John Whitall, the glassworks magnate whose name graced one of Millville’s premiere businesses in the 19th and early 20th centuries, is often affiliated with Philadelphia, his basis of operation for decades. His offices and home were located there, yet his beginnings can be traced to Woodbury, New Jersey.
Born November 4, 1800, Whitall was raised in Woodbury until the age of 15 when, forced to leave school to help support his family, he and his parents and siblings relocated to a farm outside the city limits. According to online sources, he worked as a farmhand for a year and then turned his sights to a life at sea, becoming a sea hand aboard the William Savery and traveling to Calcutta, India and Liverpool, England in a two-year period.
Life at sea suited the young sailor and each journey offered him a tutorial and a graduation in rank. By his third journey, which took him to China in 1819, he had learned navigation. His fourth expedition earned him the position of Second Mate, and he served as Chief Mate the next time he shipped out in 1822.
The experience led to overseeing the construction of the New Jersey in Philadelphia, a ship he was commanding by 1824. As a 24-year-old captain, Whitall found it initially difficult to weigh the ship’s required armory in defense of pirates against his Quaker background, which opposes violence. However, he managed to strike a balance between duty and beliefs and set out on several successful 10-month journeys to China.
But in 1829, the owner of the New Jersey died, and the ship was sold. Whitall interpreted this as a signal for a career change. He decided to invest his savings in a dry goods business in Philadelphia and settle down. The same year, he proposed to Mary Tatum of Woodbury, and the couple was married November 5, 1830, taking up residence in Philadelphia with Whitall’s parents before purchasing a home.
By 1837, with the dry goods business floundering, it became necessary to come to some sort of arrangement in settling with creditors. Whitall paid 75 percent of what he owed by the following year, vowing to make good on the rest plus interest as soon as he could. His next venture would allow him to fulfill that promise by 1850.
In 1838, the firm of Scattergood, Haverstick & Co. was operating the Glasstown plant in Millville, producing white and green glassware. Owners William Scattergood and G. M. Haverstick, Whitall’s brother-in-law, asked the former sea captain to join their enterprise, which he did, working from Philadelphia at the company’s headquarters.
Within six years, Haverstick would leave the firm, and its title changed to Scattergood & Whitall. In 1845, Scattergood left, and Whitall’s brother Israel joined, prompting yet another name change, Whitall & Brother. Three years later, Edward Tatum became a partner in the operation, which was now rechristened Whitall Brother & Co. The South Jersey Magazine series “Millville’s First Glasshouse” notes that “an office and store at 410 Race Street in Philadelphia was opened” the same year.
The Whitall Brother & Co. Glasstown plant continued its successful run of glass manufacturing. Its Millville competition was the Coffin, Mulford & Co. factory at the Schetterville plant in the southern portion of the area. By 1854, Lewis Mulford, who had been running the facility, was ready to exit the profession and wanted Whitall Brother & Co. to purchase his facility. When the Whitalls refused, Mulford chose a different tack.
According to Virgil S. Johnson, in his book Millville Glass: The Early Days, “Mulford bought up all the wood in the [Millville] vicinity [and] the Whitalls were unable to obtain any for use as fuel. They began to buy wood in Virginia and to transport it to Millville by boat but this was costly and inconvenient and they sometimes ran out of it…”
Forced to purchase the Coffin, Mulford & Co. plant, the Whitalls found themselves with two large facilities and less competition. They decided to use their new factory for the manufacture of flint glass bottles.
In 1857, Israel departed the firm and another name change followed: Whitall Tatum & Co.
Next Week: The Two Plants