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Samuel S. Dale: Fact Maven for the Progressive Era

by David Van Meter, M.S.Acc., Ph.D.

Many of us in Little Falls are deeply appreciative of the Samuel S. Dale Trust, a private foundation of slightly more than $1 million in assets that distributes thousands of dollars each year to aid poor children and elderly persons in our city. But how many of us know anything about the man from Brookline, Massachusetts, who made this good work possible through his generosity?

Samuel S. Dale

Here we would like to share just a few interesting episodes from the life of Samuel S. Dale that give us a glimpse of a highly talented publicist and lobbyist who loved nothing more than to wade into the contentious events of his day in order to support the interests of the textiles industry. Prepare to meet a man who helped shape tariff laws, who prevented the United States from going metric, and who had the nerve to chastise the housewives of America for their love of knitting!

Childhood Memories

Samuel S. Dale was born in Little Falls on March 15th, 1859, the third of three children of Thomas and Fanny Dale. His father, Thomas, was an immigrant from Ireland by way of Ottawa who established himself, along with his two eldest sons, as a highly regarded building contractor in Little Falls. Among the prominent structures he erected was the original Herkimer County Trust building, which now houses the Little Falls Historical Society, and a wing of the Benton Hall Academy. After the death of Thomas, the two elder brothers of Samuel continued their father's trade, and erected many other prominent local landmarks, to include the Saint Mary's (now Holy Family) church.

Among Mr. Dale's boyhood memories, he recalled vividly the flood of 1865 in Little Falls that swept the Stitts mill into the Mohawk River. He also had a profoundly moving memory of standing with his mother on a baggage truck at the Little Falls depot to honor the funeral train of Abraham Lincoln, and that his mother fainted from emotion when peering into the car containing the casket. Unlike his elder brothers, however, Mr. Dale did not remain in his hometown. Rather, as a young man he left Little Falls to seek his fortune among the booming textile mills of Massachusetts. Mr. Dale started as a weaver, worked as a designer, an overseer, and eventually ascended the management chain to become superintendent of the Hecla Mill at Uxbridge.

Manager of Woolen Mills

While managing the Hecla Mill, Mr. Dale embarked on a research project that would change his life. In 1887 a lively political controversy over the Civil War era tariffs on wool roiled the textile industry, and it became clear to Mr. Dale that nobody really knew the economic facts that pertained to the matter. Accordingly he embarked upon a four-year, quantitatively-exacting study to determine exactly how much raw material was required to produce all the cloth manufactured by his mill. This knowledge later became the basis for his subsequent career as the leading lobbyist for the textile industry.

The Hecla Mill in Uxbridge, MA

In the meantime, however, Mr. Dale won a new position as the superintendent of the Merchant's Woolen Co mill in East Dedham, at an annual salary of $4,000 (about $109,000 in today's dollars). Once again, tariff questions roiled his industry when President Cleveland lifted the duties on imports of raw wool. The result was catastrophic for the Merchant's Woolen Co mill, as cheaper imports flooded the market and reduced the value of the firm's inventory by over 50%, leading the sole owner of the mill, Edgar Harding, to direct Mr. Dale to close the mill and sell its assets in 1893. This event reinforced Mr. Dale's conviction that protections were a necessity to the good order and prosperity of American manufacturing.

Editor, Publicist and Lobbyist

In 1900, Mr. Dale took the position of editor of a trade journal, Textile World, and found his true calling in life as a publicist and lobbyist for the textile industry. From this bully pulpit, which he held until his retirement in 1929, Mr. Dale methodically and tirelessly worked to influence public opinion and legislation on a handful of issues that he saw as essential to the textile industry, to include the wool tariff, the metric system, patent reform, and - believe it or not - the wastefulness of hand-knitters during wartime. He corresponded with presidents and senators on the issues of the day, and he wrote hundreds of letters to the editors of newspapers, large and small, around the United States and even abroad. His sometimes controversial positions were discussed on the floor of the Senate, in the popular press, and in trade, scientific and economic journals around the world.

Mr. Dale clearly enjoyed his role as a prominent publicist and lobbyist, and he carefully positioned himself as an unbiased, non-partisan maven of facts. He published the results of his earlier study of woolen production costs from the Hecla Mill, which received widespread accolades from economists at a time when the study of scientific methods of management was still in its infancy. He also solidified his reputation as an expert in his industry with the publication of several technical manuals and books on fabrics and their manufacture, some of which are still in print even today. Indeed, Ida M. Tarbell, the noted muckraking Progressive journalist who helped turn public attention against the trusts with her scathing criticisms of Standard Oil, wrote glowingly of Mr. Dale in a 1914 article in American Magazine, "If there is one man in the United States who more than another believes in the invincibility of facts, it is Samuel S. Dale."

Nonetheless, behind this public image of an unbiased fact maven lay the mind of a shrewd publicist. Mr. Dale's skill at agitation and promotion are quite visible in the way that he nudged his friend, Ida Tarbell, to support the fight against the metric system in a letter written in April, 1916: "I am not surprised to know that you are sticking to your hobby. I am sticking to mine, one of which is weights and measures. You may have noticed the recent revival of the metric agitation. I wish you would get interested in this question. What is needed is some one to spread the gospel among the masses, who are indifferent to the danger ... It takes vision to get excited over it and you have that vision."

The Tariff Controversies

Mr. Dale first came to the broader public attention in 1908, when the question of the tariff became a central issue in the Presidential election campaign. Dale wrote to candidate William Taft about his knowledge of the matter during the campaign, and then continued to publicize the facts as they pertained to the textile industry to politicians and bureaucrats in Washington after the election of President Taft. When Senator Dolliver of Iowa spearheaded the Republican effort to dismantle the Civil War era protectionist measures erected around the wool industry, he enlisted Mr. Dale as an unbiased expert on the matter. As Dolliver told the Senate in an impassioned speech on the proposed Payne-Aldrich Act, given on May 6, 1909, Dale was "famous everywhere as a defender of the protective-tariff system." The Senator went on, saying "I saw that he dealt in exact facts and with perfectly accurate statistics, and the more that was impressed upon my mind the more anxious I became that his opinions should have the influence that the nonpartisan opinions of experts ought to have upon such a controversy as we have here."

Samuel S. Dale

Even after the passage of the Payne-Aldrich Tariff Act, which angered Republican reformers and helped create the Progressive wing of the Republican Party, Mr. Dale continued to bombard Washington and the press with quantitative studies and impassioned pleas related to the tariffs on raw wool and other textile commodities. At one point an exasperated Senator Smoots resorted to dismissing Samuel's work on the Senate floor with a rather rude personal attack on his commitment to the industry in the wake of his role in shuttering the Merchant's Woolen Co mill; true to his tireless zeal for public debate, however, Mr. Dale turned this personal attack into the justification for yet another round of letters to politicians and newspaper editors laying out his scientific arguments for tariff rationalization.

On the basis of his technical expertise, Mr. Dale served briefly on the Tariff Board in 1911, but soon thereafter quit very publically in a dispute about the proposed woolen schedules. As he wrote in his letter of resignation, "these figures do not represent the cost in any mill either in this country or abroad. They result from some undisclosed system of estimating, based on arbitrary prices for foreign and domestic yarns ... Such calculations do not come up to the level of ordinary guesswork ... In conclusion I desire to express my keen regret at having found these statements of fact in the report deficient and the conclusions generally erroneous." The resignation of such an unbiased expert ignited a firestorm of debate in Congress and in the popular press, which Samuel managed to turn to his favor. As one correspondent for Colliers Weekly (9/16/1911) observed, "The one man connected with and doing the best work for the Tariff Board humbug was Samuel S. Dale, and he got out when he became convinced that the whole Tariff Board business was a farce."

In the end, Mr. Dale's tireless efforts at explaining and publicizing the views of the textile industry won the day. In a magisterial editorial in the March 1913 edition of Textile World, he carefully spelled out the technical deficiencies in the Underwood-Simmons schedule of cotton cloth tariffs. His recommendations were adopted nearly word-for-word in the resulting legislation. Mr. Dale never let up on his efforts to protect the American textile industry, and continued to flood Congress with hundreds of pages of studies over the next decade upon each subsequent revision of tariffs, and often served as an expert witness, to include one marathon three-hour session before the Senate Finance Committee in late 1921.

Foe of the Metric System

Mr. Dale was an avid student of the history of weights and measures, and he assembled a formidable collection of rare books and artifacts related to that subject. As a result of this interest, he became deeply involved in opposing efforts to introduce the metric system to America. Indeed, one prominent historian of the metric system controversy in America (Charles Treat) went so far as to claim that Mr. Dale's work, together with his collaborator Frederick Halsey, destroyed any chance of getting America onto the metric system for a full quarter of a century.

Samuel S. Dale

Now, Mr. Dale himself wrote that as a student in Little Falls he had been taught the superiority of the metric system, and that he had gone into industry believing that metric measures were the path of the future. However, he claimed that his experience in the mills convinced him that the textile industry, which employed four different measurement systems dating as far back as the Middle Ages, would prove unable to adapt to the new-fangled measures of the metric system.

By way of summary, Representative John Shafroth of Colorado presented a bill to the 56th Congress that would have made the metric system mandatory for government use, but the bill never made it to a floor vote. Nonetheless, many people in government, industry and the sciences believed in the superiority of the metric system, and continued to work toward convincing Congress to take up the cause, and in 1903 Shafroth once again introduced his bill.

This time, however, organized opposition to the metric system emerged, led at first by Frederick Halsey, who was the associate editor of the American Mechanic, a professional journal for the American Society of Mechanical Engineers. Mr. Dale took a keen interest in this work, and in 1904 he collaborated with Halsey to publish a pair of monographs on The Metric Fallacy (Halsey) and The Metric Failure (Dale), and both began an active publicity campaign against the metric system that involved everything from letters to newspapers and articles in scientific journals to appearances before Congressional committees. Behind the scenes, Mr. Dale fed a great deal of information to popular journalists, such as Ms. Tarbell, and encouraged them to agitate againt the metric fallacy among their readership. When the pro-metric forces founded the Metric Association to promote the metric system and educate the public in 1916, Mr. Dale and Halsey responded by founding the anti-metric American Institute of Weights and Measures in the same year. (Sadly, Mr. Dale and Halsey parted ways soon thereafter, as a result of sharp personal differences over the management of the organization that they co-founded).

Throughout the so-called metric crusade of the first quarter of the twentieth century, Mr. Dale led the publicity charge against the metric system with his usual flair for marshalling a seemingly overwhelming array of facts, colored at times with inflammatory rhetoric. For instance, he wrote that if America were to adopt the metric system, it would "create ungodly disorder" as the nation would "plunge into chaos to emerge no one knows when, how or where. The generation introducing the metric system into the United States would not see the beginning of that chaos. In all probability no other generation would ever see the end." He even tapped into the dark well of jingoistic rhetoric, claiming that the metric system represented an "artificial scheme of French geometers" and that its latin-sounding terminology resembled "a party of foreigners in uniform."

Needless to say, many contemporaries and subsequent historians have been readily able to poke innumerable holes in his arguments. For instance, the affable Belgian scientist and founder of Ciel et Terre magazine, Eugene LaGrange, reviewed Samuel's arguments with deflating humor: "The author seeks, magisterially, to persuade his compatriots of the superiority of the English system of units, and implores them to retain it with love and for the good of humanity ... I read his arguments with amazement, since strong beliefs inspire respect even as they raise obvious criticisms ... I am not convinced of the superiority and power of the sheer number of his arguments, however; in this respect, why not preach that humanity should adopt the religion of Confucius under the pretext that there are 500 million Chinese!"

In combatting the metric system, however, Mr. Dale was a shrewd and efficient political operator as well as a publicist, and he was not daunted by his many critics. Throughout the controversy Mr. Dale had placed a great deal of pressure upon both the Secretary of Commerce and the director of the National Bureau of Standards, Dr. Samuel Stratton, to discourage them from offering any support to the pro-metric forces from within government. When in 1922 Stratton resigned his position to become the President of MIT, Mr. Dale launched a lobbying campaign to convince President Harding to appoint a replacement that was sympathetic to the anti-metric cause. The climax of the metric agitation, as Mr. Dale called it, came in 1926 when Representative Britten introduced H.R. 10, to extend to use of the metric system to merchandising. By this point, the pro- and anti-metric forces were so well-established, and their stances so well-defined, that the Congressional committee hearings became openly antagonistic. Indeed, on the final day of the hearings, Frederick Roberts, treasurer of the Metric Association, and Mr. Dale nearly came to blows in the hearing chamber over a perceived personal insult, which the chairman ordered to be stricken from the record. The bill never made it out of the committee, and in the face of such concerted and well-organized attacks Congress abandoned any serious effort to officially introduce the metric system into the US for a full generation.

One must wonder if Mr. Dale actually entered the fray against the metric system not so much because of a deeply held belief about the superiority of the English weights and measures, but rather because he savored the opportunity to deploy his considerable historical knowledge of measurements in a new role as a fact maven in a public debate. Indeed, he admitted that these were "highly technical and scientific questions on which very few people ... are or need to be competent to pass judgment." But why the staunch opposition to any accommodation of the metric system in the United States? This was also a question which vexed David Treat, the historian for the National Bureau of Standards who wrote a report on The History of the Metric Controversy in the United States (Washington, DC: 1971). Treat concluded that the underlying objections of the American Institute of Weights and Measures had more to do with a philosophy of government, and that the opponents of the metric system were uncomfortable with the prospect that the Commerce Department and the National Bureau of Standards would be left with the ultimate decision on the matter (p. 225).

Indeed, Mr. Dale himself confided to a correspondent that "in consideration of questions relating to weights and measures there is great danger of placing too much confidence in the Bureau of Standards ... the concentration of power in bureaus at Washington necessarily means the loss of power by the people, and if this tendency is not checked the inevitable result will be to make the Government a bureaucracy, with the power in the hands of bureau chiefs and their subordinates, who for all practical purposes will be independent of the people over whom they rule." He elaborated on this theme that the metric system represented a case of bureaucrats running amok in a peculiar 1927 historical pamphlet on the so-called "Mendenhall Conspiracy", in which he decried the fact that in 1893 a mid-level official in the Treasury Department had promulgated, without any sort of Congressional approval, a bulletin declaring that henceforth the metric system would serve as the standard measure of length and mass in the United States.

Other Causes

There were several other causes in which Mr. Dale took great pride in his publicity efforts. First, he was a staunch proponent of patent reform, and maintained that the textile industry was crippled by a lack of access to dye-stuffs as a result of antiquated patent laws that prevented access to new technologies. Mr. Dale maintained the position that anyone who did not commercially deploy a patent within a period of three years should lose the exclusive rights to that intellectual property. Indeed, he complained to his friend Ida Tarbell that "inventions lie dead for years in the morgues of great corporations - kept there solely lest they disturb the profits arising from already installed machines and processes."

Hand-Knitting Controversy of 1918

More quixotically, Mr. Dale took great pride in a tiff he got into with the housewives of America. In 1918, at the climax of the First World War, he sought to expose what he called the folly of hand-knitting at a time when industry had great need of access to wool stuffs. Mr. Dale wrote an editorial for the Brookline Massachusetts Chronicle (5/18/18) that was promptly reprinted in the Literary Digest, in which he claimed that the five or six million well-meaning but misguided American women who hand-knitted garments for soldiers under a program administered by the American Red Cross were depleting the wool supply. His message for the women of America was simple: "For God's sake, wake up and stop the hand-knitting". This controversy was picked up by newspapers around the nation, and received substantial coverage in popular magazines. The public was generally dismissive of Mr. Dale's argument, and the officers of the American Red Cross took some pains to refute his claims. No less a personage than former-President Taft, now serving as Chairman of the Central Committee, urged the women of America to "emphatically, KNIT!" Despite the clamor, the War Industries Board authorities in Washington took heed of Mr. Dale's arguments and issued orders that severely limited the amount of wool available to be spun into yarn for hand-knitting purposes.


The year 1929 was a time of loss and change for Mr. Dale, as his wife Charlotte died on June 8th, and he retired from his position as editor of the World Textile Review. In his retirement years, still living in Brookline, Massachusetts, Mr. Dale began to busy himself with establishing his family's legacy. In 1930 he erected a family monument at the Little Falls Church Street Cemetery, on which he had inscribed, "In loving memory of my father, mother and wife, Thomas, Fanny and Charlotte Dale, to whose never failing love and devotion I owe all the good and all the joy that have come to me, leaving with me now memory and the hope that shall meet again in the world to come."

Mr. Dale was keen to preserve his own legacy as a man of public affairs as well. Writing to his friend Ida Tarbell in 1934, he mentioned that "my refuge has been in work of which I have had an abundance in preparing my personal and family records for permanent custody, with work in my carpenter shop for a diversion." Many of these papers, to include holograph copies of Mr. Dale's diary, were bequeathed to Columbia University. In addition he dispersed his extensive book collections to the libraries at Yale, Harvard, MIT, and Columbia Universities, and donated a very extensive collection of (now) rare books, pamphlets and ephemera relating to the wool industry and the metric crusade to Lehigh University. Even in retirement, however, Mr. Dale continued to seek to influence public opinion, and considered writing an extensive, insider's history of tariff reform in the United States. This project never came to fruition, however. Samuel S. Dale died on August 7, 1940, and his remains were interred at the Dale family plot in Little Falls, NY.

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