Thursday, August 4, 2016

Howe's Business? One Entrepreneurial Family
in Carrollton, Kentucky (1859- )

Note: This post includes information from Sarah Eva Howe's scrapbooks, but it also captures details and images not found there. I've provided sources for those extras in the endnotes.

In 1847, John Howe, Sarah "Sallie" Brown Howe, and their infant son William Ficklin Howe moved from Ireland to New York and soon, according to scrapbook notes and various records, continued on to Fleming County, Kentucky. John used his skills as a tailor to support his little family.

By 1857, John decided that farming would be a better way to support his expanding brood. He moved his household to a patch of prairie land near Urbana, Illinois, only to discover that he was not cut out for farming [1]. The family left Urbana for St. Louis, Illinois, then Madison, Indiana. By 1859, now with five children, John and Sallie moved to Carrollton, Kentucky.

Carrollton must have been the perfect place for John Howe's entrepreneurial spirit to thrive. Returning to skills he learned in Ireland, he set to work as a merchant tailor [2]. Later, for a few years, he tried his hand at banking by establishing John and W.F. Howe and Sons.[3] He also established or bought (my research is inconclusive) Carrollton Woolen Mills and then launched a related business, Carrollton Pants Factory. He made fabric, then clothing, so the logical next step was to open a dry goods store that sold those goods not only to wholesalers and distributors but directly to consumers. The store flourished and, over time, expanded to add styles from big-city fashion houses.

 Carrollton Woolen Mills, 1876 [4]

The businesses provided good jobs and incomes for John and all five of his sons: William F., John, Robert, Joseph, and George, who died in 1881 at age 21. Not all went smoothly, though. In 1878, fire took a toll on the woolen mill. The Cincinnati Enquirer reported it on November 23 of that year:
A part of the woolen factory owned by John Howe & Sons was destroyed by fire today at one o'clock, while the hands were at dinner and the watchman left in charge. The picker-house, about ten feet apart from the main factory, took fire and was entirely consumed. Loss about $4,000, and insured for $2,700. [5]
Apparently, the woolen mill and the pants factory were still doing a booming business 13 years later. On November 14, 1891, The Carrollton Democrat published a lengthy article [6] about the Howe pants factory, referring to the factory's product as "pantaloons." The Howes advertised the pants as "doeskin jeans," doeskin being a finely woven, soft, smooth woolen fabric; jeans being a style created in the early 1870s. In the article, the reporter seemed to be fascinated with the factory's transition from work by hand to work by machines and the hiring of women to operate those machines.

The Pants Factory
One of Carrollton’s Valuable Institutions

Among the several valuable manufacturing institutions in Carrollton is the pantaloon factory recently established in connection with the Carrollton Woolen Mills. It is located in the building known as the old woolen mill on 6th Street. We called the other day to inspect some alterations that were being [done] with a view to increased convenience and greater capacity, and were highly delighted with the scene. Nearly everything is done by machinery, the operatives being for the most part bright, handsome . . . young women - and how they do hustle! However, the work is not heavy, as all the machines are run by steam.

The factory, having a connection with the woolen mills, is of course under the management of Mr. Wm. F. Howe, but it is under the immediate charge of Mr. W. A. Hoagland, as Superintendent, who is a pleasant gentleman, with evident qualifications for the position.  . . . He has some assistants in the work of cutting, John Beal being the first.  . . .

There are 13 splendid sewing machines, a button hole machine, a button machine and a crimping machine, each in the charge of a young lady. Miss Ollie Craig being the efficient forewoman in this department. The ladies at present employed are: Misses Ollie Craig, Zella Scandrett, Lucy Betem, Nannie Welch, Linda McKim, Laura Coghill, Minnie Meier, Virginia Soar, Barbara Lang, Lulie Leap, Nannie Soar, Mattie Welch, Rosa Lorch, Katie Betem, Hattie Brown, Eva Porter, Mary Dugan, Ella Hays, and Annie Morgan.
. . . Several other persons fill positions about the factory - two young Kendall brothers doing all the pressing, while Edgar Williams and perhaps others are 'general' men. The total number of employees is 25. Many of these would be earning little or nothing, if it were not for the opportunity the factory gives to them, and hence we started out by calling it a very valuable institution.

. . .  At this time the weekly payroll of the two concerns amounts to nearly $500 –- and a fourth of the machinery in the mill, perhaps, is not running.

Mr. Howe feels very much encouraged from the success of the new enterprise.  He said: “A gentleman was here from Louisville today and gave us an order for 76 dozens pairs; Mr. J.B. Ribella, who travels exclusively for this factory and the woolen mill, is sending in some orders.  Besides Mr. Ribella, we have five men who are on the road who sell for both departments on commission. The latter, however, represent us in connection with other lines."

Letterheads from two Howe family businesses (pasted in one of Sarah's scrapbooks)

A sketch of Howe Brothers store circa 1895 [7]

In a future post: More about Howe Brothers – the store and the men.


1.  See a transcription of a handwritten family history found in the scrapbooks of Sarah Eva Howe, granddaughter of immigrant John Howe. Also see a published biography at
2.  The largely obsolete term merchant tailor describes a business person who trades in textiles, and initially a tailor who keeps and sells materials for the garments which he makes. Source:
3.  History of Kentucky, Volume 5 by William Elsey Connelley, Ellis Merton Coulter; American Historical Society, 1922; p. 238. See online at
4.  Image from and included here with permission. 
5.  Excerpt posted at; included here with permission.
6.  Full article posted at; included here with permission. 
7.  Image from; included here with permission. 

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