The life and death of the world’s largest textile mill, in the words of the men and women who worked there
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.
When I graduated from grammar school at fourteen, in 1930,1 got a job in the mill. I was actually scared of the mills. As a child I used to go and visit my father in the spinning room. You can’t hear yourself talk in there, the noise is so loud. So I was petrified when I found out I was going to work in the mills. My mother came with me to the office to get a job. We spoke to the man, and she told him that she preferred that I didn’t work in one of the places where men and women were working together. She wanted me to go where there were only girls. So I got into the cloth room, where it was nice and quiet. It was all finished cloth. I was so happy there. I guess it was the relief of not having to go to those horrible mills that I hated so. When I would go to visit my father, I would almost cry.
I learned how to dance in No. 4 Mill, with the girls, not with men. At that time I didn’t start work until eight o’clock in the morning because I was only sixteen. Those that were over sixteen started to work at seven o’clock. At noontime, the frames were stopped for an hour. We’d sit in the alley and eat our lunch; and if there was a good singer, she would sing and we would dance along the aisle.
The hardest job I had in the mills was when I was fourteen and took a job for the summer. It was a job I’ll never forget, cleaning out the picker machines. All the cotton seeds that came out of the cotton would drop down under the pickers, and we would have to go under there and get all those seeds. We’d have a wad of cotton in our mouth to filter out the dust and keep us from choking. It would be so hot, and we’d get that cotton seed on our skin, and it would hit you something terrible.…
Each of the mills had its own bell tower; and when the signal came over the electric wire, the bell ringers would jump onto the ropes. The ropes went up through all the floors to the bell tower, and all the bells would ring. When the bells rang, it was time to go home. The people flocked out of the mills. All the gates on Canal Street would be opened, and the people would come across the bridge. They’d be bustling and joking—nine thousand people trying to get out of those gates to get home as quickly as possible.
I heard a woman say recently that the Amoskeag was such an awful place. Of course, it could be awful, because the mills themselves were terribly dirty, horribly dirty. But I was there in some of the better days of the mills when they were making a lot of money. It was wartime. Everything was looking up, so they did a lot for their help. For instance, they had a first-aid service, and they employed a doctor. After the mills went out, there was no doctor in town quite like him. Of course, any concern would have a first-aid station, where you could go with minor things, but the Amoskeag doctors would even come into your home. They had nurses who spent all of their time going around to homes where there was sickness. For their time the Amoskeag did all right, except in the way of money, perhaps. They didn’t give much money. Now Jack Frazier, my husband’s brother-in-law, has a very good job in the mills, but he was brought here because he was a baseball pitcher, just like they bring people to college because they are good players. Exactly! He was Amoskeag’s star pitcher.
People who went to work at the Amoskeag worked there until they died or until they got too old to work. Some lived in the corporation tenements. To live in them, you had to work in the Amoskeag. A son would move in with the father; and when his father died, the children would take over the tenement. In fact, a fellow told me one day that if he could buy all the real estate here, he would buy those tenements because they would never be empty. The people in the tenements had excellent living conditions. They all had a good roof over their head—it didn’t leak—and they had modern conveniences, felt just like a millionaire—we didn’t have to run outside.
It seemed like you were locked in when the Amoskeag owned the mills. If you told the boss to go to hell, you might as well move out of the city. The boss had the power to blackball y ou for the rest of your days. The only way you could get a job there again was if you disguised yourself. Some of them did that. They would wear glasses, grow a mustache, change their name.… It was that or starve to death.
When the union people came to Manchester, it was up to us to vote whether we wanted them in or not. [Treasurer F. CJ Dumaine himself said in a meeting that “the grass will grow on Elm Street before the union will come into my mill. Ill close it down.” He said, “I’ve always been fair to my help, and I don’t need the union. They have a union in Massachusetts, and they don’t do what I do for my help.’ It was true in a way. It was on his account that we had all the benefits the Amoskeag gave us. Nobody else would do that, but the newer generation wanted more money, and they wanted someone to represent them.
They put me out of the Amoskeag because I was talking for the union. After the strike of 1922, they made a company union, and I was elected to go to the meetings. There were about ten or eleven of us who went to those meetings, and they said we had to go back and tell our weavers that their pay was going to be cut. Get on a chair there and tell them, “Boys and girls, you’ve got to work for $11.00 or $15.00 a week.” I came back and told the people what was really going on at those meetings. The boss, Bert Molloy, didn’t like it. I was telling the workers what to do. So he said, “I’m going to get rid of her.” It wasn’t fair.…
My father got fired once at Amoskeag. He had made a mistake in the cloth, and my father said to the boss, “The hell with you,” and walked out on him. The next day the boss said to me, “Tell your father to come back in.” So this was a really good boss.
When I was little [my mother] worked in the Amoskeag. She’d leave one of my sisters, who was twelve or thirteen, in charge of us; but my sister wouldn’t stay in the house. She’d go outside to be with her friends. One day, I tried to reach the kettle to take it off the stove, and I dropped it and burned myself and one of the babies. My mother never went back to the mills after that.
We had bad luck when they closed the Amoskeag. They did a foolish thing, wanting the eight hours. Ill never forget that. They closed all the mills. … People were never the same after that. I would never like to go back to those times.
My mother was one of the few that didn’t work in the mills after she was married. This was the reason my father worked so hard. I can remember my father working in the mill, seven days a week without a day off, without a vacation. He did that for seven years, without loafing one day. Would you believe that something like that could happen? Incidentally, when I say my father worked seven days a week, that included Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s—seven days a week, 365 days a year. That guy had to go to heaven! He worked in the mill on Sundays. It’s hard to believe. He worked from six in the morning till six at night, and I carried his dinners in. Then the hours got better; we went to forty hours. That eliminated a lot of this slavery, III tell you. He died at the age of fifty-eight Of course, some people worked as hard as he did, and they lived to be ninety. I can’t say the job killed him, but I can’t say that it helped him either.
Those were the good old days, when there was no pollution [laughs]. When I was a teen-ager, I lived in a corporation tenement on Canal Street, and the trains used to go right by, many trains every day. You could smell the carbon monoxide more than you can from automobiles now. But it wasn’t just the trains; there were a lot of smokestacks, too. Most of the Amoskeag ran on coalfed boilers. So there was a lot of smoke and pollution, but we didn’t think of it as pollution. It was a livelihood.
It’s too bad to see so many beautiful buildings in ruins and to think that so many people earned their living there. Today, everything is falling down. If our old parents, who worked so much in these mills, if they’d come back today and see how these mills are, it would really break their hearts.