Straw Hats on Nantucket

The most successful factory in Nantucket history manufactured straw hats. The Atlantic Straw Company opened its doors in 1853 and closed them in 1866.

Nantucket was in an economic slump after the demise of the whaling industry. There were several attempts to bring the industrial revolution to the island. These included a few short-lived shoe and boot factories and a linen garment factory. They all failed due to the high cost of transporting raw materials to the island and the finished products to the mainland. But, the straw factory was successful for over a decade and contributed to the depressed economy.

The straw factory was first mentioned in 1853 when the Inquirer reported that Justin Lawrence had invested in a business that “would give profitable employment to an immense number of females.” The straw factory, like most early factories, employed women, often providing them with their first independent wages.

Lawrence bought and refurbished a former Quaker Meeting House at 76 Main Street.

Nantucketers worried that a factory in town might become a sweatshop, having read about conditions in factories off island. Spokesmen for the company assured the islanders that their factory would not be “servile” in nature and that bells would not be used to summon or dismiss the workers.

Within months, the factory employed over 200 women making, it was reported, “very handsome wages” at a time when money was scarce. The factory opened its doors to the public on several occasions to verify to the islanders that the young women were not being exploited or subjected to unsafe conditions. The year after it opened, over 1,000 people visited. A reporter noted that most of the women were in their teens. He noted that each girl had a revolving “cushioned chair” that could be raised and lowered. He noted the absence of “task masters, grouty overseers” or “sunrise bells.”

The factory made fashionable straw hats for men, women and children.  The straw was braided and molds were used to shape a variety of hats. In 1855, the Atlantic Straw Factory produced 9,000 women’s bonnets and an astonishing 138,000 men’s hats. The Inquirer noted that the straw hats contributed “tens of thousands of dollars” to the island’s economy.

The factory changed ownership several times and sometimes closed for several months. In 1858, for example, the factory was closed and the equipment shipped back to the then-owners in Foxboro. Eleven Nantucket women chose to move to Foxboro to continue to work for the company. Several months later, however, the company decided to re-open their Nantucket branch. Unusual for the times, a woman, Miss Mowry, oversaw the operation, although that particular venture lasted only a few months, to re-open in 1859 under new ownership.

The factory continued to operate during the Civil War. The women working there bought the material and donated their labor to sew a large flag that was raised over the Custom’s House on lower Main Street in a patriotic celebration. The Inquirer exclaimed, “Hurrah for the girls!”  But, the factory closed its doors for good in 1866, unable to make a sufficient profit.

The building was put up for auction and renamed Atlantic Hall by the new owners who redesigned the second floor to accommodate dances, lectures and concerts. It was Nantucket’s largest assembly hall.

In the mid-1880s the hall was sold to a Bostonian developer who had land in Brant Point. He moved the hall there where it became the center of the grand Nantucket Hotel complex that opened in 1884. When the hotel closed in 1904, the hotel was put up for auction. The men’s fraternal organization, the Improved Order of Red Men bought the building and had it floated across the harbor to its present resting point on South Water Street.

The fraternity rented the downstairs to various organizations and the Annual Town Meeting was held there in 1907. That same year, Nantucket’s first motion picture was shown there. In 1911, four men formed the Dreamland Theatre Company which showed the island’s first “talkie” in 1930. The Dreamland was purchased in 2006 by the Dreamland Foundation and extensively renovated. It opened its doors in 2012 as a community arts center and movie theater.

Nantucket’s transitions can be traced through the building. It has been a Quaker Meetinghouse, a factory, a dancehall, assembly hall, part of a luxury hotel, a fraternal meeting place, a movie theater and a cultural center.

 

 

 

 

The Nantucket Historical Association preserves and interprets the history of Nantucket through its programs, collections, and properties, in order to promote the island’s significance and foster an appreciation of it among all audiences.

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