Friday, February 20, 2009

Day four hundred and fourteen ... Spindle City.

The world wasn't always made in China.

No, where I come from, Fall River, Massachusetts (or Spindle City as it was dubbed) not much more than thirty years ago a person could find almost any piece of clothing they needed and it was more than likely produced inside of the confines of North America. Better still, as you may infer from my hometown's nickname, a good deal of it was made right there on the banks of the Taunton River.

Textiles back then were more made from actual cotton rather than an amalgamation of chemical compounds. Rayon, nylon, lycra, spandex--all that and more--was readily available to whoever was so inclined to seek it off the shelves of McCrory's department store, or Liss Clothing (up the Flint section of town), or any number of department stores like Ann and Hope, Caldor, Zayre, or Bradlees. All that synthetic junk was certainly available, but cotton--amongst the general population--reigned supreme. 

My grandmother, Eugenia Cecelia Machnik (pronounced, Mahk-nick) Johnson, worked in one of the knitting mills in Fall River; Louis Hand was the company's name. It sat near the far end of Bedford St., a half mile from the house I grew up in, and it employed hundreds upon hundreds of women willing or needing to earn a modest salary for long hours of hard work in unhealthy conditions. She worked there making curtains for many years until I was born and my mother had to go back to work. She was also the union organizer and president, and I'm uncovering little bits of her story in that capacity from newspaper articles that I've been finding at the house in Mattapoisett.

She worked at Louis Hand at a time when it wasn't some factory in the Philippines or Maylasia that had what you call "sweatshops." No, where she worked--down the street from my childhood home--was, in fact, a sweatshop. And it was just a part of life. In the second third of the century it was a given that if you were a woman in need of a job, and you didn't want to become a teacher, nurse, receptionist, or nun--that is to say, if you were undereducated--you worked in the mills. You worked in the mills and you made clothes and curtains for sale to Americans all over the country. 

You worked in the mills in Spindle City.

From Wikipedia: Pilgrim Mills is a historic textile mill located at 847 Pleasant Street in Fall River, Massachusetts.

The mill was built in 1911 from red brick and was the first mill in the city powered entirely by electric. It had a capacity of 53,568 spindles.

In 1945 the factory was acquired by Louis Hand, Inc., which manufactured curtains. It was later known as Aberdeen Manufacturing and most recently as CHF Industries. The plant closed in March 2008.

The site was added to the National Historic Register in 1983.

My mom's house has many remnants of this period of time. More than a few pillowcases can be found that were made from curtain scraps that my grandmother would smuggle home, wrapped around her legs under her dress. The song, "Halcyon Days," from my band Drunk Stuntmen's last record State Fair, contains the line: "Momma slept on hand made pillow cases/ made of curtain scraps from Louis Hand." My aunt worried that no one would understand what I was talking about. I didn't care so much, as I feel that if someone cares enough to find out what it means they'll figure out a way of finding out. But that line I made sure to confirm with my mom before she passed. She indeed did sleep on hand made pillow cases. And the cover we put over the bird cage was made with scraps of curtain as well. And all of these things were made not only by sewing the pieces together on a machine and affixing a button or two on them, but going back to the basic form of the cloth itself. The fabric in question was actually made right there in Fall River on one of thousands of looms run by an endless parade of industrious women. The cotton was brought up from the South, it was spun, it was woven, it was dyed, cut, and sewn right there in town. And there was a sense of pride that went along with that. There was a sense of purpose. There was a reason industry came to Fall River. We had the labor, the real estate, and the means of transport via the waterways and highways that ran along it and through it, respectively.

"Proudly Made in Fall River, Massachusetts."

I have more than a couple of items of clothes that have this tag sewn into the insides somewhere. It was true for the most part. Now it's what they call "vintage." I see that tag and I start to think in black and white movie mode.

But today the mills have had their purpose redirected. Many have been turned into gyms and factory outlets and (thankfully) even music venues. The space is being put to use by the fine people of the city. It's certainly better than tearing the giant granite hot boxes down; that would serve no purpose. Not to mention that not too many people are snapping up real estate in the town right now. 

Spindle City, from what I've read, was renamed "The Scholarship City" a number of years back when resident and optometrist Irving Fradkin began the Dollars For Scholars program in 1994, creating cascading monetary incentive for educational advancement for students. It's a nice feather to have in your hat, but judging from the soaring crime, drug abuse, and poverty that has overcome the city since the mid-1980's it really does not fit the character of its people.

But the state of cloth and clothing making in this country is worse than deplorable. One need only take a trip through any mall in America to see what has become of the pride of the textile worker. He or she is as unrecognizable as ever in the clandestine assemblage of shirts, blazers, dresses, hats, gloves, belts, and all the rest of what we need to fill our closets with; this will always be the way of the factory worker. But now, instead of being able to at least place on the map in our minds of the country we all inhabit where the blazer we hold on a hangar comes from, instead we are left with the name of a foreign country: China, India, Indonesia, Slovenia, Vietnam, Poland, Mexico, and the list goes on and on of lands where we can barely squeak past security in our minds, let alone transport ourselves to the sewing machine of a nominally paid, underage factory worker.

And it appears that there is no pride that goes into those clothes. There is barely enough thread to hold the buttons fast to the fabric. Corners are cut leaving thread hanging waiting like a rip cord. I'm sure the amount of time spent on each piece is a desperate mad dash to the finish line to get the jacket packed up to be shipped back to America where it was designed--where it used to be made, right down to the tag that crowned every collar: "Proudly Made in Fall River, Massachusetts."

And there it will sit, with a much different declaration of provenance, waiting to start the ever quickening process of degradation--the fibers held together due to inescapable proximity rather than fastidiousness and intent. We can't wait to buy a new pair of pants, thinking not of who made the pockets, but rather how much money we will save. And then we wonder why all the jobs have gone overseas.

It will all come back to us eventually, though. One day in the not too distant future we will once again regain our ground and rebound in the ways that define the American people. We will become innovative and self sufficient once more. We won't be dependent on a country we have nothing in common with to make clothes that fall apart quicker and with greater ease, which may or may not be correlative to our waist line.

Someday we'll be proud again. Someday the sewing machines will be humming with electricity, being fed cloth that was spun on looms by our own people. Someday we'll realize that the world wasn't always made in China.


One can only hope.

Thanks for reading.



Steven said...

Three generations of my family worked a Louis Hand in Fall River.

My grandfather, Harold Herman, was the plant manager from 1944 thru 1959.

My father, David Gorenberg, worked in various managerial positions from 1950 thru 1992.

My mother, Sydell Gorenbergh worked in the office in administration from 1950 thru 1952.

I worked two summers at Louis Hand in 1970, rolling cloth and in 1971 picking orders.

Yes, the factory was hot in the summer, but conditions were pretty good for the workers.
Everyone has a sense of pride in their work.

Yes, there really was a Louis Hand. He started the business in Philadelphia in the early 1940s. Ge sold the business in the mid-1960s, when it became "Aberdeen Manufacturing". Why "Aberdeen"? Because when listing in alphabetical order, it would list at the front!

-- Steve, Wilton, CT

barbaraLA said...

My Dad and his brothers owned Aberdeen Manufacturing. They made umbrellas and patio furniture. (Finkel outdoor products)in the US, and owned Louis Hand for a short time.

Sorry to hear it closed. Even sorrier to hear it called a sweatshop.

Barbara(Finkel)Stone, LA