Ivy Mills in Concord Township about 1860
Ivy Mills in Concord
These mills, situated on a branch of the Chester Creek, about perhaps eighteen miles from Philadelphia, and long known as the “Ivy Mills,” were abandoned more than a generation ago, after an industrial existence for considerably more than a century. Next to the Rittenhouse Mill and the Dewees Mill in and about Germantown, the original structure is believed to have been the first paper mill in Pennsylvania, and probably outside of those, no other or certainly no other of equal importance, precede it in what is now the United States.
The name “Ivy Mills” is suggestive at once of the relation which Benjamin Franklin bore to it and to its founder. The walls of the first structure appear to have been covered with ivy vines in its early days by Thomas Wilcox, who had come from England, and who built it a little before the time when Franklin, as a young printer, branched out in business in this city as the publisher of the “Pennsylvania Gazette.” An ivy leaf, which at a later time in his life he designed for a daughter of Wilcox, is now preserved as a relic of her embroidery. The friendship which existed between him and her family doubtless grew out of Franklin’s purchase at the mill of the paper on which he printed the “Gazette,” and continued up to the time of the death of the mill owner, nearly half a century afterward, when the statesman was in France. Franklin is known to have been often a visitor at the Ivy Mills, to have corresponded with Wilcox, and apparently to have used his influence in procuring business for him. The probably included the furnishing of paper on which the bills of the Pennsylvania provincial money were printed. The account books of Franklin, now in possession of the American Philosophical Society, show conclusively that he made his first paper purchase at the Ivy Mills and that he continued to make purchases there until he retired from the active control of the “Gazette.”
In the course of the Revolution Thomas Wilcox died, but some time before the war broke out, it was supposed that he had withdrawn from the management of the mills, having turned the business over to his son Mark. It was by him that paper for the first issue of Continental currency authorized by the Congress in Philadelphia, was made more than a year before the adoption of the Declaration. At this time, too, paper of all kinds began to be scarce; subsequently, most of the people had to be severely economical in the use of it, and Nathan Sellers, who made the molds for the process of paper manufacture at the Wilcox Mill, long afterward narrated to one of his descendants how fly leaves were torn from printed books and bank leaves from account books in order to obtain material for writing letters. While the British were in occupation of Philadelphia the scarcity was so much felt by the fugitive government of Pennsylvania, then at Lancaster, that a secret order was issued to one of the officers of the army to seize the stock in the mill on Chester Creek. The officer was directed, too, to make particular inquiry as to the conduct of those who were carrying on the manufacture inasmuch as it had been “hinted’ that they were unfriendly to the American cause. The subsequent career of the proprietor, of course, does not justify this suspicion, and the fact that the officer was instructed to certify the quantity of the seized paper because of the intention that he should have a reasonable price, indicates that strong credence could not have been given to the “hint.” Indeed, it seems that while the British were in Philadelphia, Wilcox was arrested by them on the charge of obstructing their officers in obtaining supplies in the country, that he was carried to this city as a prisoner, and that he was afterwards released by General Howe at the solicitation of some of his neighbors who were members of the Society of Friends. He held at various times not a few public offices, including a seat as Associate or lay Judge of Delaware County.
Throughout the Revolution, Wilcox furnished large quantities of paper for the Continental money, and when Robert Morris and his associates, of whom the papermaker was one, in the establishment of the Bank of North America, wanted paper for the printing of their notes, they placed their order with him. The reputation which the mill thus gained, led in the course of time, to its development as a special source of supply of the various paper used by not only banks in Philadelphia, and all over the country, but by governments. During the entire period of the old State bank system, it turned out vast quantities of paper for bank notes. The Bank of the United State, too, was its customer, and Nicholas Biddle, when he was president of that institution, took particular pains that the paper for it should be difficult for counterfeiters to imitate. Several of the South American governments were patrons of the mill, and on one occasion its proprietor entered into a contract with the financial authorities of Greece. Indeed, Mr. Ashmead, the historian of Delaware County, is authority for the statement that for “a long period not only were the banks of the United States supplied with their paper from this mil, but its lofts were, at times, piled with peculiar-looking papers of various tints, bearing the ingrained watermarks of most of the governments of South America. Nearly the whole of the western continent drew its supply of bank paper from the mill.”
It was not only in the Revolution that the mil was a dependency to the Treasury of the national authorities, but also in the War of 1812. At that time, it is stated, a distinctive paper with colored silk woven through it, was made for the government’s use, and that the mill was guarded by the government to prevent the paper from falling into unlawful hands. Again, under Tyler’s administration and it was then that the making of bank paper had come, for some time previous, to be almost exclusively the chief operation of the mill, it supplied the Federal government with the sheets for the printing of its bond issues and also during the Mexican War. When the Civil War broke out it was once more in requisition; Secretary Chase repeatedly made contracts with its owners for the paper on which demand notes, bonds, legal tender notes, certificates and other monetary issues were printed; and it was difficult to produce the material as fast as it was wanted at Washington on some occasions. The late Jay Cooke, when the war was at an end, bore testimony to the value of these services and Chase’s appreciation of them. He stated, moreover, that when peace came, the government concluded that it would itself make the paper for its notes, its bonds and the notes of the national banks, but that the experiment was then unsuccessful and that the authorities were obliged to renew their contract with the men who had through generations of experience in the manufacture of that class of paper.