KNOW YOUR HISTORY: John Hewson and the American Revolution
Political ideologies that went against the status quo, as well as the aid of Benjamin Franklin, brought John Hewson to Philadelphia. Once Hewson was here, he made the greatest textiles that the nation had ever seen until that point, and he also made friends with Revolutionary leader General George Washington.
John Hewson was born on August 5th, 1744 in England. He was the son of Peter Hewson, a woolen draper in London. John Hewson was distantly related to a colonel during the English Civil War (1642-1651). Ironically, this colonel was also named John Hewson. Colonel Hewson not only supported Oliver Cromwell (leader of the Commonwealth after the king was dethroned), but also personally signed the execution papers for King Charles I that resulted in his beheading. With revolution in his blood, John Hewson (1744-1821) held strong republican political ideals that were frowned upon by King George III. Hewson’s family worried for his safety and urged him to leave the country.
John Hewson worked at Oliver & Talwin (a leading textile print work company in England) as a dryer and bleacher. Hewson had four children between 1767 and 1773: John, Sarah, James and Mary. A relative to John Hewson, famous British doctor William Hewson, housed Benjamin Franklin while he was working as an agent for the American colonies in London in 1773. Seeing this as an opportunity for safety and opportunity (textiles in the colonies were not made as well and England), the Hewson’s asked Ben Franklin to take them back to Pennsylvania with him. In September of 1773, Benjamin Franklin brought the Hewsons to Philadelphia.
Hewson brought along his work associate Nathaniel Norsgrove and about a dozen workers with him to start a textile-printing factory in Philadelphia. In 1774, Hewson set up his Calico Printing Factory in the same building that would one day become Dyott Bottle Works (Dyottville). By 1793, he expanded his rental land from what was originally only the northern side of Gunners Run to an area that spanned from Northern Liberties toward Kensington. His landlord was William Ball, the future founder of Port Richmond.
Hewson lived on Point-No-Point Road (later to become Point Road and then Richmond Street) near the beginning of Hewson Street (named after him). Hewson compared the quality of his work to the quality produced at Bromley Hall (where Oliver & Talwin is located), which attracted customers. As the first calico printer in the colonies, Hewson quickly earned fame from his handkerchiefs, printed coverlets and material that would be used to make dresses.
Hewson used wooden blocks to print on chintz fabrics. He acquired a lot of his skill from his time at Oliver & Talwin, although there is “no evidence of woodblock printing at Bromley Hall,” so it is unclear how he gained this ability. Hewson printed with seven different colors, and his artistry has historians still considering him one of the finest craftsmen in textile printing history.
Shortly after delivering her fifth child, Mary Hewson, John’s wife, died. A year later, Hewson married a woman from New Jersey named Zibiah Smallwood (with whom he would have two children), whose brother was a lieutenant in the Patriot Army.
In 1775, General George Washington passed through Philadelphia to take command of the Continental Army in New England. Since his wife, Martha Ball Washington, had family in the area, they stayed on his property. The Washingtons stayed with William Ball, John Hewson’s landlord, who lived near Hewson and his Calico Printing Factory. Martha asked Hewson to sew an image of her husband sitting on a horse onto a handkerchief for her. After the work was completed, Martha became a regular customer and visitor to John Hewson.
Hewson’s political ideology, connection through marriage to the Patriot Army and his friendship with the Washingtons influenced him to enroll in the First Republican Grenadiers in 1775. The group disbanded, so Hewson was commissioned as an officer of his company of men, and they attached themselves to the County Militia.
The British Army occupied Philadelphia in 1777, so Hewson fled to New Jersey to find safety since his wife was a native to the area. A local Tory, a loyalist to Britain during the Revolution, was offended that Hewson supported the rebellion after living in the colonies for only a few years. This Tory gave Hewson’s description to the British Army and put a bounty on Hewson’s head. By the time the British Army ransacked Hewson’s property, he was already safely across the river with his family, printing machines, animals and other necessities, although he left many things behind.
While in New Jersey, Hewson and his brother-in-law worked alongside other rebels patrolled the waters to help get provisions to the Americans and to prevent Tories from getting provisions to the British. After six months, Hewson was captured near the mouth of the Rancocas Creek, but the Tory who had put a bounty on Hewson had already fled the city. As a prisoner of war, Hewson spent time in the Walnut Street Prison before being transferred to New York. After being held captive for a year and a half, Hewson escaped New York and made his way to the shores of New Jersey at Sandy Hook on his way back to Philadelphia. Upon returning home, Hewson learned that his daughter, Catherine Washington (named after his mother and General George Washington), had passed away.
Hewson then became a captain in the war effort between 1780 and 1781. Also in 1780, Hewson petitioned the Supreme Executive Council of Northern Liberties of Pennsylvania to allow him to be a Vendue Master (an actioner or vendor) so he could make more money to support his wife and six children. The Council denied his petition, and Hewson had to work to restore his post-war business in other ways.
He was considered a local hero due to his patriotism and multiple daring escapes. On July 4th, 1788 the Grand Federal Procession honored the Hewson family by seating them in the center of the Manufactures Float. In 1790, Hewson was awarded a gold medal by the Manufacturing Society for the best example of calico printing in Pennsylvania. In order to promote consumers to buy American-made products, Hewson sent printed cotton to the Washingtons to make a dress in 1793. One can ascertain that Hewson’s business was successful again by the time he retired in 1810 when John Hewson Jr. took over the business.
John Hewson died on October 11th, 1821. He is buried in Palmer Cemetery, and his legacy is rich with patriotism, textile dominance and gallantry.
Information from this article comes from barbarabrackman.blogspot.com, findagrave.com, kennethwmilano.com, Amelia Peck’s “American Quilts and Coverlets” and Kimberly Wuffert’s “The Man of Many Vases: John Hewson, Calico Printer” on metmuseum.org, geni.com, Christopher Maddish’s “The Mysterious John Hewson” on Nava.org and nephillyhistory.com. •