The Lynn Museum

Summer / 1999

Museum Tales

The first in an occasional series highlighting some of the people, events, and objects represented in the Lynn Museum's collections.

The Riches to Rags Story of Ebenezer Breed
(1766-1839)

There are few more interesting letters to be found in the Museum's archives than those of Ebenezer Breed, and perhaps none more poignant.  Although he is now generally forgotten even in his native city, there was a time when he was considered Lynn's most famous son.

Born in 1766 into one of Lynn's oldest families, and raised in the Quaker faith, Breed quite naturally entered the shoe trade, as did so many of his contemporaries.  At about twenty years of age he moved to Philadelphia where he made the acquaintance of the most prominent Quakers of that city, many of whom were also engaged in the shoe business.  Ebenezer was by all accounts a bright and prepossessing young man and he soon became one of the leading agents in selling Lynn-made shoes to the southern trade, as well a general favorite in the highest echelons of society.  His move to Philadelphia coincided with the uncertain period of teh Articles of Confederation and he viewed with distress the unhealthy business climate in which cheap imported shoes from England and France crowded out the home manufactured product.  He was a strenuous advocate of protective tariffs, although his primacy in this has occasionally been overstated by some enthusiastic Lynn writers.

Breed's most important contribution to America, and specifically to Lynn, came from a piece of what we would today call industrial espionage.  In 1792 he took a trip abroad to England and France to learn the intricacies of fine shoe-making, for although he was anxious to promote the trade of his native town, he was not unaware that the home-grown product did not always measure up to European standards.  He received, as he said, "a cordial reception" everywhere, was presented at the Court of George III, and was in Paris to witness the arrest of Louis XVI.  He purchased the finest materials he could find and sent them to Lynn and even more significantly, and, incidentally, illegally, he smuggled over two skilled English shoemakers to train the Americans, sending one to Lynn and the other to Philadelphia.

Upon his return, his services to America were considered of such value that the National Committee of Commerce and Manufacturers awarded him a vote of thanks.  Surely, Ebenezer, not yet thirty years old, must have imagined for himself a future of limitless possibilities.  He was reknowned for his business acumen aswell as his patriotism and had acquired the friendship of many of the most important men in the country after the national capitol moved to Philadelphis in 1790.   But the shoe trade was an uncertain business, and although he made one further trip abroad, his career took a precipitous downward turn almost immediately upon his return.

Tradition says that Breed's decline began with a thwarted love affair.  The story is that he had been engaged to a Polly Atmore but upon his return from Europe, her father forbade the match on the grounds that young Ebenezer had acquired certain "fashionable and gay" -and presumably un-Quakerlike-- habits while abroad.  Breed, who according to this version of events was passionately devoted to Polly, was broken hearted and took to drink as a result, and ruin ensued.

Possibly this was the case although Breed makes no mention of Polly or her family in any of his voluminous correspondence, now in the possession of the Lynn Museum.  What seems more likely is that it was financial set backs that caused his physical and moral decline.  In 1795 he wrote his Lynn partner, Amos Rhodes of a "really very unfortunate" trip to the West Indies in which he appears to have lost a considerable sum, from which he never recovered.  (He informed Rhodes "As to marrying, this unfortunate voyage has put it out of my power even of thinking of any such thing."  These do not sound like the words of a man who was affianced at the time.)  Things went from bad to worse from that point on and finally Breed decided to return to Lynn telling Rhodes, "My fate Iam now convinced is to be miserable, and to make that state as comfortable as possible I will retire from the bustle of the world in Lynn."

Whatever the exact cause of his troubles, there is no doubt that by the time he returned to Lynn Breed was an alcoholic and quite probably an opium addict.  For a few years he worked as a simple shoemaker and kept up his interest in the business as well as his connections with some prominent men.  (One of the most valuable accounts of Lynn's shoe industry in the early 19th century is contained in Breed's 1810 letter to Senator Stephen Bradley.)  Over the years, however, his addictions grew stronger and his eyesight became severely impared to the point where he was no longer able to support himself.  For the long remaining years of his life he was an inmate of the public almshouse.

Breed became a familiar, and pitiable, sight in Lynn's streets, dirty, half-blind, and often in a drunken state.  Although a figure of scorn to most, he did retain a few friends, including the poet and historian Alonzo Lewis and Lynn Mirror publisher Charles F. Lummus.  He died in 1839 at the almshouse and was buried in the Friend's Cemetery.

Despite, or perhaps because of, this checkered career, Breed left behind a remarkable legacy in his written correspondence.  His letters to Amos Rhodes from Philadelphia, as well as Europe, document in great detail the ups and not infrequent downs of the shoe industry during that critical period and also, incidentally touch on other significant events such as Philadelphia's Yellow Fever epidemic of 1792.  These are the crisp, business-like accounts that might be expected of a busy merchant and invaluable for their content but they generally give little insight into the man himself.   Of more interest on a personal level are the letters Breed wrote to relatives and friends following his return to Lynn.  In 1819 Breed wrote to his nephew Daniel.  Full of regrets about his own situation, he urged Daniel to forget about business matters for a moment and marry at once.  His own words are perhaps the most fitting summation of the sad life of Ebenezer Breed.

It is not so with an old Bachelor - he has no one to partake in his joys, (if any joys he can by chance have) nor to sympathize with him in his sorrows - he has no home, is liable to become a wanderer - everything is apt to go to waste - he feels discouraged -- he looses his self-respect - his relatives and friends slight him - he feels lonely - what little he may have is snatched from him - if he utters the least complaint or murmurs, Oh! It is no matter, he is a peevish old churl, --he ought and might have done better - if he possesses any sensibility he is sure to have his feelings wounded and harrowed up, every foible is made a fault, every fault a crime - his spirit sinks - his heart breaks - he thinks himself abandoned, and unpitied, and disregarded, he falls to ruin.

 

Originally published by The Lynn Museum at the Lynn Historical Society
125 Green Street, Lynn, MA 01902  * 781-592-2465

Last revised: June 21, 1999
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