(An earlier version of this article was previously published in "Chickuppy & Friends" magazine, March/April 1987.)
In these days of synthetic materials and man-made chemical products, it is sometimes difficult to recall the days of goods, clothing specifically, the manufacture of which was accomplished with solely natural fibers and materials. For the William Skinner Manufacturing Company, the transformation of finished silks and satins from the raw silk of cocoons was both meticulous and most celebrated.
“Skinners Silks” it was written after William Skinner’s death, “Have become a mercantile synonym for a standard of excellence in silks, for being just what they purport to be, without sham or shoddy or flimsy imitation of other than they pretend to be. It was this quality of goods that insured the great growth of business.”
William Skinner was an extremely successful businessman, a tireless and dynamic manager of money, time, and opportunity. He knew the silk business very well as it was a family trade for which he had been meant from boyhood. It was in his blood.
His father, John Skinner was a London silk dyer. England had experienced a striking growth in the silk trade during the late 1700s, attempting to rival the markets of France and Italy. The growth was due partly to new colonial markets, colonies which were also expected to serve as new sources of raw silk after silk “farming” had been introduced to America, and partly due to England’s population of French refugee weavers.
These Huguenot craftsmen had fled France after the 1685 revocation by Louis XIV of the Edict of Nantes, which allowed continued persecution of French Protestants. William Skinner’s mother was a descendent of Huguenot refugees. The influence of family trade was great upon him, and through him it would be for his children as well. The Skinner tradition of the union between family and family business would be an unbroken thread, extending well into the 20th century.
In 1843, he came at age 19 to supervise operations at the Valentine Dye Works in Northampton, in western Massachusetts. Opportunities in the United States, and specifically in industrial New England were expanding greatly. By 1845 he and partner Joseph Warner had established a company for the manufacture of sewing silks. After three years of operation, Skinner moved the plant to Williamsburg, a nearby village whose Mill River created the perfect environment for industrial growth. Williamsburg business boomed, as several companies -- cotton mills, fulling mills, clock manufacturers, took advantage of the limitless water power.
The section of Mill River along which William Skinner settled his new Unquomonk Silk Mills became known as Skinnerville. The Englishman who came to a Yankee village and gave his company an Indian name developed a new and profitable identity as the name in silks. He came to the right place at the right time, for the young United States, despite its scattered frontier populations, was fascinated with the making and the wearing of silk.
Colonial America had experimented with the growing of white mulberry trees for the feeding of silk worms. For centuries, the product of the silkworm had been gathered from its natural and wild state, but in the cultivation of silk, the silkworm’s feeding and breeding are conducted within the groves of dwarf trees. During one stage of its development, the silkworm will attach itself to a leaf or branch and spin itself a cocoon. The cocoon is made of long silken fiber, tightly woven. It is when the silkworm emerges from his cocoon that the cocoons are gathered or harvested and unraveled to obtain the raw silk.
Chinese mulberry trees were introduced to the US in the 1830 as an improvement on previously utilized white mulberry trees. In 1832 the Connecticut legislature offered a bounty of 50 cents per pound for the cultivation of raw silk, and Maine, Massachusetts, New Jersey and Pennsylvania soon after offered bounties, so great was the lure of silk and the expectations of the silk industry’s success. Part of the growth of silk manufacture in the U.S. was due to England’s competition in the industry with French silk, which it allowed to English markets free of duty. This competition forced many weavers to seek work here. Their exodus to America coincided with William Skinner’s arrival here.
Though silk manufacture had been encouraged in America by foreign concerns since colonial times, the product of raw silk, that is the farming of silk cocoons, was never great and eventually failed. The harvesting of silk cocoons and the farming of silk plantations required a great deal of labor, the high cost of which was prohibitive, and so the insatiable demands of a thriving silk manufacturing industry could not be continually fed by a few, faltering American silk planters.
Much of the raw silk and the late 1800s and early 1900s was thus imported from China, Japan, and Bengal. In 1854, another attempt to raise homegrown silk in California failed due to a blight on the mulberry trees. Though the cultivation of silk failed, the importation of raw silk from distant the cheap markets continued to supply the US manufacturers with raw material.
In silk manufacture, the first step is to unravel the cocoon of the silkworm. The cocoons are sorted according to color and texture, and are steamed or placed in warm water to soften the natural gum. When they are unraveled, a single cocoon may yield as much as 2000 or 3000 yards of filament. This is then twisted into thread and the thread is called raw silk. During the 19th century this process was done by hand.
The next step is called throwing, and prepared the raw silk thread for the loom by twisting it, doubling its thickness. In plants like William Skinner’s, the workers would then boil the imported raw silk to remove the natural gum, then dye the thread. For a white or pale color of thread the raw silk was bleached. The next step of weaving into different fabrics and material would complete the process of silk manufacture, aided in the 19th century by the 1838 invention of the power loom.
In 1929 the Boston Sunday Post recalled: “…For woman in the social life of the nation’s capital to admit that her basque and hoop skirt were not Skinnerian in texture was tantamount to reading herself out of elite circles….”
Skinner became the name in quality, and in fashion as well, that mysterious and intangible proof of legitimacy. It was even said that Mary Todd Lincoln aggravated her husband, President Lincoln, by her wifely extravagance in buying Skinner silks. Just before the outbreak of the Civil War, Washington, D.C., that town of provocative politics and parties, where foreseeing danger was never one of its strong suits, played merrily in glittering entertainment circles while the drama to be played at Fort Sumter lay ahead. Niblo’s Gardens, a jolly establishment, was featured in a musical revue, a chorus of which ran:
“I bought my gal a
Bolt of Skinner’s silk,
For a wedding gown,
And with an Irish policeman,
She hopped the town…”
By 1874 Skinner’s mill was a leading concern in industrial New England, and a celebrated part of American life. Skinner’s mill in Williamsburg employed between 130 and 200 hands. Separate offices for sales and orders were opened in New York and other cities. William Skinner was a millionaire, and his large family grew and thrived along with his business. Their fortunes would improve, but only after rebirth from a tragedy.
On paper, Skinner’s empire was expensive. In actuality, the mill was 100 feet long and four stories high. It was made of wood. It broke apart in splinters in a few heart-stopping moments in the flash flood of 1874.
On May 16, 1874 the mountain reservoir fed by Mill River broke.
The Springfield Weekly Journal reported: “The most terrible calamity of flood, and in loss of human lives the most terrible of all calamities that of visited New England, fell on four villages in Hampshire County Saturday morning, like a mysterious and inexplicable curse, sweeping away factories, bridges, houses, barns, the products and the means of industry, the men, women and children, the dumb creatures of their service, the fertile earth itself, in one restless, whelming sweep to destruction.”
At about 8:00 in the morning the break in the reservoir occurred, and the gatekeeper, George Cheney, charged on horseback down the valley to the village of Williamsburg to warn people to flee. He rode through Skinnerville, Haydenville and Leeds, with the angry reservoir waters at his heels. The inhabitants of Williamsburg had 10 minutes to escape, but by the time he reached Leeds, four miles below, the people there had only a two-minute head start.
The death toll was 145 persons.
The Journal reported at the time that 28 bodies were still missing. The villages were however lucky in retrospect. Most of the people who lived here were at work in the mills, and the factories were evacuated with amazing speed to the credit of the rider and mill owners like William Skinner, who helped clear their mills. Had the break occurred at night an unwarned population would have suffered an even larger loss of life.
Another rider who spread the alarm was milkman Collins Graves, who took up George Cheney’s warning cry. He headed straight for the factories, letting Chaney continue the task of warning the villages, because he realized correctly that the noise in the mills would drown out any passing shouts of warning, even the roar of the approaching torrent.
The journal noted: “Here the famous ride, which will be in song and story and told to the credit of Collins Graves around the fire-sides of Williamsburg forever as the salvation of many hundred lives, ended at the hotel; the horse and rider were both exhausted…”
If the loss of life was checked that 145 by the grace of a few minutes’ warning, a loss of property was extensive and a great deal of it never to be recovered. Before 1874 Williamsburg was a thriving village on its way to becoming an industrial center. After the flood, much of its industry was lost for good.
William Skinner’s factory and 1200 tenement houses for the workers, the foundations of “Skinnerville”, were destroyed. Skinner was financially wrecked, but his name was still respected, his credit was good, and on the strength of his reputation, William Skinner received offers from banks and business concerns from Boston to New York to Philadelphia. He had many faithful customers and friends. According to the Boston Sunday Post, “He was just getting his bearings to stage one of the greatest comebacks and American industry.”
James Newton and the Holyoke Water Power Company convinced William Skinner to re-establish is business in Holyoke, the HWPC even offered a plot of land for his mill rent-free for five years. During construction of the new mill, Skinner traveled by horse and buggy to his home in Northampton, then took the train to Holyoke and traveled back at night. He would soon move his home, damaged only slightly in the flood, to Holyoke. “Wistariahurst” remains today in Holyoke as a landmark, and valuable museum devoted to the Skinner family.
His home, not to mention his family and their legacies, would be fixtures in Holyoke for decades to come. What was the Uquomonk Silk Mills in Williamsburg now became the William Skinner Manufacturing Company, continuing its manufacture of satin sleeve linings, silk serges, silk and mohair braids, machine and buttonholed twists, sewings, organzine and cassimere sewings. Over 7000 pounds of silk products were produced each month by 500 mill hands.
Holyoke in 1874 had been a city for about one year. Its first mayor would take office in 1874, Mayor William B.C. Pearsons. It was a city of workers, poor Irish and French-Canadian laborers whose industry would help build the city and whose descendants would help shape it and have a share of its future.
The Holyoke opportunity did not occur merely as a happy accident for William Skinner; rather Holyoke’s very streets were planned by commercial interests for the benefit and convenience of industry. Skinner, with his commercial vigor and commercial paternalism, would fit into Holyoke pattern perfectly. He was a complement to the city’s industrial reputation, and in turn Holyoke would produce a base for his factory in a planned city with modern infrastructure geared toward manufacturing, and with an endless supply of workers.
By 1883 William Skinner’s two sons, William and Joseph, joined him in the family firm, which was renamed William Skinner and Sons. It was estimated in 1894 that the company had 450 hands but that “as soon as the loons are running in the presently in large number one mill there will be 900 and employed.” Some of the employees were skilled machinists and weavers, many were unskilled laborers, and still others, of course, were children.
It has been recorded that Skinner’s relationship with his employees was good. By the 1930s when the Skinner mills were the first in western Massachusetts to recognize the CIO, agreements with the textile workers organizing committee were maintained and strikes or the threat of strikes were settled quickly by the management, now the hands of sons William and Joseph. In 1937 the management and the TWOC (Textile Workers Organizing Committee) signed an agreement for $16.00 per week minimum wage which was $1.00 more than prescribed by the TWOC. This wage amounted to a 4¢ per hour raise, and 10 holidays were granted as well.
William Skinner’s children continued his mill and his philanthropy. During the Depression Joseph Skinner donated fresh milk from his South Hadley dairy farm to the Holyoke center for welfare distribution, and produce from the farm was sold at cost to his employees. A worker would place his order at the mill, and on the next day a truck would deliver fresh milk and vegetables to his door.
Joseph’s sister, Catherine, paid the tuition of one girl who worked as a mill hand, as author Ella Merkel DiCarlo notes in her Holyoke - Chicopee: A Perspective, enabling her to go to business school. Catherine and their other sister, Belle, founded the Skinner Coffee House as the most practical and perhaps the most humane way benefiting the women factory workers. (For more on Belle Skinner’s efforts to rebuild a war-torn village in France after World War I, have a look at this previous post.)
The Skinner Coffee House, founded on Main Street in 1902, was a place of respite for female mill hands.
At the turn of the century, 10 and 12 hour days were the norm. The Skinner Coffee House with its quiet and gentle, homelike atmosphere, unlike poorer conditions of their own homes, contained a reception hall with a piano, divans and chairs, a ping-pong table, and another room for writing, reading, and sewing. The women could spend their lunch periods there, and children would learn to sew, and play. By 1916, the Coffee House and become an institution in Holyoke, and at its new location on Main and Hamilton Streets, Mary E. Willey, president of Mount Holyoke College spoke at the rededication ceremony.
“It embodies the physical ideal, in its cafeteria and public bath; the educational and recreational ideal in classes, lectures and entertainments, in music and dramatic performances, the home ideal by instruction and dressmaking in millinery and domestic science, and particularly by the mother’s meetings, with practical talks by doctors and nurses and the not less practical widening of the horizon by glimpses of other people and lands.
“Above all, it will be a home…”
Americanization classes were held for those immigrants who wanted to learn English. The members also contributed the culture of their origins in clubs organized at the Coffee House, the Italian Woman’s club, the Negro Woman’s club, the Greek club and an international group made up of Poles, Greeks, Lithuanians, Ukrainians, Italian, and French women. During the Depression the Coffee House provided services for those seeking employment. It was suspended in May 1940 as a social service whose usefulness was now outdated. It was donated by the family to the city, and thereafter used as a clinic and neighborhood center.
When by the 1940s, much had changed in the Skinner company in the way of unions and wages, and company expansions, but not in leadership. When William Skinner died in February 1902, his sons William and Joseph continued the management of the company and brought the old silk manufacturing trade of their fathers English and Huguenot forebears into the 20th century. Their first New York City office for sales was opened by the son William Skinner in 1876 on Broadway. His son, William, spent much of his time there as head of that office.
Joseph Skinner managed the manufacturing and the family business end in Holyoke, the name of which was changed again back to the William Skinner Manufacturing Company. The original mill had been enlarged, and the second mill building was erected on Bond Street. During the Depression, the Skinners announced confidently that the mill would not close, and it did not.
The 1939 New York City World’s Fair, Skinner impressed fashion-conscious world as it had at the 1876 exposition. The theme of the 1939 World’s Fair was the World of Tomorrow. Instead of succumbing to fantastic illusions about a science fiction world, as so many other exhibitors did to impress Depression crowds, Skinner’s chose to illustrate the promise of industry with a display that confidently showed the spirit of today.
The Skinner company’s greatest legacy from its founder was its ability to adapt to the moment, proud of its heritage, and yet not obsessed with only the past and its imagined infinite glories. Even the future was sometimes not important as the squarely-faced present. During World War II, the company manufactured silk parachutes, and produced twill fabric for the special uniforms of parachute troops.
When Joseph Skinner died in 1946 and William in 1947, the firm’s management was continued by four grandsons of William Skinner: Stewart Kilborne, William H. Hubbard, William Skinner II, and George Gibson. By 1956 the Skinner mills has ceased manufacturing silk, and the mills were used to house smaller firms. Operations ceased, and the firm was bought by Indian Head Mills, incorporated in 1961. This company closed soon after.
At its end, the Skinner company had been the longest operating family-owned business in Holyoke. Its demise, the result of several considerations, coincided with the technical revolution visiting American industry in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The silk mill, with its several floors of mechanical looms was operated according to a process which it changed little from the early 19th century. The world outside, and the market, and technology, had changed greatly.
For more on William Skinner, and photos of the mill interior, have a look at this Wistariahurst museum website.
Boston Sunday Post
Holyoke-Chicopee: A Perspective by Ella Merkel DiCarlo (Holyoke Transcript-Telegram, Holyoke, Mass.)
Holyoke Old and New (Dillion Printing)
Holyoke Past and Present (Transcript Publishing)
Men of New England, ed. Winfield Scott Downs, Lit.D., Vol. 1 (American History Company, Inc. NY, 1941).
Picturesque Hampden, ed. Charles F. Warner
Springfield Weekly Journal
The Story of Textiles by Perry Walton
Western Mass. - A History by Rev. John Lockwood
Wistariahurst Collection, Holyoke, Massachusetts