Holyoke struggled to be a textile boom town in its early years, but achieved economic success only when paper mills came to Holyoke. In the textile mills the number of women greatly exceeded the number of men, and nearly as many children as women were employed in some departments. There were many different textiles produced in Holyoke, including cotton, wool, and silk.
Textile work required semi-skilled labor. In the silk and wool factories, untrained workers could apprentice with machine tenders while learning their trade. Cotton mill workers earned 37 to 80 cents a day. In the mills that produced cotton thread, women earned 75 cents to $1.60 a day. Woolen mill employees made approximately $1.52 a day. Men working in textiles, mostly as overseers and manager, made from $1 to $2.25 a day. In the silk dye houses, a specialized skill was required and women received $2 a day.
It was had work to produce cotton cloth. Three powerfully built workers first must weigh a bale of cotton. Then they open the bales of cotton and mix the cotton in a large bin to form a ‘bing.’ This operation homogenized the raw cotton before it is fed into the picker machine. The picker filters out the dirt. Workers then take the fleece and put it through the blower, producing long smooth sheets ready to be wound on wooden drums and delivered to the carding engine. Although most Holyoke cotton mills were clean and well-ventilated, this was hot and dirty work, as the operation of the picker filled the air with flying dust.
The post Civil War period witnessed numerous unsuccessful local attempts because cotton was a volatile industry. During the Civil War, the mills’ cotton supplies ran out and many closed their doors. At the same time, the paper industry was growing because of the abundance of water power.
A labor shortage in the spring of 1859 led to the first importation of French Canadians to Holyoke. An agent of the Lyman Mills, Mr. Proulx made arrangements to recruit French Canadians and persuade them to work and live in Holyoke. In his wagon specially built for carrying passengers, Proulx went from village to village in Quebec and spoke of the prospect of wages which could be sent home or brought back in a few years’ time. While his instructions were to secure skilled workers if possible, there were none. 45 girls and 6 men were the first imports, Proulx receiving $4 or $5 for each and transportation costs.
Conditions in silk mills were slightly different that in cotton or wool factories. Silk workers had to be clean and always had clean hands because silk is a very delicate thread.
There are many steps in the silk manufacturing process. First, in Japan, the raw silk is unwound from cocoons of the Bobyx Mori moth and sorted.
The silk was then shipped from Japan to the United States, where companies like William Skinner & Sons Silk Manufacturing unwound the bales of thread.
The silk filaments are twisted into thicker thread. This is done by winding the silk onto bobbins and then twisting them together. The spinning department rewound spools of thread together to make thicker, stronger thread.
William Skinner & Sons Silk Manufacturing Company, originally established in Haydenville in 1839, moved to Holyoke in 1874 after the Mill River Flood destroyed the building. Over the 87 years of operation in Holyoke, Skinners produced an array of fabrics from their earliest origins of silk braids, button hole twist, cashmere sewings and pure dye taffetas, to washable crepes, rayon and Tackle Twill. Most popular among the later lines of Skinner materials was their bridal satin, remembered today by many brides of the 1940s and 1950s. In 1961, the Skinner family sold the business to Indian Head Mills, who closed the mills a year later. The mill buildings were destroyed in a fire in 1980. Holyoke Heritage State Park where you are now standing was built on that site.
Joseph Hampson founded a textile factory at 58 Canal Street. In 1938, he deeded the property to his son, Walter, and he renamed the company Clinton Silk Mill. Their silk was used in the production of parachutes during World War II. The mill also wove cotton and synthetic cloth. The synthetic cloth was used for lining in suits. Clinton Hampson ran the business until 1976, when he sold the property to Hadley Printing Company.
Working conditions in woolen mills, like Farr Alpaca, which produced alpacas and mohairs, were hot and loud. The process of preparing and weaving wools was similar to cotton and silk. Many workers would use hand signals to communicate when machines were running.
The Germania mills were located on the first canal system and produced wool textiles. The mills were started by two German brothers, Hermann and August Stursberg, who were Rhineland manufacturers. Highly skilled spinners and weavers had traveled with the Stursbergs from Germany and were highly skilled.
The Lyman and Farr Alpaca mill closings in the 1920s were part of what might be called the deindustrialization of the New England textile industry. Between 1920 and World War II, Massachusetts lost nearly 45% of its textile production jobs. But after 1940, a large infusion of military contracts, promising unprecedented profits, stabilized the regional industry. During this period, however, nearly 200 mills were shut down. Others drastically reduced their scale of operations. The decline of the New England textile industry had lasting consequences, not simply for the communities directly affected, but also for the entire region and the rest of the country. Competition for jobs increased due to the layoff of over 100,000 textile workers; consequently, wage rates were reduced. From 1950 – 1960, manufacturing workers’ wages in New England declined 16% relative to the rest of the nation. The high unemployment rate in New England, largely stemming from these textile plant shutdowns, as compared with most of the rest of the country in the 1950s and the insecurity and demoralization caused by the unemployment, seriously debilitated the region’s labor movement.
The deindustrialization of Holyoke would provide the opportunity for more varied industries, like the service industry, to grow.