Lying on a street mostly filled with Federal-style homes, this house is definitely head & shoulders above the rest when it comes to historic and national importance. This was the house of Jacob Perkins, famous inventor extraordinaire. As for business ventures, if Lord Timothy Dexter was the incarnation of entrepreneurship; Mr. Perkins was an entrepreneur on ‘speed’! His business ventures stretched between two continents and affected the national economy and politics of two great countries.
Jacob was born July 9th, 1766 in Newburyport. One of the classic signs of an entrepreneur is the ability to have good luck. He started his career as an apprentice to Elias Davis, Silversmith in 1779. He was just getting his feel as a full fledged craftsman when his master died and unexpectedly bequeathed the business to him at the young age of 17. Being an ingenious youth, he took his basic business and used it to springboard into all types of industries.
Fruit Street at that time was actually a ‘development’ much like future projects that developers see today. And in classic form, they ‘packed’ in as many homes as they could. Richard Pike (land speculator of ‘The Ridge’) and Benjamin Wyatt purchased this tract of land in 1798. They then sold them to individual owners. The house was built around 1805 and Jacob Perkins borrowed money and took a mortgage. The building and land was actually owned by Charlotte Hamilton of Exeter, New Hampshire.
This Federal home is classic in its style. Three-storied with the third floor windows small and square, it also has the classic windows found on most of the Federalist homes located around Newburyport. It has beehive-style cornice molding and a typical hip roof. The one distinction so common to the other homes on this street is its location so close to the sidewalk.
But the real focus of attention was the building in the back. In close association with Abraham Perkins, his brother, they began to print paper money and mint copper coins for the State of Massachusetts. Like a typical risk-taking businessman, he took a second mortgage from his brother and built the mint behind the house. At that time, each state would issue currency since America was a loose confederacy (Until the adoption of the U.S. Constitution). Counterfeiting was rampant because it was way too easy to duplicate the official currency. Soft copper plates were engraved and often wore out and had to be constantly replaced. Iron was also too soft so Jacob in his first invention would first soften steel, then engrave it, harden it and then combine 64 dies filled with elaborate motif into a single unit. It became so counterfeit resistant, that the State of Massachusetts (which included Maine) decreed that all future currency would be done through this process. But if his products were difficult to forge, they were even more difficult to love; they look downright homely now, and they must have given a similar impression two centuries ago. He received enough orders to pay back his brother though but not a lot of orders. In the coming years, he attempted to secure contracts from Washington but frustratingly failed in that effort. It was his desire to expand this mint that brought him eventually to England. He hoped to use the method to help the central bank there and the many private banks in the United Kingdom.
This man could not stop inventing – He did 19 patents in America and 21 in England. Through his hands-on engineering ability, he translated these ideas from paper into some of the most cutting-edge advances for that time.
People don’t understand the national influence that the Great Fire of 1811 spawned. The utter devastation so moved Jacob Perkins that he created an efficient pumping system specifically to help firemen. It has been said that if his invention had been used the damage would have been much less in the City.
Spurred on by what he had seen in the ruins of Newburyport, he continued to perfect more efficient fire pumping systems and entire fire engines. Benjamin Franklin had started the national effort for professional fireman in Philadelphia and Jacob Perkins in a desire to promote his inventions moved to the City of Brotherly Love. By August, 1817, he had formed a company with a partnership with Thomas P. Jones as Patent Fire Engine and Hose Pump Manufacturers, this development being based on the success of his triangular valve pump. A factory was opened in a commodious stable and coach yard in Philadelphia from where the company offered – “an improved fire engine; a smaller village engine and a domestic engine for watering gardens and cleaning windows”. One innovation was a supply pump that could be placed in the basement of the building in which the fire was being fought, to collect and re-use some of the water already played onto the fire. He sold over two hundred in just two years. But Perkins was still frustrated by the immovability of the Federal government over his minting process (Philadelphia was the original mint location for America) that he left his partnership and sailed to London. The highly successful fire engine company was then taken over by Samuel Merrick in 1821.
As for the house, there was some continuity. With all his mortgages, he never really owned the home and Charlotte Hamilton sold the deed to William B. Swett of Boston. What with the Mint in the back pumping out coinage and currency and postage stamps, Abraham Perkins worked to get the house back into the family and in 1832, outright purchased the home. Today, the home has been owned by James Lagoulis since 1973.
Over the years, the Perkins family moved to England to join their enterprising father. The Mint closed and for most of the 19th & 20th centuries has been a simple garage and storage building.
Thankfully, in 2008, the Historical Society of Old Newbury with much of the money coming from the CPA and a generous gift from the Newburyport Five Cents Savings Bank; the building was obtained.
Since then, it has been lovely restored and will eventually be an integral part of the Society’s campus. The eventual exhibit will demonstrate the importance of Perkins’ contributions and show the process that made him so integral to the development of modern currency.
In Part II, I will bring up some issues on the Historic Preservation Front and in Part III, I will give a complete biography on Jacob Perkins. (Very difficult since I have 10 pages of raw data on his accomplishments and inventions!)
1851 Plan of Newburyport, Mass H. McIntire
1851-1871 City Directories
1872 Map of the City of Newburyport, Mass. D.G. Beers and Co.
A. Hale, Old Newburyport Houses, Boston, 1912.
J. J. Currier, History of Newburyport 1764-1905, Vol. I and II, reprint, Newburyport, 1977.
J. M. Howells, The Architectural Heritage of the Merrimack, New York 194I.
Assessor’s Records 1890-1980
Newburyport, 2011, City of Newburyport Vision Appraisal Online Records.
Newburyport Historic District, http://www.newburyporthistoricdistrict.org, Historic Survey of the National Register of Historic Places, 1984.
Common-place The Interactive Journal of Early American Life, Inc., by R. G. Doty is Senior Curator of Numismatics at the Smithsonian, http://www.common-place.org