FRONTLINE: Retrospect on George W. Taylor

Quality Came Second
George W. Taylor’s steadfast championing of “free labor” cost him plenty.

Quality Came Second
George W. Taylor’s steadfast championing of “free labor” cost him plenty.

Business and ethics is an awkward mix. One is about creating and satisfying trivial wants, the other about setting them aside. In Philadelphia, the popular White Dog Café near the University of Pennsylvania uses “fair trade” chocolate (made of cocoa beans not picked by exploited children) even though quality can be uneven.

Former White Dog owner Judy Wicks once took pork off the menu after learning unpleasant things about pig farming. The result: A restaurant that, while beloved, hasn’t topped any best-of lists lately. For her part, Wicks complained about attracting too many do-gooder job applicants when what she needed were good cooks.

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This conundrum has deep roots in the Delaware Valley where, 300 years ago, early opponents of slavery wore hemp rather than better fabrics made by slaves. This movement reached its height in the 1850s when George W. Taylor set up a cotton mill in Chester County to supply his “free labor” store in Philadelphia. With adequate supplies of merchandise, Taylor and his supporters believed, ethical shopping could strangle slavery without firing a shot.

The business was a headache. Raw materials were hard to obtain; delivery was undependable; and even conscientious Quaker women were critical of defective weaving, ugly patterns and colors that faded. Abolitionist Lucretia Mott—whose husband, James, got out of the cotton trade to protest slavery—was blunt: “Free sugar,” she wrote, “was not always as free from other taints as from that of slavery; and free calicoes could seldom be called handsome, even by the most enthusiastic; free umbrellas were hideous to look upon, and free candies, an abomination.”

Taylor learned retailing and anti-slavery as a boy. Born to a farm family in Radnor, he moved in 1812 to Kaolin in southern Chester County, where his father, Jacob, ran a store. The Taylors didn’t belong to any church until George was 12, when he and his mother were accepted at New Garden Friends Meeting. Jacob Taylor attended, but never joined.

Young George liked money. As a child, he resisted smallpox vaccination, which involved cutting his arm. His father promised him three silver dollars if he cooperated. Eventually, he saved enough to buy several ewes, whose wool and lambs he sold to buy a watch and a dictionary. But it wasn’t just the money: Carrying grain to the mill one day, Taylor stopped at the home of a free black family where he found the owner ill and his wife and children nearly destitute. He gave the man all the money he had—“some three or four dollars”—and later went back with more.

“I learned afterward that it was sufficient for their needs until he recovered,” Taylor wrote in his autobiography. When he learned years later that one of the boys had grown up to be a Methodist minister, Taylor decided that providence had been at work.

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After Taylor joined the Quakers, he began using the plain language—“thee” and “thou,” rather than “you”—when speaking to an individual. Most Quakers had dropped “thou,” the nominative form, though doing so was grammatically wrong. Taylor’s sisters laughed at him, but he considered it a religious duty to speak properly and thou’d for the rest of his life.

Fruits of Their Labor
George Taylor made up his mind early about slavery. Embracing the argument of John Woolman that using slave products made one as guilty as a slave owner, he used flax goods instead of cotton, and abstained from sugar, rice and coffee.

Finished at the common school, Taylor taught in the neighborhood. But as he did so, he spent part of his income for mathematics instruction from Enoch Lewis of New Garden, a respected teacher and a dedicated anti-slavery man. In 1803, when his annual salary was $500, Lewis paid $400 for the freedom of a runaway slave. His wife, Alice, was known when shopping to “discriminate between the produce of free or slave labor.”

Lewis believed in the interconnectedness of all things. So it was not considered odd when he had brought a former slave to meet with his mathematics students and describe his experiences. It seems likely that Lewis’ mathematics instruction—which included economics—would’ve included the thinking then current among Quakers that slavery wasn’t merely evil but also financially inefficient.

After eight months with Lewis, Taylor “completed a full and thorough course in mathematics and was qualified to teach all its branches.” He taught for seven years in Quaker schools, then, in 1834, began publishing religious tracts and a Quaker newspaper. He also became involved in what would be his life’s mission.

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Before 1827, the free-labor idea had been the notion of a few ultra-observant Quakers. Benjamin Lay had refused to eat food produced by slave labor and, as peculiar, lived in a cave. Henry Drinker lost a fortune in the 1790s, trying to develop maple sugar as a viable substitute for slave-grown sugar. In London Grove, two Quaker families planted their own cotton, producing a small bale that, when processed, yielded enough for four or five shirts. (The plants died in the fall.)

The Philadelphia Free Produce Assoc-iation was intended to take the effort up a notch. Rather than operating a store, however, the group batched believers’ orders, then found manufacturers to fill them. Often, they had to pay up front and hope they weren’t too surprised by what arrived. Shipments were stored at members’ homes until they were picked up. In 1847, Taylor saw an opportunity to live his beliefs: He opened a free-labor store, thereby becoming the movement’s public face.

“From the very outset, manufacturing presented difficulties,” wrote movement historian Ruth Nuermberger. Most cotton manufacturers weren’t eager to run this unknown “free” product through their machinery. (Would it, for instance, be equally free of seeds and other plant trash?) Fewer were willing to clear machines of slave cotton before running through a few bales of free. Taylor’s solution: He threw away fabric from the beginning and the end of each run, rather than offer mixed fabric.

British manufacturing was costly. Even if cotton was grown in the United States, customs charged a 30 percent duty on fabric, plus the cost of shipping. “Terminology in the two countries differed,” wrote Nuermberger. “So that when Taylor would ask for a particular cloth by name, [his supplier] would send something entirely different.”

Plus, Taylor was selling primarily to Quakers, who would dress only in their distinctive colors: brown, gray and drab. Many suppliers didn’t understand this quirk in the Philadelphia market and sent the usual array of blue, red, green, yellow and purple fabrics, for which Taylor found no buyers. Yet customers also demanded quality.

“The printed linen cambrics appear to be very badly printed,” Taylor wrote his British supplier in 1852. “So much so that ladies who wanted dresses of them would not take them.”

Taylor and his supporters traveled extensively seeking out suppliers and offering above-market prices. In 1850, after traveling to the West Indies seeking free sugar, molasses and cotton, he reported back that the planters of St. Croix—a Danish possession that had abolished slavery two years earlier—were “intelligent, energetic and liberal minded, and their sugar and molasses are of the very best quality.”

Unfortunately, being ignorant of sugar growing, he’d come two months before the harvest so couldn’t bring back samples. (Oops.) Puerto Rico, meanwhile, be-longed to Spain, which permitted slavery; no planters there, he learned, raised free cotton. Supply was always a problem.

Taylor had started a monthly newspaper, the Non-Slaveholder, to promote the movement and tell readers where to buy free goods. In 1845, the paper ran a long report from Cairo, explaining that while slaves existed in Egypt, the country’s cotton should be considered free. Egypt’s Negroes, wrote William Jay, were usually household servants while agricultural workers were mostly Arabs, and free.

This was way more than retail; Taylor and his supporters were trying to jump-start a movement. If they could move just part of the U.S. market off slave products, the idea could catch on in Britain, which bought half of America’s cotton. Slavery, they remembered, had been abolished in the British empire after English housewives had boycotted sugar.

Believing he needed full control over manufacturing, Taylor in 1854 raised $9,000 from investors, added $3,000 of his own and leased Henry Webster’s mill north of Unionville. But in its first full year, the mill spun just 70 bales. Then, in 1857, a financial panic closed the banks. Taylor paid workers with cloth, which they bartered for groceries. The mill opened again in 1859, but closed for good when the Civil War cut off supplies and, ultimately, its rationale. The machinery was sold in 1862, with all investors taking a loss. Taylor continued the store until 1867, then retired to farm.

Free labor’s fatal blow came from within the anti-slavery movement. In 1850, William Lloyd Garrison—who had endorsed the concept in the 1830s—dismissed it as a “waste of time and talent” and proponents as moralistic fussbudgets who turned off potential abolitionist converts. By then, Garrison’s focus had shifted from Quakers’ traditional inward focus (“Change yourself”) to fugitive-slave legislation and the admission of new states—i.e. changing “them.” In comparison, self-denial didn’t offer the same thrill.

Late in life, reading a 40-year-old letter from an enthusiastic free-labor ally, a wiser Taylor commented, “I am led to admire his expanded philanthropy, but at the same time my experience in the 20 years effort in the Free Labor cause has shown me how hard it [was] to rally even the best of people.”

Perhaps something similar convinced Wicks to get out of the restaurant business.

E-mail comments to Mark E. Dixon at

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