Each week, I examine the flags and associated municipal symbols of the cities and towns of Rhode Island. I also give a (brief-ish) summary of the municipal history. Finally I also offer sample redesigns of town flags to demonstrate what’s possible. This week, I take a look at Pawtucket, one of Rhode Island’s most fascinating communities.
It’s hard to talk about Pawtucket, partly because the modern city didn’t exist until 1874 (this recent formation is not mentioned in the City’s history webpage). But the eastern portion of the city (the part from which it’s named) wasn’t even a part of Rhode Island until the 1860s.
Indeed, Pawtucket has historically been a border. Prior to the arrival of the English, the area had been dominated by the Wampanoags, but they were weakened by a plague, which allowed the Narragansetts to seize control of the area, leaving what became the Blackstone River as a rough demarcation of the border between the two Native nations. Which is why that initially was the border between Rhode Island and Massachusetts. Rhode Island purchased rights to the west bank from the Narragansetts, and Massachusetts purchased rights to the east bank from the Wampanoags.
But a good rule of rivers is that while they make easy borders on maps, it turns out people like to settle on both sides of the river, and that’s indeed what happened with English settlers, who purchased land on either bank, with the earliest farm settlement starting in 1668. In 1671, the first of the Jenks family started an industrial operation. To give you a sense of how important industrial development is to Pawtucket, 1671 is the year the City history refers to as its founding.
Everything was, of course, destroyed during King Philip’s War. Southern New England almost literally went up in flames, but at the end of it, Native nations were destroyed, and many Natives were sold into slavery (those who weren’t kept in South County went to the sugar plantations of the Caribbean) or executed (often such execution was paired with torture).
The area at the falls of Pawtucket (“Pawtucket” reportedly means “fall of water” in an Algonquian language, though my source did not specify the language) returned as Jenks rebuilt, and within the next forty years, the Rhode Island bank featured an established village of Pawtucket Falls (within Providence’s territory). The Jenks would control all development on the Rhode Island side until the Revolutionary War. By 1700, the eastern side (part of Rehoboth in Massachusetts, which at that point was based out of modern East Providence) also sported mills.
The Pawtucket villages’ position between Boston and Providence allowed the residents some leverage over the colonies. The Jenks family persuaded the colonial assemblies to build wooden bridges over the Blackstone, but the interstate bridges were poorly maintained, and often fell into disrepair.
By 1765, the farmers to the west of Pawtucket had gotten annoyed at having to go into Providence, and they petitioned for being formed into a new town, which became North Providence. Thus, Pawtucket’s Rhode Island side passed into North Providence’s hands.
It’s hard to grow up or even just casually live in Rhode Island and not know what comes next. But before we can tell the story of the mills and Samuel Slater, it’s important to mention where the money came from. The Revolutionary War destroyed the slave trade in Newport. The occupation of Newport shifted the economic center of Rhode Island to Providence, and after the war, it was harder to reestablish the state’s position in the abominable trade. The Preservation Commission Report that’s the foundation of this history euphemistically refers to this as “international trade” – which is accurate, but obscures the horrific truth of what that trade was: slavery.
But all that money from human suffering had to go somewhere, and mills were an easy way to diversify (it certainly would not go to relieving human suffering). And of course, it was cotton mills, so the Rhode Island mercantile class switched from selling people into slavery to profiting off of the products of slavery.
In the immediately aftermath of the war, though, it wasn’t cotton, it was metal. The Wilkinson family started making nails, steel bars, screws, and other metal items… along with muskets and cannon. In time, a Wilkinson daughter, Hannah, would marry Samuel Slater (Hannah is also the first woman in America to be granted a patent).
The Industrial Revolution (and the accompanying transition to capitalism) is largely agreed to have begun in England, most importantly due to the mill system and the machines that powered it. These were closely guarded systems, as it gave England an extraordinary manufacturing advantage. American attempts to replicate it had largely failed. Moses Brown had bought up all the equipment that appeared to work, and put it to work at a mill in Pawtucket. But he needed someone to run it.
That was, of course, Samuel Slater. Slater probably didn’t memorize construction of the machines. But he was the highest-level mill employee to show up, thoroughly middle-management. And he came for the same reasons a lot of immigrants come to America: a chance to make a lot more money.
Slater drew on the money of Brown, local expert mechanics in Pawtucket, and his own knowledge to transform Brown’s poorly-run factory into a working approximation of the English mill system. Slater had arrived in American in November of 1789, been hired by Brown on December 10 of that year, arrived in Pawtucket in January, and had a fully operational factory on December 20, 1790.
Pawtucket residents were not necessarily thrilled by this. There was a fair amount of suspicion that Slater and his backers intended to transform the country into something resembling the aristocratic English who had just been defeated. Slater also pissed people off by building a new damn on the Blackstone. Owners of the lower damn sued him for diverting water (the case was settled in 1836), and local residents sabotaged dam construction in retaliation for cutting off fishing and flooding nearby land.
In 1801, Pawtucket had developed so much that they were able to establish a fire district, which was important to the mill owners, as wooden mills have a tendency to go up in flames and kill the little kids who work in them (the Pawtucket mill owners employed impoverished white children almost exclusively and very much impoverished white children intentionally). Children also routinely ran away, or were pulled out of work by their parents (either due to work conditions, or for agricultural purposes). Of course, it was the introduction of heavier machinery that led to young women becoming the primary workforce of the mills.
The problems of the mills and the people who worked them, and Pawtucket’s growing stratification led to a strike (or a turnout) in 1824 as a result of the increase in the workday by an hour (with no increase in pay) and reduce the rate women were paid. This was the nation’s first textile strike, and certainly the first women-led strike in America. The strike ended when a mill was set on fire, and the mill owners came to the bargaining table. The mill owners would retaliate by increasing the district’s police powers and by portraying the residents of Pawtucket as violent, lawless brigands who were a threat to public safety.
In 1828, across the river, the now Town of Seekonk (formed in 1812) was divided, and the Town of Pawtucket was established.
The 1820s ended with a financial collapse, as the Wilkinson family company fell apart as demand for textiles fell. The resulting contagion bankrupted a lot of the concerns in the area, which were bought and moved to other places. Slater himself even divested from Pawtucket and moved on to found Webster, Massachusetts.
The resulting depression slowed growth until the 1840s, but a new industrial boom in textiles didn’t take place until the 1860s and 1870s. With that boom came more immigrants; though the primary group of immigrants were British nationals: English, Scottish and Irish. That said, there were Swedes, Germans, and Portuguese as well. Often, factories either recruited specific immigrant groups or gave specific immigrant groups specific tasks; for instance, Germans were heavily employed in silk manufacturing, whereas engravers and designers in print shops were English and Scottish, respectively.
In 1858, the two sides of the river were finally permanently connected with the construction of the Main Street bridge.
In 1862, the border of Rhode Island changed thanks to an 1861 Supreme Court case that finalized the long-disputed Rhode Island-Massachusetts border. Pawtucket, Massachusetts now became Pawtucket, Rhode Island. In 1874, North Providence was partitioned, and its populous western areas were unified given the name Pawtucket, but both east and west banks were governed separately. In 1886, the single unified city was incorporated.
Though heavily made up of immigrants and children of immigrants, for a long time Pawtucket was controlled by a group of Republicans from older Yankee families. This was, in part, thanks to an 1888 amendment to the state constitution that, while removing many restrictions that kept naturalized citizens from voting, retained the same $134 property requirement to vote in city elections that had led to the Dorr Rebellion in the 1840s. With a bicameral city council and a weak mayor, this gave Republicans strong control over the city. Still, in 1887 and 1890, Pawtucket residents were key in the non-consecutive elections of their own John Davis as Rhode Island’s first Democratic governor since 1863.
In 1902, streetcar workers in Pawtucket went out on strike when streetcar companies refused to honor a law enacted by the General Assembly that restricted the workday to ten hours. The Democratic mayor of Pawtucket refused to support the companies and protect them from the strikers (reasoning it would be defending an illegal action). So they hired their own strikebreakers, one of whom shot and killed a striker, precipitating the Republican governor to place Pawtucket under martial law and call in the state militia to clear the strikers. The Assembly effectively repealed the law.
Pawtucket’s textile factories were saved by World War I, but they were already under pressure by Southern factories who were closer to the raw materials and paid less in wages. The Great Depression ended the supremacy of cotton in Pawtucket, and the economy shifted towards metals and machinery manufacturing.
The Depression put about a tenth of the population of Pawtucket out of work. Many of the immigrants left the city, returning to their home countries. It also gave rise to a wave of strikes, into which was thrust Communist organizer Ann Burlak, whom local newspapers dubbed “the Red Flame of Communism”. Burlak was incredibly charismatic, and she organized in Rhode Island throughout the 1920s and 1930s. However, the Communists lacked strong support. Her 1932 run for mayor of Pawtucket attracted only 160 votes in a city of 77,000. Her labor organizing was undermined by the introduction of the New Deal and the National Recovery Administration. Communist-controlled labor unions were unpopular with workers, who flocked to the craft union-dominated American Federation of Labor. While many of Burlak’s comrades found places in the Congress of Industrial Organizations (the more radical industrial union organizing group), Burlak was too prominent to have success as a union organizer. The AFL actually worked with police to keep Burlak from speaking with strikers.
At the same time, Tom McCoy, an ambitious Democratic politician, had also arisen out of the unions. A streetcar conductor active in his union, McCoy had been a Democratic member of the General Assembly since 1920. Initially part of a class of Irish-American political reformers aligned with the Progressive movement, reform would have to wait. In 1925 he became Chair of the Pawtucket Democrats, and he became City Auditor in 1932. In 1936, he was elected mayor, while retaining the position of auditor and also that of comptroller. He’d had a decade to place loyal partisans in both chambers of the city council, and McCoy now sat at the head of a machine that used electoral fraud and corruption to stay in power. But he was also popular, managing to shore up the city’s finances enough to build a new city hall, a high school, and what is today McCoy Stadium. In many ways, Providence Mayor Buddy Cianci simply repeated McCoy’s playbook. I would gamble that Cianci’s epithet “the Prince of Providence” is a direct reference to McCoy’s “the Prince of Pawtucket” epithet.
However, while McCoy dominated Pawtucket politics, his death in 1945 (during his fifth term) led to the Pawtucket Democratic Party to split into two factions: his machine versus the reformers. In 1950, the reformers elected Lawrence McCarthy, who fought the Council, led by machine politicians. The reformers ultimately triumphed, as in 1952, voters agreed to a unicameral council with a strong mayor. The Council was now exclusively legislative in nature, and the city established departments. This is the system of government Pawtucket uses today.
Industrial manufacturing remains an important part of Pawtucket economic base. However, it’s important to note two additional industries. In the 1990s and 2000s, Providence started converting many of its old mills to upscale lofts, driving out light manufacturing and artists. As Pawtucket remained industrial in orientation, its mills remained undeveloped, and the City used them to foster an arts and culture sector in Pawtucket. In the last decade, the rise of craft brewing (and the City’s intentional fostering of the industry) has made Pawtucket the de facto craft beer capital of Rhode Island.
The city’s population has diversified beyond European ethnic groups, today only about half of the population is non-Hispanic white. At its high point in 1950, the city had over 81,000 residents. Over the last 70 years, the city has lost population, and today stands at just over 72,000 residents (about where it’s been since the 1980 Census).
What has Pawtucket Got Now?
Pawtucket has a coat of arms.
The Tercentenary Commission emblazons it this way:
Argent, a waterfall azure and argent with a bridge sable, flanked by building gules. On a silver shield a waterfall in proper colors, with a black bridge flanked by red buildings. This is a gothic or heraldic treatment of the view of the falls, that appears on the city seal.
The name is an Indian word meaning falls.
It is indeed pretty much a straight interpretation of the seal, and we’ll see that again in Providence, which also didn’t make much effort towards heraldry.
I managed to find three different versions of the seal. Each of these comes from a different source: the blue one comes from the city website, the center black and white one from the state permitting portal, and the final one from Wikimedia. which got it from an archived version of the City Ordinances.
You can download the logo from the Pawtucket website, and I think it’s a pretty solid symbol, especially when compared against Providence’s P logo (which, as far as I’m aware of, is the only other real logo for a municipality in Rhode Island).
However, one thing I noticed while messing with it is that within the gear and river configuration, the P above the stem is not actually a perfect circle, which means that it’s not equidistant from the interior edges of the cog. It’s actually a little closer on the top left than the bottom right. And it’s unclear to me if that was intentional, or if that was a mistake. It doesn’t really matter, it just one of those things that, having seen it, will always bother you from now on.
Pawtucket also has perhaps the least effective flag in Rhode Island.
When I first saw this years ago on CRW Flags of the World, I was certain it was not an officially used flag. We see this all the time; a terrible flag is reported as the flag of a place, only for it turn out to be a commemorative flag or a tourism council’s flag or something.
But this is really Pawtucket’s flag. It’s flown by police honor guards, it appears at mayoral press conferences, and flies above veterans’ memorials.
This is not a good flag. The basic goal of a flag is to be identifiable quickly at distance. That means that what appears on the flag needs to be readable at distance. That’s partly why you see stars so often. Generally, complex images like the above are not advised, because how is this supposed to be described back to someone? If you’ve never heard of Slater Mill, can you easily describe what this is? If you’ve never been to Pawtucket, can you tell that’s a river and not a lake?
Luckily it says “Pawtucket” on it. But even that is difficult to read, since it’s written sideways. It’s a very confounding flag.
Digitizing Existing Designs
The arms from the Tercentenary Commission are relatively simple enough to recreate in vector format (I made the decision to make the bridge look a little more accurate). WappenWiki, a digital collection of arms with its own set of assets, lacks exact matches, but these I was able to adapt the arms of the Prince of Pontecorvo into a rough approximation.
The logo of Pawtucket already exists in a vector format, as that’s what’s on the website. The same can be said of at least the Wikimedia version of the seal, which means that I really don’t have to do too much reproduction of it.
I almost didn’t do this flag. But I managed to find an old post card that roughly looks like it was illustrated from about the same angle as the image on the current flag, and so, here’s a rough version of the current flag of Pawtucket.
It’s almost certainly a Garamond font that’s used, but I only have access to EB Garamond, so it’s not exactly the right font. It’s also very tightly kerned on the actual flag, so I’ve tried to reproduce that effect.
But I do think this really is the worst of the Rhode Island flags we’ve seen so far. It’s a postcard, it’s not a flag.
Redesigning Pawtucket’s Flag
Designs 1a & 1b
Normally, I’d start with an adaptation of the arms. But in my view, the arms aren’t that much better than the flag, and it would look almost childish to put them on a flag. However, the logo is quite good, and that can be used as the basis of a flag. 1a uses the blue and orange from the logo, carrying over the river and gear symbols. 1b is almost exactly the same, but it goes for a much simpler design of white on blue, which should be a little cheaper for printing.
Designs 2a & 2b
Designs 2a and 2b use a layout of a bridge, with the cog occupying the negative space. 2a opts for a red stripe on top with the bridge made up of the falls, while the cog stands in for both Pawtucket’s industrial history, and for Pawtucket’s place as the sort of eastern gate of Rhode Island.
2b uses a symbol from the former border marker from the bridge, depicting shaking hands representing Massachusetts and Rhode Island. Here, those hands are used to represent the unification of Pawtucket. The bridge is red, and the cog uses the falls pattern.
This design honors the two towns Pawtucket was formed out of, East Providence and North Providence. It uses the two piles from North Providence, while also using a black goose for East Providence. Pawtucket’s own cog and a hammer from the symbol of the Pawtucket Mechanics Association are used here to represent Pawtucket itself.
This last design uses a bit of the symbolism of design 1b, but now locks the gear up with a torch. The torch and gear here represents the city’s place as the fire that lit the American Revolution, and also represents the place labor had in Pawtucket, making a reference to the “Red Flame” to stand in for the labor history of Pawtucket.
This post was delayed. It is now 11:35 PM on Friday, and I suspect I will publish by 11:45 PM. In part, this is because Pawtucket had a hell of a lot of really fascinating history around labor and industrialization. I gained a sense of respect for Pawtucket, which I think has suffered a lot of recent blows to its psyche, and is often overlooked in the state when compared against Providence. I admit to holding a personal view that didn’t hold Pawtucket highly.
But its history is actually incredibly fascinating, presaging a lot of Rhode Island history. If you think about all the towns I’ve discussed so far, almost all of them had villages formed based on the developments in mills that happened here in Pawtucket. Pawtucket’s history is intimately tied to that of the State’s
This would be my case for redesigning the Pawtucket flag: gift your community with a symbol that can be flown proudly, that people can draw quickly and easily, and can be easily remembered. Pawtucket has a lot to be proud of. Why not a flag it can be proud of?
As always, please take a moment to fill out the flag survey for your community and vote in the poll.