In the 1820s, America’s textile industry became well established in New England, specifically in Lowell, Massachusetts where the largest textile factories were built. Young women flocked from family farms to the city where they found work as operatives in the water-powered textile mills. At the beginning the Lowell Mills promoted themselves as an enlightened alternative to the miserable conditions of the British textile industry. But within a few years, the textile companies increased the number of machines each worker was responsible for and instituted speed-up, increasing the pace of the machines.
As workers began to demand better pay and working conditions, to organize unions and advocate for laws regulating factory safety, the textile industry responded by “running away,” dumping the current workforce for cheap labor in new locations including Pennsylvania, where labor was not only cheap and but also plentiful. Pennsylvania’s heavy industries (lumber, coal, iron and steel) drew immigrant men whose wives and children provided the labor for the textile mills. At the time these mill jobs were considered good ones for the women who had few other choices. The industry took off after the Civil War. By 1900, Pennsylvania led the nation in textile production (wool, cotton) and was second only to New Jersey in silk production. By the 1920s, most mill owners left Pennsylvania for the southern states in search of cheaper labor and less regulation and the industry declined in the northeast. As the mills were closing, garment factories began moving into Pennsylvania where labor was relatively cheap and workers were not unionized. By the end of the 20th century, most garment shops and textile factories nationwide closed, including those in central Pennsylvania, as the industry moved operations to third world countries in a continual search for cheaper labor and greater profit.
Central PA Silk Mills:
In 1892, John N. Stearns moved from New York City and established the largest silk mill in this region, a region that boasted fifty mills within a 100-mile radius of Williamsport. Located at Memorial Ave. and Oliver St. in Williamsport, the mill had the advantage of modern machinery (Williamsport had been a lumbering center in the 1800s with state of the art technology). The city also had exceptional shipping facilities and reasonable freight rates on the railroad lines. By 1902, Stearns Silk Mill was the largest employer in Williamsport, employing more than 1,000 people. African Americans were not hired for production jobs at this time. In its four-story building, the mill workers spun, dyed, and wove the silk into fabric and trim.
Central PA Garment Factories:
With a mindset similar to the silk mill owners, garment manufacturers in the 1920s, primarily from New York and New Jersey, moved into Pennsylvania to take advantage of cheap female labor that was not yet unionized. Some of the garment makers listed in Williamsport city directories beginning in the 1920s include Penn Garment, Stein Brothers, West Branch Pants, Smith, Harris, Levin, Inc., and Weldon's Pajamas, which began operating on a small scale in 1934 at 1307 Park Ave. Weldon’s expanded and grew to become the largest pajama factory in the world by the 1950s. It closed in 1979. Weldon’s also had sewing factories in Muncy, Dushore, and Lopez but, like the Williamsport factory, they all left the area for the South and eventually overseas.
Project Director/Web Designer:
Janet Bennett, Shirley Cowher, Deb Emig, Marjorie Fox, Carrie Fornwalt, Frances Hall, Rachael Hungerford, Alberta Kaseman, Lucy Lupold, Lucy McClarin, Glenna Montatue, Jean Ressler, Carrie Shatto
Sandra Rife, Mary L. Sieminski, Andrea Tuttle Kornbluh
Sara Anthony, Ethan Bierly, Sifa Blackmon, Kelly Ciesla, Tori Cox, Lynn Estomin, Lauren Karol, Ashlea Leisenring, Brooke Long, Kasey Lyon, Courtney Pranti, Jessica Schote
Molly Blakeslee, Susan Guinter, Kathleen Houser, N. J. Stanley
Lynn Estomin, Scott Hizney, Tom Lurie
Lauren Donkochik, Lynn Estomin, Sandra Rife
Memoir Writing Coach:
James V. Brown Library, Lycoming County Historical Society, Pajama Factory, Equinox, Valley Braid Company, Williamsport Sun Gazette
This project was supported by a Lycoming College Professional Development Grant and a Production Grant from the Women's Film Project.
Barbara Andreassen, Valerie Beggs, Spyke Krepshaw, Brad Nason, Scott Sager, Robin Van Auken