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Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Clarence Brown - Autos and Movies

Clarence Brown, respected movie director during Hollywood’s glamour’s heyday, had a different career as a very young man.  How much influence the manufacturing city of Chicopee, Massachusetts, had upon his future choice of career in during the short time he lived here is unknown and probably negligible, but it is intriguing to observe how the fledging movie industry and the fledgling auto industry ran a parallel, and interdependent, course. 
Mr. Brown, before he ever knew what movies were, was employed by the Stevens-Duryea auto manufacturer in Chicopee.
Brown was born east of Chicopee in the town of Clinton, Massachusetts, in 1890.  The turn of the 20th century fast approaching, a menagerie of new innovations in science and art, and especially in new inventions, burst forth in such a stream of imagination that many qualities of the next century would find their prelude in this very decade. To narrow it down a little, both automobiles and moving pictures had their impetus in this frenetic decade called the Gay Nineties.
Both cars and movies have come to mean a great deal to us, and certainly to Clarence Brown.
While Brown was a small child, Frank and Charles Duryea were tinkering with their experimental gasoline-powered horseless carriage, the prototype for which was supposedly designed in their boardinghouse on Front Street in Chicopee. It didn’t take long for the auto industry to be off and running. The Overman Wheel Company in the section of town called Chicopee Falls was one of the country’s many new automobile factories; they were producing cars as early as 1900.
The men who designed and produced these marvelous machines were considered to be wizards of technology, dreamers, and rugged individualists. Clarence Brown may have fit into this mold, for surely he was a unique young man. Intelligent and gifted, he was allowed special permission to attend the University of Tennessee when he was only 15 years old.
While he studied engineering there, the threads of his future destiny were already forming for him thousands of miles away. In 1907, while Brown was away at college, the Duryea firm back in Chicopee contracted with the J. Stevens Arms plant in Chicopee Falls to produce their cars.
Stevens Arms company, postcard, Image Museum website, public domain
The following year the first movie theater in Chicopee opened. It was called the Gem, and it was located around the corner from the Stevens plant on Main Street. Any connection between these two newborn industries was unapparent at the time, and would even be to Brown at first.
His father, Larkin Brown, had run a cotton mill in Massachusetts, but when Clarence was a boy, the family moved south where his father continued in cotton textile manufacturing.  His father hoped that Clarence would go into the family business, but after graduating with two degrees at only 19 years old, the remarkable young man decided to follow his passion at the time—which was the new automobile craze.
He first went to Illinois to work at an automobile plant there, but soon came to Chicopee and the Duryea company around 1910.
Industry in the manufacturing town of Chicopee was diversified and booming at this time. Any number of products were produced here then, from foodstuffs to bicycles to clothing. Though we may think of the opportunities presented to the thousands of skilled and unskilled laborers who came here for work as represented by the huge influx of immigrants from Europe and Canada, Chicopee also became the proving ground for any number of professionals and “bright young men” who began their careers here.  One of them was Clarence Brown.
The Stevens-Duryea 1905 model
While Brown was working at the Stevens-Duryea auto plant, two more moving picture theaters opened up in the city. It would be tantalizing to think that Brown’s future fame as a director was born in a dark theater in Chicopee, but we’ll never know. Surely any interest he might have discovered in the flickers was put to the back of his mind, for about 1912 he left Chicopee. 
1912 advertisement
Brown is quoted in Kevin Brownlow’s The Parade’s Gone By…, “I became the traveling expert mechanic for Stevens-Duryea.  One of my calls was to a dealer in Birmingham, Alabama, who took a liking to me, and he set me up in a subsidiary company, called the Brown Motor Car Company. I had the agency for the Alco truck, the Stevens-Duryea, and the Hudson.  It was around this time—1913, 1914—that I became interested in the picture business.”
His favorite flickers at the time were produced by the Peerless Company, and Brown left Alabama and his business, and became an assistant to Maurice Tourneur, one of the directors for Peerless, whom he always credited with being his greatest teacher and directing mentor.
Years later Clarence Brown’s own films played in the new Chicopee theaters: the Rivoli, the Wernick, the Willow, and the Victoria—“second-run” neighborhood theaters which Brown never heard of because they were built after he left Chicopee.
Brown directed Greta Garbo in Anna Christie and Anna Karenina and five of her other films. His film A Free Soul made a star of Clark Gable, and his National Velvet introduced us to Elizabeth Taylor.  He gave us The Yearling, The White Cliffs of Dover, and Plymouth Adventure before retiring in 1953. He was nominated for a Best Director Academy Award five times.
Brown died in 1987 at 97 years old. Talent and ambition in one field brought him to Chicopee, but he made his mark in that other new industry in Hollywood.  And where would “the flickers” be without car chases?

A previous version of this article appeared in In Chicopee (a publication of the Holyoke Transcript-Telegram, Holyoke, Mass.) 1992.

Brownlow, Kevin. The Parade’s Gone By… (University of California Press, 1976), pp.138-140.
Siegel, Scott and Barbara Siegel.  The Encyclopedia of Hollywood (NY: Facts on File, 1990) pp. 62-63.
Springfield (Massachusetts) Republican. September 19, 1937, p. 3E.
Thomas, Nicholas. Ed. International Directory of Films and Filmmakers: Directors, Vol. 7 (2nd ed. (Chicago and London: St. James Press, 1991), pp. 103-105.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Rose Island Lighthouse - Narragansett Bay

Rose Island Lighthouse is maintained by hired vacationers who sign on for a week at a time to keep this historical treasure operating.
You can find it on a small island in Narragansett Bay, Rhode Island (home to several small lighthouses, such as the Plumb Beach light we previously covered here.)
Very close to the town of Newport, the lighthouse began operating in January 1870.  It had undergone various restorations and improvements over the decades, but when the Pell Newport Bridge (which we covered previously here) was completed in 1969, that massive structure overshadowed the lighthouse both literally and in terms of acting as a better aid to navigation.  You couldn’t miss it.  That is a HUGE bridge.  The lighthouse was deactivated in 1971, and was abandoned, falling prey for the next 14 years to the elements, and vandals.

The Rose Island Lighthouse took on a new life when in 1984 volunteers formed the Rose Island Lighthouse Foundation and began restore it to its 1912 appearance.  In August 1993, the light was re-lit and once gain serves both as an aid to navigation and an historical treasure.  It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
You can even stay at the lighthouse.  For more on renting accommodations, or visiting the Rose Island Lighthouse, and some great photos, have a look here at this website, and here for more history.


Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Ladies Who Were W.O.W.s - Springfield Armory, Massachusetts

U.S. War Dept. photo, public domain

During World War II,  the Springfield Armory’s 50,000 employees worked around the clock producing 5,000 rifles per day.  At one point, 5,210 of the workers, 42.5% of the total Armory workforce were women.  They were called WOWs—Women Ordnance Workers.

When the men went to war, the women went to work, and several manufactures throughout the country hired women to replace the male workers gone into military service.  New England, a strong manufacturing base, already had a long history of hiring women for the textile mills of the 19th Century (See this previous post on mill girls), and now saw thousands of women in war plants and shipyards.  For many young wives of the World War II era, this was an opportunity to participate in the war effort and to earn a little extra income.  For many single girls, the war industries gave them their first jobs.  For the first time in as long as anyone could remember, there was plenty of work, and the pay was unlike anything they had ever earned.

There were only about 618 women working at the Springfield Armory before the war.  The making of small arms was the principal production.  The men those ladies were hired to replace during the war were skilled workers, many with years of experience on their jobs.  The shift over to a fair-sized force of new, inexperienced workers was not always a smooth one.  Adjustments had to be made in worker protocol, in safety measures, and in the very method of production. 

In peacetime, a man might spend four years in apprenticeship on his complicated machine; each operator was responsible for the setup and complete care of his machine.  In wartime, urgency required a streamlined operation.  The women operated machines while their male co-workers with the necessary experience would set up, repair and service the machines, as well as deliver heavy materials around the shop. 

Some adjustments were made in the shop to accommodate the ladies because new workers were very much needed.  Just as all those old wartime posters declared: swift and constant production was the key to victory.  The government set guidelines for manufacturers on dealing with the brand-new female workforce.  Separate adequate restrooms was an obvious first measure.  Chairs and stools at the machines were advised to cut fatigue, and special jobs were made available in the war industries to suit handicaps or with medical conditions such as heart trouble.  On-site cafeterias with hot meals saved time and energy, enabling the workers to avoid going out for lunch.  The Women’s Bureau of the Department of Labor advised an absence for pregnant women of six weeks before she delivered her child and two months after the child was born.  Some manufacturers preferred to fire pregnant women.  Many manufacturers including the Springfield Armory, at first were slack on Labor’s “equal pay for equal work,” but later the Armory revised pay rates to be based on the job performed and not on the sex of the employee.

Other recommendations many factories strictly enforced included banning the wearing of high heels, and encouraging the use of bandanas, hairnets or caps to protect the women’s hair from getting caught in the machines.  There had actually been some severe accidents, scalping really, and many women ultimately chose to emulate Hollywood star Veronica Lake, who cut her “peek-a-boo” over-the-eye blonde hair as a patriotic example to lady war workers. 
Wearing jewelry on the job was a hazard, and also a point of controversy, as newly married girls refused to take off their wedding rings.

Turnover at the Springfield armory was due mainly to exhaustion.  They worked fourteen days sometimes before getting a day off.  The Armory workers received one Sunday off a month.
The high turnover as well the absence of more senior male workers away in the war sometimes pushed women employees into higher positions, such as that of gang boss or even foreman.  In September of 1943, the Armory devised a special course for its foremen on the assembly and disassembly of their main product—the M1 Rifle.  The course was twenty hours, one hour a week set aside for the instruction.

Another factor to be considered in women’s participation in war industry was childcare.  The Works Progress Administration (WPA) supported free nurseries in the early years of the war, and when it was disbanded, individual communities later organized day care for the youngsters of their war workers.  Many Armory workers left their children ages two-and-a-half to four-and-a-half years of age across the street at the High School of Commerce, one of the many sites in the Springfield Day Centers for Child Care system.  Three dollars a week was charged for the nursery school, $1.50 for weekly care, and 15 cents daily for lunch.  Some of the high school’s home economics students participated in the nursery.

With all the difficulties facing the ladies entering this high-pressure, highly technical field of ordnance manufacturing, nevertheless, the ladies of the Armory, or WOWs – Women Ordnance Workers—were a vital and reliable source of “manpower” during a period of our history when many hands were needed. 

The ladies wore blue overalls, blue caps a mesh net for their hair.  To obtain these jobs they had to pass a civil service test, were examined by physicians, and submit to fingerprinting.  They earned an average of $125 a week, a marvelous sum for which they put up with long hours and an occasional blackout if they were on the “swing shift.” 

Sometimes, over the noise of their machines, they could hear the planes taking off from nearby Westover Field in Chicopee.  Even on the home front, the war was never really that far away.

For more on the Springfield Armory, have a look at this website.

And have a look here for the summer concert series at the Armory, including a World War II-era swing music night.

An earlier version of this article first appeared in Chickuppy & Friends Magazine, August 1986.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Doris Tanguay at the William Skinner Mfg. Co. - Part 2

Holyoke in the 1950s, Image Museum website

This is a continuation of our interview with Mrs. Doris Tanguay, who worked in the office of the William Skinner Manufacturing Company of Holyoke, Massachusetts, producer of silk textiles.  She worked there from 1939 through it's closing in 1961 when it was bought by another company.  See part one of the interview here.
World War II brought new challenges to the workforce at Skinner Manufacturing Company.

We all had quotas.  If you did war work, they gave you a quota for every month, so you had to keep track of everything.  Every month, the officer manager had to go to Springfield to the war office to get our quota for the next month.
And then of course, we sold bonds.  One of the girls, the girl that paid the bills, every Friday she would walk through the mill and give people their bonds, you know, when they had a bond paid up.  It didn’t take long.  I guess they were, like, $18 for a $25 bond at that time, something like that.  So she got to go through the mill every Friday and deliver the bonds that they would make out.
Photo supplied by Mrs. Tanguay; photographer unknown at this time.
After the war, Holyoke had a victory parade.  [Points to photograph]  That’s High Street in Holyoke.  You can see the name of some of the stores there.  Skinner’s had a float in it, and [her friend and co-worker] Rhoda was the bride on the float.  She’s got bright red hair, and with the white wedding gown, she was beautiful.  I’d been after her to give me the picture, because I want to give Wistariahurst a copy.  That would be great for them to put in that room where all the weddings gowns are, I think.
You know, when Pearl Harbor happened, we were very friendly with the Japanese.  They used to come, once a year the Japanese would come and they’d bring us presents, and they used to send us Christmas cards that were on silk.  And they screen printed on the silk.  I had saved some I gave to Wistariahurst.  What did I—I guess I gave that to Wistariahurst.  Last time they came, which was sort of ironic, they gave us all a silk American flag.  That was just maybe six months before Pearl Harbor.

But the minute that happened, the government, they didn’t seize it, but they put a stop on all silk, because we had to use it from them on for parachutes.  We couldn’t use it for anything else, and you had to give a report to the government, you know, how many pounds you had and so forth.  So, of course, that was coming to an end, the silk inventory they had, but in the meantime, the salesmen from DuPont came in with this new yard called nylon, which replaced the silk, and we made parachutes—parachute cloth, out of the nylon when the silk ran out.
Of course, we had that—we called it “tackle twill.”  It was originally made for Notre Dame football players.  They were always ripping their clothes.  So we had this cloth that was called tackle twill.  It was satin on one side, and cotton on the other side.  Very strong.  In fact, they made raincoats out of it, too, because they would put that stuff on that made it waterproof.  We sold a lot of that cloth for uniforms during the war. 
We used to have little guardhouses on the bank of the canal, right on the corner of the office, and we had guards with guns.  Three shifts, and we had a walk-in vault in our office.  When the guards left and the others came in, they would have to bring their guns in and put them in the vault, and the new ones coming on would come in and get the guns, and so forth. 
During the war, we lost a lot of our young men, you know, got drafted.  But they would write letters back to the company, and they would give us the letters to read and answer them.  So we were writing to soldiers.
Before my husband went overseas—we were married during the war—if he came home, my boss would say, “Go on, go on home.  Take the day off.” 

The Skinner employees would occasionally socialize with the management and Skinner family at non-work functions.
Image Museum website.
Mrs. Doris Tanguay:  Joe Skinner [son of the founder], I remember when he died very well [1946], because they asked some of us in the office to go up at the church to help.  You know, we put—they had certain pews that were reserved for people.  The reason I remember it is because Bill Skinner’s [grandson of the founder] wife, they later were divorced, she was working with us in the church and walking up and down in the aisles with a cigarette, smoking.  And I thought that was awful, because my father, who I told you worked at the church, he was the sexton, he said that Joe Skinner hated smoking.  He came to church one day when some workmen were putting in one of the stained glass windows, and one of them was smoking, and he fired him on the spot.  The minute he saw him, that was it.  And here they are smoking in the church at his funeral!
He [William Hubbard, grandson of founder?] had two daughters.  One was married to a guy from England, Tibbets.  But they were divorced.  In the later years, he bought her a house up at Wyckoff Park.  I don’t know if she’s still there or not.  Her married name was Tibbets.  I often wondered who ended up with their house at 90 North Pleasant Street, because his wife Dorothy was in the nursing home for many years.  She lived much longer than he.
He had another daughter, and we went to her wedding.  Everybody in the office was invited to the wedding at Fisher’s Island.  That was really something.  We had to go to New London, and it was during the war, and take a boat and go over to the island.  When we got to the island, we were met with cars from the—there was an Army station over there.  He had an in with them, because we had all these Army guys driving us around in the cars.  We couldn’t go to the church, because the church was too small for all the family and for guests, so we just were invited to the house.  So they would drive us around the island sightseeing to kill the time ‘til it was time to go to the house.  But we had a great time that day with all these guys from the Army.  You know, we were all young girls.
And we were all so worried about what we were going to wear.  And we all got new dresses, and before we got to New London, one of the girls drove.  We went to a side road, and we changed our clothes.  Put our new dresses on, because we didn’t want to be all wrinkled when we got there.
So then when we got there, people came in boats.  They were in shorts and bare feet.  Some other women came with furs.  It was in August.
And the champagne, they were spilling it all over.  We were walking in champagne on the floor.  It was really funny, because we were so fussy, and then when we saw what the other people were wearing, we felt we were okay.  Because a lot of them just came in boats.
And he had three boats, because he [William Hubbard] bought boats for each of his daughters, but I guess they weren’t as keen as he was on it.  Then they got married, of course, and left.  But he was so crazy about his boats, and his wife was scared.  She never went on one, the boats.  She didn’t want any part of the boats.
He [William Hubbard] was a nephew.  He was married to Dorothy.  She was a White, you know, from White & Wyckoff.  Dorothy.  She was very nice, too.  They were all so common.  Of course, I got stories from both ends.  At the church, they had this red carpet that they put down the middle aisle for the bride to walk on, you know, with her train and everything.  And every time there was a wedding, they would roll that carpet up and bring it down to the office, because we had these big vats.  When silk came from Japan, it had all this gummy stuff on it.  It was raw silk, and it had to be soaked before they used it.  So they had all these big vats.  So they would wash that red carpet in one of those vats and get it ready to go back.  Well, sometimes, they would put it on a little truck that would bring it up.  But if Bill Skinner [grandson of the founder] was around and he knew it was ready, he’d put it over his shoulder and he’d walk right up Appleton Street with it.  You know, he didn’t need to do that.  They were so common.  Really nice. 
Sometimes, somebody would have a party at their house.  I can remember one especially.  One of the young fellows that worked in our office lived in Northampton near the state hospital.  He had a garden.  One year when the corn was ready, they said they were going to have a party for the corn.  They were Polish, and his mother-in-law lived with him and she made all this great Polish food.  And we all went to his house for this party.  Bill Skinner had a convertible.  Bill Podolak [phonetic] was the name of the guy.  He had two small kids, and they were excited about the convertible.  So Bill says, “Hop in, we’ll go for a ride.”  He was there, you know, just as common as any of us.  It was really—and I think everybody that worked there really loved it.
Do you remember the Skinner Coffeehouse?  They tore that down a year or so ago.  I think it was Belle Skinner, back before my time.  [See this previous essay on Belle Skinner.]  They used to have a lot of young girls that left home and came to work.  They had a lot more women than men, of course, in there.  So Belle Skinner wanted a place for these girls where they would be safe.  So the Skinner Coffeehouse was built for these girls that were working in the mills.  And then when they didn’t use that anymore, they used it for community activities.  In fact, my husband told me he learned to dance there.
Then later on when they started having old age places, that was like the first one in South Holyoke, where they had things for the elderly.  It was a great place.  They had a lot of programs for children.  But then they tore it down.
Before they gave Wistariahurst to Holyoke, to the city, Stewart Kilborne’s [grandson of the founder] wife came to visit and she invited us, the girls, all of us girls for lunch at Wistariahurst and a tour before they turned the house over.  So we all went up for lunch and we got a tour of the house. 
Wistariahurst, Holyoke, Mass. - JT Lynch photo
My son is a musician, and Wistariahurst had this music room.  Dr. Hammond’s wife used to be in charge of it.  They had a piano in there that Napoleon gave Josephine.  They had a lot of original instruments, even from Africa.  The whole room was so filled with all kinds of—Will Skinner [son of the founder] used to travel the world buying silk.  He would pick these things up, and they gave that whole room, lock, stock and barrel, to Yale.  You know, most all the boys graduated from Yale.  But my son never got to see that room, but he would have been fascinated by it.  Now they have little concerts and stuff in there.
We had a big Christmas party in the Roger Smith [Roger Smith Hotel, Maple Street, Holyoke].  We always had a Christmas party.  We had something to do with the union.  We had a party, and Mr. Hubbard didn’t come to the Christmas parties, but he came to this union party.  No, he did come to the Christmas—oh, we used to have Christmas parties just for the office at—what was the name of it?  You know, it was like a zeppelin up on Route 5 going to Northampton?

1947 advertisement in "Valley Players" program, Holyoke, Mass.
DT:  Toto’s, yeah!  We used to have our Christmas parties there, and I used to love to dance with Mr. Hubbard [grandson of the founder], because he took dancing lessons in New York.  And he was a big man, and he was so easy to follow, because he almost lifted you up.  And he would always buy us—there’s a drink that they set on fire when they bring it to you. 
He always insisted he buy us that drink.  We looked forward to it.  Yeah, Toto’s, we had our Christmas party there. 

And then there was Don Purrington, who lived over in South Hadley on Woodbridge Street.  He used to, every year when the corn was ready, he would have a party at his house.  We’d have a corn roast, and that was always a big time too. 

We had lots of parties.  And then they would tell us about—you know, these old-timers would tell us about the old days.  The switchboard operator, she was there for over fifty years.  She lived up at the top of Sergeant Street, and she used to tell about the great balls they used to have at Wistariahurst when she was young.  She said they used to come down and hide in the bushes and watch the people come to the balls.  The women with all their beautiful dresses and everything.  She used to tell us all those stories.  We used to say, “Gee, we missed all that.” 

The William Skinner Manufacturing Company went out of business in 1961, bought by Indian Head Mills.  William Skinner first began operations in the 1870s.

Well, first they were going to sell to this Cheney Soap Company in New York.  But then Mr. Hubbard found out that they only wanted the name, you know, Skinner’s Silk and Satin was known all over the world.  And they were going to immediately close up the mill.  Well, they didn’t want the people to be without a job.  They wanted somebody to buy it who was going to run it.
So then Indian Head came along.  I don’t think they intended to keep us right from the very beginning, because they were going to keep Mr. Hubbard on, but he only lasted a month or so with them.  They brought somebody in to put over him and he was used to running the whole business.  We would have a great month, you know, a lot of orders.  “We’re going to have a good showing this month.”  Come the end of the month, we didn’t have a good showing; we had a loss because Indian Head owned a lot of other mills.  It was one of these companies that bought up companies that weren’t doing too well, and they would take it for the tax loss.
So they would take our profit.  I don’t know much about bookkeeping, but our profit they’d show on their books in another company.  So when we thought we had such a good month, we’d actually have a loss.  And then along the line they moved the office from Appleton Street across the canal to the mills that ran from Appleton Street over to Dwight Street.  And that entailed moving the switchboard, which was no small undertaking.  So we all said, “Oh, well, they’re going to keep us.  They’re not going to spend all this money and to do all this just to close us up.”  But, no such thing.  It wasn’t long before we saw the handwriting on the wall.
Inspecting.  Image Museum website.
Of course, Bill Skinner II was still around.  The last day that the mill was running—they knew all—it was like a big family.  All the men in the Skinner family, they would treat us like people, not, you know, now you’re a Social Security number where you work.  And he walked in the mill, he knew most of the people by first names, and he had tears streaming down his face.  The people are all crying.  It was a real sad day.
And of course, Mr. Hubbard thought he was going to stay with us, but he didn’t stay long.  They were just keeping him as a figurehead or something.  They brought their own man in.
I was there ‘til ’63.  The last day I walked through with the superintendent and we went through the sales room.  I don’t know whatever happened—there was still cloth left in the sales room where that went.  But there was a wedding gown, and he said, “You might as well take this because,” he said, “I don’t know what’s going to happen to all this stuff.”  He said, “They might just throw everything away.”
So I took the wedding gown, and I thought my niece might wear it, but it wasn’t her style and I had it wrapped up and kept it for many years.  Then I said, “Well, guess I’ll give it to Wistariahurst.”  So, they have it at Wistariahurst now.  They have one room at Wistariahurst with just bridal gowns on models all over the room.

A fire in 1980 destroyed much of what had been the Skinner plant.

Mrs. Doris Tanguay:  That took everything but the new mill.  That mill stretched from Appleton Street to Dwight Street, but at the end, the very last, that was a fairly new mill.  They saved that, and that was where the Children’s Museum went in the park.  But the other parts, well, they were the original mills.

[Mrs. Tanguay displays a colorful quilt made by her mother from Skinner fragments.]

Mrs. Doris Tanguay:  When we were kids, we had quilts that my grandmother made, one for me and one for my sister, and we used them, and we wore them out.  I wish I had them today. These were all sample pieces.  And you the back—Indian Head owned a mill up in North Adams.  They made drapery material and they started sending down to the salesroom.  I bought some of it, and this is what she used for the backing.  When you think of, you know, a lot of it’s hand-work.  It shows Indian Head as well as ours.  I just hate to part with it, but I told the kids, I said, if you do anything with that, you can always give it to Wistariahurst.
When you think of the old machine that she had.  I never even could use it.  When we were kids she [her mother] used to crochet our dresses.  I was never any good at that.

I love talking about Skinners. You know, after I left there, I went across the street to Technifax.  They were in the old American Thread building, and I worked at Technifax, and they were sold to Scott Paper, who also bought Plastic Coating over here in South Hadley. 

Then Scott Paper sold to James River.  I worked twenty years for them, but they weren’t Skinners, but they weren’t bad.  Especially the Technifax part.  I had to learn a whole new thing.  In textiles, they have all their own terminology.  And then you go in a paper mill—well, actually, it was a coating where they made film.  That’s another all new terminology.  But I was always lucky.  I always had good bosses.  I never had one that I didn’t like. 

My sincere thanks to Mrs. Doris Tanguay for sharing her memories of, and her affection for, her working years at the Skinner Manufacturing Company of Holyoke, Massachusetts.
I am interviewed here at "A Blue Million Books" blog by Amy Metz on writing, and on my cozy mystery Cadmium Yellow, Blood Red, here.




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. 

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