In the summer of 1795, exiled Irishman Archibald Hamilton Rowan arrived in Philadelphia, his journey to America quite an extraordinary one. Born in 1751 into an Irish family of privilege, he was raised by his wealthy English grandfather and educated at Westminster and Cambridge. After leaving school without graduating, he then traveled the Continent for several years before settling in Ireland. He became active in politics as a member of the Society of United Irishman fighting for Parliamentary reform and other liberties. Rowan was arrested in 1792, fined £500, and sentenced to two years in jail for distributing a seditious paper calling for a restoration of Ireland’s constitution. His incarceration in Dublin’s Newgate Prison was by no means harsh, as he enjoyed visits from family and compatriots and home-cooked meals. Still chafing under prison rules, however, he bribed a jailer £100 to allow him to visit home, where he donned a disguise, climbed out a window, rode to a friend’s house, and sailed for France. Witnessing many horrors of the French Revolution during his short stay, he decided to try his luck in America.
Rowan’s stay in America started on a positive note. Feted as a patriot, a “deserving advocate of civil and religious freedom,” he made the acquaintance of social and political leaders such as Pennsylvania Governor Thomas Mifflin, John Dickinson, and Caesar A. Rodney, nephew of a signer of the Declaration of Independence. Despite his warm welcome, Rowan knew he would not permanently settle in America for he was “disgusted with the rough manners of the people” and unused to the extremes in temperature. However, he also acknowledged that the new country offered numerous economic advantages for anyone willing to work hard. Feeling he could “profit for the good of my family,” Rowan bought a calico printing business on Brandywine River’s south bank near Wilmington, Delaware, in March 1797.
Rowan’s choice of a business was a promising one; in the 1790s, colorful, affordable, washable printed cottons were in heavy demand. But external issues conspired against him. A year into operation, his business manager, William Aldred, proved incompetent, forcing Rowan to take on three new partners and keep the books himself. Orders declined during the deadly yellow fever epidemics in Philadelphia from 1797 through 1799. Furthermore, British traders threatened to call in debts of any American merchants selling domestic goods in their stores. With businesses depending on the extension of credit in a precarious new economy, American merchants caved into the pressure. The struggle of navigating shortages of skilled labor and hard currency with fluctuating trading practices proved devastating. By May 1799, Rowan announced in local newspapers the selling of his goods together or separately. Quaker merchant James Lea bought his inventory at half their value, leaving the equipment—coppers, blocks, calender, turning lathe, screw press, printing machine, tubs—and the mills’ frame buildings to be sold at auction. Desperate to end his unprofitable venture, Rowan advertised “any person inclining to sacrifice his property by carrying on this manufactory in America, may have the whole for one half the sum they cost and immediate possession of the premises.”
After a difficult five years in America, Rowan sailed for Hamburg in July 1800, where he reunited with his family and returned to Ireland three years later after finally securing a pardon from England. He remained involved in politics and fighting for civil and religious liberty until his death in 1834. Throughout his life, Rowan met leading figures of the day, including Benjamin Franklin, Marie Antoinette, Robespierre, Thaddeus Kosciuszko, and Mary Wollstonecraft. Rowan’s autobiography, comprised of journal excerpts, letters to and from relatives and friends, and comments by his editor, was published in 1840, a record of his remarkable life.
From Rowan’s very brief career as a textile manufacturer, his scrapbook of designs for printed cottons has fortunately survived. The volume, covered in newspaper, contains more than 140 striped, geometric, and floral patterns made from wood block impressions on laid paper. The similarity to contemporaneous English designs is unsurprising since Rowan himself confessed to “pirating these patterns which seemed to sell best.” While clothing made from Rowan’s designs may not have lasted, his scrapbook functions as an invaluable visual archive of late 18th-century common dress fabrics.
To view Rowan’s scrapbook, visit the online collection of textile pattern books from the Winterthur Library manuscript collection here.
Post by Jeanne Solensky, Librarian, Joseph Downs Collection of Manuscripts and Printed Ephemera