Textile Industry

In the 1870s, the largest cotton mill complex in the world was located in Cohoes, New York. The surviving mill buildings and workers’ houses hint at the once thriving industry that began in 1836 when Peter Harmony strategically founded a textile company along the Erie Canal, utilizing water diverted from the Cohoes Falls to power his factory. Raw cotton from southern states was processed, spun, and knitted or woven into printed calicos and fine cotton muslins.

By 1870, Cohoes had eighteen knitting mills and six cotton mills running 203,000 spindles, hence the city’s nickname, the “Spindle City.” The largest mill, Mill No. 3 at Harmony Mills, was built between 1866 and 1872. The building was 1,185 feet long and five stories high. It was considered to be one of the most technologically advanced cotton factories in America. At its peak, Harmony Mills employed 3,100 people and had a predominantly female work force. Mill No. 3 alone housed 2,700 looms that produced 100,000 yards of fabric every sixty hours. The Harmony complex sold in 1937 when the cotton industry became less dependent on water power.

Clark Tompkins of Troy invented and patented the upright rotary knitting machine, illustrated here, to produce knit goods that could be turned into men’s and women’s shirts and drawers. Considered noiseless, the machine could knit, revolve, and wind the material. Machines manufactured by him, and later his sons known as Tompkins Brothers, were used throughout the United States, Canada, and South America.


Magnifying Glass
Upright Rotary Knitting Machine
Tompkins Brothers, Troy, New York
c. 1895
Cast iron, metals, cotton yarn, wood
Courtesy of the New York State Museum
Magnifying Glass
Birds-Eye-View of Cohoes, N.Y.
Published by Galt & Hoy, New York City
Chromolithograph on paper
Albany Institute of History & Art Purchase, 1946.29