- Historic Sites
Voices Of A Vanished Amoskeag
The life and death of the world’s largest textile mill, in the words of the men and women who worked there
October/November 1978 | Volume 29, Issue 6
Labor history is too often told in one of two equally unsatisfactory ways—in the icy language of economics, or in the fiery rhetoric of ideologues. Either way, the real people get overlooked. The story of the mighty Amoskeag textile mills at Manchester, New Hampshire, for example, is most often seen simply as a textbook case of industrial paternalism trying to outlive its time. The bare facts are simple enough, certainly. In 1837 the Amoskeag Manufacturing Company bought a fifteen-thousand-acre plot along the canal that bypassed Amoskeag Falls on the Merrimack and began to build an industrial town like the one its Boston-based founders had already established at Lowell, Massachusetts. The first workers were farm girls who eventually were displaced by successive generations of immigrants willing to work cheap—mostly Irish at first, then Germans, Swedes, Scots, French Canadians, and others. In the 1880’s the corporation began implementing a master plan to create a model industrial city, and by 1915 Amoskeag was the world’s largest textile center, with thirty major mills employing seventeen thousand men, women, and children. To keep their work force contented, the corporation provided a host of benefits—everything from a free cooking school to inexpensive housing. It all worked—so long as the textile business prospered.
But after World War I, the whole New England textile industry fell on hard times, thanks notably to competition from efficient, new plants located in the South, where labor came even cheaper. As profits fell, Amoskeag’s management cut wages, extended hours, imposed speed-ups, fired or laid off workers. Strikes followed—the first in 1922, others in 1933 and 1934. In 1935 the corporation filed for bankruptcy and shut most of the mills for good. Manchester never fully recovered. Nor did the thousands of workers and their families who had known nothing but the Amoskeag life for three generations. Many of the mills and tenements have since been “renewed” out of existence (see David McCullough, “Epitaph for an American Landmark,” A MERICAN H ERITAGE , April, 1970), but some of the people who lived and worked in them survive, and now, thanks to Amoskeag: Life and Work in an American Factory-City (to be published in November by Pantheon Books), their memories have been preserved to give us a sense, finally, of the people behind the Amoskeag story. The brief excerpts on the following pages were gleaned from the book. Like all authentic witnesses to history, these survivors defy easy classification: some are still fiercely proud of having been part of a great enterprise; others remember only the toil and the din and the bitter strikes; most seem to have mixed memories. But they all remember.
I was brought up in the area of the mill. All our people were mill people, and we didn’t know anything else but mills. … We lived near the mills, we carried dinners for our parents, and we just were accustomed to the mills. It seemed like this was where we would fall in when we got old enough. I went in a few months after I became sixteen. There was an employment bureau run by a Michael Ahern. If you continually presented yourself in front of him, in the morning and at noon and at night, they’d finally get accustomed to seeing you. You couldn’t become discouraged. There was a big line there going in for a job; and when a job popped up, and you happened to be the fellow in the line at the time, why, bingo! you got hired.
My father worked most of his life in the cloth room.… It was fantastic to walk into. They had all different colors of toweling, and it traveled on rolers, all the way up. The whole ceiling, the whole room was just floating in cloth.
Lots of times they complained that we hired too many Polish people or too many Greeks or too many French people.… We had a chart made up weekly, monthly, then yearly. It showed the percentage of all nationalities. Then if there were any complaints that we were hiring too many French or Irish or Polish or Greek workers, we’d compare them and find out what the variation was, and very seldom would it vary very much. The French [Canadian] people were probably 50 percent; the American people—like the Irish-Americans, Scotch, English—would run probably 20 to 25 percent; the Greek would run 10 percent; the Polish would run 10 percent; Italians we’d classify with “others.”
It was very seldom that you’d see anybody get to be a second hand or a foreman that didn’t talk English. He had to be able to talk to the people and make them think that he knew more than they did. You looked up to a boss or somebody like that, even a loom fixer.… If you saw a loom fixer coming up the street, you tipped your hat to him—you felt he had made something of himself, that he was somebody.