding days of the Society and the group’s policy of celibacy meant that the average age of members rose each year. The deaths of first Frederick Rapp in 1834 and then George Rapp in 1847 drained much of the eco­nomic and emotional vitality of the group, although the Society continued for sixty more years as an important, if static, economic power in Pennsylvania. Lacking leadership, however, the group began to retrench. As the Harmonists grew prosperous, much of the motivation to compete in the volatile textile market was lost as well.

The Society was still manufacturing a considerable quantity of cloth in 1850, however, and as late as 1875 a traveler mentioned seeing webs in the looms and was told that they were still operated occasionally. Never­theless, the death of George Rapp, who started his career as a linen weaver and had seen the development of his simple loom into large,
steam-powered factories, spelled the end of the Harmonists’ textile empire.

The economic thrust of the Harmonist community moved away from textiles, but the capital accumulated from their manufacture was used to develop diverse enter­prises such as the operation of cattle feedlots, railroads and real estate (including the town of Beaver Falls), as well as for investment in other manufacturing in the Ohio River Valley. The Society, for example, drilled wells before E. L. Drake and was one of the first organizations to explore Pennsylvania’s oil fields.

The Society finally went out of existence in 1903, although a fight for its assets continued for another thirteen years. Regrettably, none of the community’s textile manufacturing buildings survived into the twentieth century except the cotton mill, which stood in what is now the town of Ambridge until the 1950s when it was torn down for a road. Fortunately, samples of the Society’s textile handi­work still do exist. The Harmony woolens, cotton fabrics and silk in the collection at Old Economy Village reveal the reasons for their makers’ com­mercial success. The fabrics are beautifully crafted, evenly spun and woven, and dyed in colors that retain their brilliance after a century and a half. Their blue and black meltons, a heavy outerweight fabric, are napped to a deep pile and sheared, making a textile so warm and heavy that it is easy to understand how not even the chill of a Pennsylvania February could despite penetrate the it. The passage silk of fabrics, time, are lustrous, soft and pliable, 6 due to the skill with which they were thrown, woven and dyed. Harmonist silks, like their pietist makers, are without “inherent vice.”

It is surprising that a simple religious group of farmers could build a manu­facturing establishment of the size and scope of the Har­monist operation, valued at $12 million in 1851. Several factors were in the Harmonists’ favor: their timing was good, they knew tex­tiles, especially wool, and they knew how to work. In a day when a man’s word was his bond, they were known for their honesty as well as for their astute business sense. They arrived at the right time and took advantage of the opportuni­ties available to them. George Rapp’s explanation for their success, however, was religious rather than economic. He once said that they had started out low and God had raised them up high. They could be brought low again, but meanwhile, the Lord smiled on them.

 

For Further Reading

Arndt, Karl J.R. George Rapp’s Harmony Society, 1785-1847. Cranbury, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University, 1971.

Bernard, Duke of Saxe-Weimar Eisenach. Travels Through North America. 2 vols. Phila­delphia, 1828 (originally Weimar, 1828).

Ramsey, John. “Economy and its Crafts.” Antiques (May 1950): 366-67.

Reibel, Daniel B. “It All Came from Cloth.” Carnegie Magazine (June 1967): 203-07.

Tilton, John Kent. The Silks of the Harmony Society. New York: Scalamandre Museum of Textiles, 155 (4 pp.).

 

The co-authors are currently developing a book on the textiles of the Harmony Society.

 

Daniel B. Reibel, formerly director of Old Economy Village, is now the administrator of Washington Crossing Historic Park. He is the former editor of the Chronicle of the Early American Industries Associa­tion and has published several articles on the Harmony Society.

 

Rachel P. Maines is a member of the Federal Emergency Man­agement Agency’s National Defense Executive Reserve in the textile policy area, and teaches part time at Clarkson College of Technology in Potsdam, New York. She is a historian and policy analyst specializing in the textiles/apparel business complex and has published extensively in this subject area.