Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Doris Tanguay at the Skinner Company - Holyoke, Massachusetts - Part 1



When Doris Tanguay talks about the William Skinner Manufacturing Company (see here for previous post), it is easy to see the thrill of adventure in a career in this company through her eyes; for her, this was an adventure and something to look upon, many years later, as golden years.
Mrs. Tanguay, now in her early nineties, allowed me the privilege of an interview with her earlier this year to discuss her memories of the famous Holyoke, Massachusetts, silk manufacturing company through the perspective of a young woman who’d spent over twenty years in the office.  She learned all aspects of the manufacturing process, rubbing shoulders with the famous Skinner family, and experiencing the singular delight of loving her job.  Hers is tale that belongs to another era—the more shame for us—of employees remaining with the same company for decades, of feeling a sense of belonging and sense family with that company, and of the company treating them with, at the very least, a paternalistic sense of responsibility and partnership.  It was a workplace before the computer, before automation, where labor-intensive man-hours brought product to the marketplace.

She began her career in 1939, in the final years of the Great Depression.

Mrs. Doris Tanguay:  First job out of high school.  I graduated in ’38.  You know, it was Depression, and I was looking for work, and I just get a part-time job at White & Wyckoff [printing company].  It was a holiday, I guess, you know where they have a lot of cards going out. 
And then I had another part-time job at Christmas with the Electric Game Company, typing labels.  My father worked at the Second Congo Church [Second Congregational Church, Holyoke].  He worked there for about thirty-five years.  Of course, Skinner [Joseph Skinner, son of the founder of the William Skinner Mfg. Co.] was very prominent in that church and the Skinner Chapel.  Every second week my father got paid by Skinner, because that was his share of the Chapel.  That was their agreement they had.  Sometimes I would go up to church to see him and walk down—we walked everywhere in those days—Appleton Street.  We’d have to go into the officer at Skinner’s [William Skinner Manufacturing Company] to get his pay for the week.  Sometimes he would send me in. 
There was a man in there who was—they didn’t really have titles back then—but he paid the bills.  He used to always ask my father about me, and my father said I was looking for a job.  So this particular day I went in and he asked me if I had job yet, and I said no.  He says, “Well, why don’t you go right upstairs and apply.  There’s a girl up there who’s leaving.”  He told me where to go and who to see, and that’s how I got my job.  ‘Thirty-nine, and I always thought I would be there till I retired.  We all did.  But, ’63 we finally locked the door.  It was a sad day.

 Her first position in 1939 at Skinner’s was to assist the purchasing agent.

 Mrs. Doris Tanguay:   But back then, everybody did a lot of jobs.  You know, actually, people didn’t have titles.  I worked for the purchasing agent, but some of the secretaries—it was on the second floor of the office.  Down on the first floor there were a couple of ladies that were real elderly who were secretaries, and they left when the Skinners, Uncle Joe and Uncle Will, [Joseph and William, Jr., sons of the founder] died.  But if somebody needed a secretary, my boss would offer me.  You know, “She’ll do it for you.”  Because I did shorthand.  So, I got kind of passed around that way.  But there were several of us that could run the switchboard.  We were trained, and we would have to take turns, a week at a time, to go in at seven o’clock in the morning and run the switchboard from seven to eight, when the regular operator came in.  And then we would take it over at noontime while she was out to lunch.  So there were several of us that could do that.
We also doubled up in the salesroom.  We had a salesroom there.  So when they were shorthanded in there, one of us could go in there and help.  It’s amazing to me today how—during the war we had over 1,000 employees—with such a small office and, you know, not all the equipment that they have today, we ran everything.  Because it was a lot of extra work during the war. 
Oh, and I was the first one to have an electric typewriter.  You know, IBM came in to sell their electric typewriter.  Back then, we had a copy machine that we had to use a lot, because we had to send—when we got orders we had to send copies of our written order to all the different departments.  We used to have to make copies on the copy machine, you know, that old purple stuff.  [Mimeograph machine.
You got that purple all over you.  Well, I typed up the orders.  I would have to make six copies.  So you take six copies with carbon paper in between, you got to pound your keys.  So, when I got the electric typewriter, I thought it was wonderful because—you know, actually, I was only a young girl, but my wrists used to ache from pushing those keys. 
The other girls were afraid of the electric typewriter.  They thought they were going to get shocks.  It was a long time before some of the others got talked into it.  But I had the first electric one, and boy, I loved it. 
Then, you know, Dictaphones became popular.  I was working more for Mr. Hubbard at that time [William H. Hubbard, grandson of the founder].  He called me his Girl Friday.  Part of the week, he spend in New York.  You know, we had the sales offices in New York, and he would come in on the train back and forth.  He’d come in on Wednesdays and would go into his office, and he’d call me and we’d go through his mail and he’d dictate.  He didn’t want any part of Dictaphones.  He liked to talk to you when he was dictating and talk about it, and ask your opinion, or tell you about something. 
He used to call me to see, “Where’s this?  Where’s that?”  Because would just scatter everything all around.  I would pile it up.  But I knew where everything was, and he would call me in, “Where’s this?  Where’s that?”  And he’d say to me, “You must be a holy terror at home.”  He told me that he had twin beds, and he slept in one bed and he had all his books and everything spread out on the other bed.  And he says, “Nobody touches them!”
He used to love to cook, and he used to tell me about things he cooked. 
I said, “Yeah, but do you do your dishes?”
“Oh, no,” he says, “I’ve got all kinds of dirty dishes.  I don’t do those.”
I said, “Well, it’s easy to cook when you don’t have to clean up after yourself.”  They had a maid do it.  But he did like to cook.  He used to get cookbooks.

The Skinner Company also had offices in New York City, but Doris did not travel for her job.

Mrs. Doris Tanguay:  I never went, no, never went to New York.  When I first [worked for the company] both Old Joe and Will Skinner [sons of the founder] were living.  Will Skinner lived in New York on Park Avenue.  He was the one that used to come up every summer to live at Wistariahurst.  He had a car with a chauffeur.  I can’t remember when he died.  They must have had the funeral in New York, because it wasn’t at the church. 
Postcard, Image Museum website
 
There were a lot of people there that had been there for many years before I [worked at Skinner’s], and they had such great stories, you know, about the Skinner house up on the mountain [The Mt. Holyoke Summit House].  That used to be a hotel, and there were a lot of famous people that went to that hotel.  There was Jenny Lind.  She was a singer, I think.  And then there was a president.  I think it was McKinley.
And I don’t know what—they had a guestbook.  Back then, we didn’t have copy machines, but we did have a darkroom where we would make pictures.  You know, we had to put them in the fixer and the developer and all that stuff.  Well, every once in a while they would bring this guestbook in and ask me to make a copy of a page because there was a name on that page that they were interested in.  And I don’t know whatever happened to that guestbook.  That would be a great thing to have.  Somebody must have it, though.  I asked one time up at the Skinner house.  They don’t have it up there.  But maybe Wistariahurst has it.  I don’t know.  But Bill Skinner [grandson of the founder] had it at the time.  That was how we had to make a copy.  It was half a day’s chore to make a copy of a page.
At that time we had a little hospital, and we had a full-time nurse.  We had a doctor that came in every morning.  People could leave their job and go see the doctor.  When the doctor was there, the switchboard operator pushed a button, and a red light came on in all the departments that showed the doctor was in. 
Having our own hospital like that, that’s where I got my first flu shot, you know, because they didn’t want us out sick.  During the war they needed people around the clock.  That’s when they started coming out with the flu vaccine.  Everybody there got flu shots.
Later on they got rid of the doctor, and then they finally got rid of the nurse to save money.  But I had taken—well, I took a lot of the first aid courses, but I was also a volunteer nurse aide during the war.  So, my original boss, anytime there was a medical problem, he’d say to me, “Come on, let’s go take care of this.”  And we did. 
Bobbin room, Image Museum website, 1920s?
When crepe went out, all the machines in the room where they used to get the yarn prepared for the crepe, they sold those for junk.  Metal was very scarce during the war, because they were using it for shrapnel.  They had this company that came with big sledgehammers and they just broke up all that machinery and carted it away.  One day, one of them hit himself in the leg with one of those things.  He had a real bad cut, but Jack and I gave him first aid before we took him to the hospital.  You know, I wasn’t afraid of blood or anything. 
We pinched hit for a lot of things because we didn’t have people that just said, “That’s my job.  I don’t do anything else.”  It was so different.  
In 1948, we celebrated our 100th anniversary, and that was a real big thing.  It lasted several nights, and the Kilbornes [children of Katharine Skinner Kilborne, daughter of the founder] came up from New York.  Kilborne wives worked with us.  They were just like another girl in the office.  They were so nice.  They had this very famous advertising firm from New York City who ran the program, and they gave out key chains.  Every key chain had a number on it, and we had them register.  I kept that.  I don’t know what happened to that.  We had a card with people’s names and addresses and the number of their key chain, so if you lost your keys, all you had to do was, if you found some keys, just drop them in a mailbox and the post office would bring them to us, and we would pay the postage on it, and then we would look up the number and return the keys to their owner, because we had, you know, it was very easy, just by number.
We paid in cash for the whole mill.  Four of us used to go every week to the Hadley Falls Trust Company.  We had a room downstairs.  They had all the money ready for us, and we would fill up the envelopes with the cash, and we would bring back the office payroll with us.  We had one man with us and three girls.  Joe Skinner used to say, “If anybody wants the money, give them it.  Don’t hold it back.”
And we’d come out of the bank with the office payroll.  We stop in Chester’s Drug Store, and the man that was with us, he’d buy us all a soda.  And then we’d walk down Appleton Street carrying all that money.  Can you imagine that today?  And then armored cars would bring the rest of the payroll to the various plants.  You know, we had Bond Street and we had the one across to Dwight Street, and then we had a mill behind the offices. 
When you worked fifty years, you got a gold watch.  There were quite a few people that had the gold watch.  There was this—I don’t even remember his last name—Tommy, he was sort of head in the maintenance department, and he used to talk about he used to take care of the horses.  The maintenance department opened up onto the canal bank, and of course, then we had electric trucks that ran from plant to plant, and at night they would have to take the batteries and charge them overnight.  But he was telling us how before that they had horses.  He used to take care of the horses, too.
They used to have such interesting stories.  At that time, our superintendent was Donald Purrington.  He’s the one who designed the YMCA up on Appleton Street.  It used to be on the corner of High and Appleton, right across from the 2nd Congo Church.  We had, behind our offices on the 2nd floor, there was a big conference room, and there was a big section in there where he had his drawing tables.  That’s where he designed the YMCA as it is today.  He would do that during his lunch hour and when he had any free time, he’d be in there at his drawing table. 
Back then, every July, the first two weeks of July, they would shut the canals down so you could work on the waterwheels or do any repair work that you needed.  I was always curious about things—this is the great thing about it, too, if I didn’t know about something, I’d ask and they say, “Come on, we’ll show you.”  And they’d take me right out in the mill and show me what we were talking about.
So I wanted to see the waterwheel.  Don Purrington came in, and he’d been out checking on the waterwheel.  I said, “I’d like to see that waterwheel.” 
He says, “Well, I’ll get some boots and you come with me.”
So I went.  It was under the building.  I got to go under the building to see the waterwheel.  I’d never left home out of high school.  In purchasing, buying something, we used to get a lot of what they call “bastard files.”  And I said to my boss, “What are those?"
"He said, “I’ll show you.”  Different things.  He was great.  I got a college education from him.  He would take me out and when you actually see something, you don’t forget it.
Inspecting.  Image Museum website
 
We had very simple calculators, and he showed me how to run the slide rule.  I used to use the slide rule, because we used to use that for checking.  He taught me how to take a piece of cloth and count the pics in it.  We’d have to make up a construction sheet.  Sometimes we’d get an order and they would send us a sample, and they’d say, “We want it like this.”  But they want it 42 inches wide or whatever.  So we’d have to make up the construction sheet.  I had all those, a book, we used to call it our bible, the figures to convert the different types of yarn.  I gave that to Wistariahurst also.  And I had a little, it was a microscope, but it was a counter.  You put the cloth under there and you could count—you know when they talk about so many threads?  We’d count how many threads per inch under there.  I gave all that stuff to Wistariahurst.
I gave them—I had a little black book that I used to keep.  Mr. Hubbard, a lot of his mail, letters that I did for him were on the personal side.  So if I got a date of an anniversary or birthday or whatever, I would write it down in that book, and I would also write addresses down in there. 
He had three sailboats.  They had a beautiful home on Fisher’s Island.  Every summer, there were sailboats.  They used to have races, and used to hire a college boy to work on his boat for the summer, and then he’d put it up in the wintertime.  And he’d be talking about the mainsail and the jib and so it was all Greek to me, but he would spell it for me and I would write it in my book, because then the next time I knew what he was talking about.  I gave that little book to Wistariahurst also. 
Winding room, Image Museum website
 
Women ran the machines, mostly.  The men did the heavy jobs, and a lot of the men were, you know, actually foremen and supervisors and stuff.  There was a room, one room where they inspected all the cloth before it went out to the dye house, and that was all women in there.  We even had some women that were supervisors, which was kind of unique back in those days.
 
Her office was on Appleton Street.  The company hospital was in a building across the street.

Mrs. Doris Tanguay:  It burned down.  It was at the—it was on Appleton Street, the Appleton Street end, but you had to go in the gate along the canal to go in.  It was a big, big room and it had a lot of equipment in it.  And there was another little room, you know, where there was a couch where you could lie down.  They had bathrooms and sinks and everything down there. It was really well-equipped.  Dr. Putnam was our doctor.  He came every morning.

Doris worked for Skinner’s even after she married, and returned after a brief leave when her son was born.

Mrs. Doris Tanguay:  I had my son while I was working there and I went back to work.  Of course, I had my mother.  I never could have done it without her.  But Billy was born in October and one of my main jobs was the inventory.  Every year we had to take an inventory.  We had to buy tickets, and they were color-coded, a different color for each operation, and we had got them all from Marcus Printing.  So my job was to order the tickets and to send them out when it was time for the inventory to the different departments.  Usually, they took inventory like on New Year’s Day, you know, when everything was closed.
So I was out at the end of the year [on maternity leave].  The office, well he was called the controller.  He lived in South Hadley and he would stop in once in a while to see me.  He stopped in and said, “Well, are you ready to come back?  It’s time to take the inventory.”  So I went back in time to take the inventory right after New Year’s.
But that was always a big thing.  The year we sold the company, we had to do it twice, because they needed—we had Price, Waterhouse came up.  They wanted their own inventory, so we had to do it all over again.  But it was quite a thing.  At the very end, we would compare our figures with the book figures, and we were always pretty close with what the book figures said we should have in inventory.  But that was a big job. 
My original boss, he taught me how to use the office machines, how to count the cloth, how to check the cloth, how to use a slide rule.  And I taught my son how to run a slide rule.  I was in PTA when he was going to school, and I think he was in the fourth grade or fifth grade and he had a man teacher.  He told me that he used to tell Billy, “We’re going to have a test tomorrow, but you leave your slide rule at home.”  Because Mr. Hubbard gave me a pocket one, and I gave that to Billy.  He used to have his briefcase with all his school stuff in it, and he had his slide rule. 
The union came in, during the war, I believe it was.  When the union came in, we started having coffee breaks, because that was one of the things the people had to have, a fifteen-minute coffee break.  So that was another job my boss and I got.  We had to go to each department and set up a little room for them.  We didn’t have any vending machines, you know, back then.  They’d have a little gas plate, two or three burners, with a coffee percolator.  We’d put all that stuff in there for them so they could have their coffee break.  So we said, “Well, the people in the mill can have it, the office, we want it too.”
So they gave us a room.  It was quite a large room, and they bought—we had like a kitchen set in there and we had our gas, little gas stove, and we had a sink where we could wash the coffee pot out.  And we had a couch in there.  We even had a heating pad.  You know, the girls would have cramps, so they could go lay down on there with the heating pad for an hour or so.  It was like home.
A lot of the girls, we had our lunch there.  We could warm up soup or do anything.  Of course, we all loved to go uptown.
Mr. Will Skinner [son of the founder], we only saw him in the summertime, because he came to Wistariahurst in the summertime.  He used to sit at a desk—he used to come in.  His chauffeur would bring him in every day just to sit at a desk.  He didn’t do anything.  But he had a cane, and if we got too close to him, we’d get that cane on the backside.  We’d all have to avoid him, because he’d sit there by the desk and he’d hit you with the cane as you went by him.
He died shortly—I don’t remember too much about him.  He wasn’t there—well, of course, he was only there in the summertime.  Mr. Joe [son of the founder], he had an office there, but he was involved in everything, the Holyoke Hospital, Hadley Falls Trust Company, all these places that they were always at meetings or some place.
The girls in the salesroom, one especially, she was there for probably fifty years.  They used to bring things up from New York that models used to use, like wedding gowns.  If a model used it, they couldn’t sell it.  They’d bring it up to the salesroom to sell.  Then when they started to make that “tackle twill” [see description below], they started using it for raincoats, so they would bring raincoats up.
We used to buy silk ties.  Hickey Freeman used to make all their silk ties with our silk, and we used to be able to buy them in the salesroom for a dollar.  They were beautiful silk ties.
And then—we didn’t get any of those in the salesroom, but Daniel Green used to make satin bedroom slippers, you know, with high heels and everything.  They used our satin exclusively for their slippers, Daniel Green.  That was a big customer. 
 
 

Before my time, behind the office in our section, they had what they called the braid room, and they used to make braid.  They used to trim things with braid, and then that went out.  But there was still one girl left in the braid room.  They were still selling a little bit of braid, just that one girl.  Her mother was in the braid room before her.  But that went out.
We didn’t have air conditioning back then, we just had the open windows.  It got pretty hot.  On some of the real hot days, they used to tell us girls—because there weren’t that many of us in the office.  When you see what’s in an office today, how many people they have to have to run it.  The office manager would say, “Take my car and go out to Hampton Ponds swimming this afternoon.”
We didn’t even have a car, but he’d let us take his car.  We’d go swimming, because it was just so hot.  We were not killed with work, either, you know, but we could jump in and do somebody else’s job.  Like Rhoda, she paid the bills.  She twisted or broke her ankle once, and she was out for quite a long period.  So I was filling in for her, along with my job, paying the bills.  We could go on the switchboard. 
I never lost a day because of the weather, because my husband would always get me to work.  If I couldn’t drive, he would put chains on his car and he would bring me.  And I had to bring my son to my mother, to drop him off in the morning.  But there was one storm where—he worked at the National [National Blank Book].  He went in for 7:00, and he called me, and said, “Well, I made it okay.”  He said, “I think maybe you can do it.” 
But it had kept snowing all that time, and Granby Road is always good because it’s a state road.  Well, I got down to the bridge, and it was terrible.  But there was a policeman there, and he’s—you know, we couldn’t stop.  He wanted us to get on the bridge.  It hadn’t been plowed.  I got partway into Holyoke and I got stuck.  I finally got a couple of streets away from where my mother lived.  I was right in the middle of the road and I couldn’t go any further, because the road hadn’t been plowed.  So I picked my son up and I carried him, and we went to my mother’s house.  I called my husband and work and I said, “I left the car right in the middle of the street.”  I said, “I don’t care what you do with it.  I couldn’t go any further.  I’m going to walk to work from here.”
So he got a couple of his friends and they went over and got the car and put it in Dreikorn’s parking lot for the day.  I walked to work, and I was the only girl.  Bill Skinner [grandson of the founder] had skied down from Northampton Street.  A couple of the men were there.  I ran the switchboard all that day.  At the end of the day, my husband came to pick me up, and he said to the men, “You need a ride home?”
So they all wanted a ride home.  They all lived up in the Highlands or Northampton Street.  So we brought Bill Skinner home first, and he invited us in to his family room for a drink.  He was showing me, he had a collection of banks.  You put the money in the bank, and the bank would do all kinds of things.  He really had a beautiful collection.  Years ago, banks used to give out banks if you started an account or something, and had all these banks.  They did things.
So we took everybody home that day.  We had chains on the car.  I guess you can’t even use chains anymore.  I think they’re outlawed.  But it was just a fun adventurous day, as long as I knew I could get rescued.
Another one of my jobs was every time they started a new order in the mill, they would send over to us a sample, like a quarter of a yard or a half a yard, so we would check it to make sure that it was right.  All of our customers, except Sears & Roebuck, would allow us 10 percent seconds, but Sears & Roebuck would never allow us any seconds, and they would tell us exactly how they wanted it, how many "pics" and how wide.  They wanted a sample, because they would check it too.  I always said if Sears & Roebuck, if all their stuff is as good as our was, it’s got to be good, because they were really very fussy, and no seconds.
Inspecting.  Image Museum website
 
They would send over, they would call it “off the loom” before it went to the dye house or anything—gray goods.  We would check that.  Then I would file them in file folders, and we had these transfer files that we would put them in.  We had our own truck that brought stuff to the dye houses every week, and brought back stuff for us for the sales room.  The New York office would send us back samples of everything that got dyed, you know, finished samples, so we could put the finished samples in the file along with the gray goods.  We had transfer file after transfer file full of all these samples.  I don’t know if they ever came, but they told the nuns from the Mother House—they used to make a lot of things that they had the kids selling in school and so forth—if they wanted, because some of the material was like half a yard or something, they could have all this material.  When we locked up, those files were still there.  I don’t know where they all ended up. 
But my mother made a quilt out of those samples. Wistariahurst would like it, and I would like to give it to Wistariahurst, but still, I want to keep it in the family, but I don’t want it to be used. 
 
JOIN US NEXT WEEK FOR PART 2 OF MRS. TANGUAY'S INTERVIEW - FEATURING THE SKINNER MFG. CO. IN WORLD WAR II.

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