Archives Center, National Museum of American History

Guide to the William Mason Papers


Collection ID:
Mason, William, 1808-1883 (manufacturer)
Physical Description:
0.6 Cubic feet
2 boxes
Papers of William Mason of Taunton, Massachusetts--engine builder, machinist, and manufacturer of locomotives and cotton machinery. The papers consist of bills, receipts, and correspondence concerning the operation of his household, the construction of his residence, and several incidental papers dealing with his business affairs.

Scope and Contents

Scope and Contents
The papers of William Mason (1808-1883), of Taunton, Massachusetts, document an engine builder, machinist, and manufacturer of locomotives and cotton machinery. The papers consist of bills, invoices, receipts, and correspondence concerning the operation of his household, the construction of his residence, and several incidental papers dealing with his business affairs.
The collection is arranged by type of material and then chronologically. Some materials relate to personal matters such as clothing, furniture, and food purchases. Others relate to William Mason's business affairs. The collection provides an understanding of the time, labor, tools, machinery, and supplies necessary to build the home of a successful businessman between 1848 and 1850 in Taunton, Masachusetts.
A partial description of William Mason, (little is known of his personal life), and of his times can be made through a study of his expenditures. The wages of both skilled and unskilled workers can be studied from payroll receipts. The cost of supplies, tools and equipment can be examined. The quantity and variety of products necessary to construct a home can be gauged to an extent.
Of note are the type and variety of products that each store stocked. Most were specialty stores with limited purpose. Mr. Mason generally paid his payroll bills when delivered. However, there are many bills with receipt of payment given as much as a year later. Some bills had statements asking early payment, others included interest, and some reminders of non-payment.


The collection is divided into two series.
Series 1: Business Records, 1839-1857
Series 2: Correspondence, 1845-1857

Biographical / Historical

Biographical / Historical
William Mason was born in 1808 in Mystic, Connecticut. His father was a blacksmith. As a boy, Mason spent time in his father's shops. He left home at the age of twelve and worked as an operator in the spinning room of a small cotton factory. He was a born mechanical genius and could repair the most complicated machine in the mill. At the age of fifteen he tent to East Haddam, where a mill for the manufacture of thread was being established, to start the machines. At seventeen he worked at the machine shop connected with the mill, where he stayed for three years. It was here he set up the first power loom in the country for the manufacture of diaper linen. He also constructed an ingenious loom for the weaving of damask table cloths.
In 1833, Mason joined Asell Lamphaer at Killingly, Connecticut to make the ring frame for spinning. He remodeled and perfected the "ring" which had been a failure, overcame the prejudice attached to it because of its failure, and caused the device to acquire the reputation it still retains today.
In 1835, Mason moved to Taunton, Massachusetts to join Crocker and Richmond, manufacturers of cotton machinery. He worked almost entirely on ring frames. The firm failed in 1837 during the financial crisis. The business was taken over by Messrs Leach and Keith. Mason was employed as foreman. On October 8, 1840 his greatest invention, the "self acting mule" was patented. Competition required improvements and on October 3, 1846 he received a patent for "Mason's Self acting Mule."
Leach and Keith suffered a failure in the winter of 1842 owing Mason a large amount of money. James K. Mills & Co. of Boston, a leading commission firm, came to his rescue and helped him to buy out the former partners. In 1845, new buildings were erected and the plant became the largest one devoted to the manufacture of machinery in the country. It made cotton machinery, woolen machinery, machinists' tools, blowers, cupola furnaces, gearing, shafting, car wheels made with spokes, and after 1852, locomotives.
Mason wanted to improve the symmetry of the American locomotive. A first engine was turned out in 1853. In 1857 his firm failed but he managed to reopen the plant soon afterwards. The textile business recovered rapidly but the locomotive business was less prosperous. By 1860, he had produced a total of only 100 engines. The figure was doubled by 1865 due to the wartime demand and the pace continued for the next several years. Also during the Civil Was, 600 Springfield rifles were turned out weekly.
Mason's locomotives were genuinely handsome without ornaments. His influence was exerted over all locomotive builders at the time and later. In 1856 he built two locomotives for the Cairo and Alexandria R.R. (Egypt) in which a commentator said that the engines' excellence was due to the accuracy of execution attained by an admirable set of tools and a skillful set of workmen. Opinion by Master Mechanics was that they were the easist engines to keep in repair. The business was organized as the Mason Machine Works in 1873 with a capital of $800,000.
Mason died in 1883 of pneumonia. The 700th engine was being completed. Only 54 more engines were completed by 1889 and delivered in 1890. The company continued to build cotton machinery.
William Mason was a painter and a good violinist. He established a bank in Taunton for his employees and made gifts to charity. He is remembered as a pioneer in the building of locomotives which ranked foremost in the country.


Barbara Kemp and Robert S. Harding
Custodial History
The collection was transferred from the Division of Transportation (now the Division of Work and Industry) on May 2, 1983.
Processing Information
Processed by Robert S. Harding, archvisit and Barbara Kemp, 1983.

Using the Collection

Preferred Citation
William Mason Papers, Archives Center, National Museum of American History.
Conditions Governing Use
Collection items available for reproduction, but the Archives Center makes no guarantees concerning copyright restrictions. Other intellectual property rights may apply. Archives Center cost-recovery and use fees may apply when requesting reproductions.
Conditions Governing Access
Collection is open for research.

More Information


Lozier, John "Taunton and Mason: Cotton Machinery and Locomotive Manufacturing in Taunton, Massachusetts 1811 1861." Dissertation, Ohio State University, 1978.
The Railway and Locomotive Historical Society. Bulletin #15. Boston: Baker Library, Harvard Business School, 1927. (pp. 20 33).
White, John H. "Mason Machine Works," A Short History of American Locomotive Builders in the Steam Era. (pp. 15; 63 65.)


Keywords table of terms and types.
Keyword Terms Keyword Types
Manufacturers Topical Search Smithsonian Collections Search ArchiveGrid
Family papers Genre Form Search Smithsonian Collections Search ArchiveGrid
Railroads Topical Search Smithsonian Collections Search ArchiveGrid
Locomotive builders Topical Search Smithsonian Collections Search ArchiveGrid
Housing Topical Search Smithsonian Collections Search ArchiveGrid

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