Monday, June 1, 2020

Working at the Elmira Knitting Mills

by Erin Doane, Curator

Elmira Knitting Mills was one of the first industries in Elmira Heights. It was founded in 1893 by five Elmira men – Matthias Arnot, Charles M. Tompkins, Harlan H. Hallock, Casper G. Decker, and William Bilbrough – for the manufacture and sale of woolen, cotton, and silk goods and garments. For 70 years, it was a major employer of hundreds of men, women, and children in the area. From the beginning, it drew in new employees with promises of steady work in a pleasant, clean, safe environment. The company was not always able to keep those promises.

Elmira Knitting Mills in Elmira Heights with employees, c. 1895
There’s no real way to know if the promise of a pleasant workplace was fulfilled. The company ran frequent help wanted ads in the local newspapers to recruit new employees. That may be a sign that it wasn’t as pleasant or clean a place to work as the company claimed. Conditions in the factory were likely similar to other textile mill at the time with stifling temperatures in the summer, loud machinery, and clouds of lint in the air that was impossible to keep out of employees’ lungs. In 1956, there were reports of noxious odors emanating from the mill property. The smells were coming from a pond next to the factory into which waste dyes used in the plant were dumped. That doesn’t seem particularly clean or pleasant.

Star-Gazette, July 16, 1956
The promise of safety is a bit easier to quantify. Over the years, various accidents at Elmira Knitting Mills made it into the newspaper. In 1895, a 14-year-old boy who had just started working at the mill that day was injured while riding in the elevator. He was looking over the edge when his head got caught between the elevator and the floor. Fortunately, a worker saw and was able to stop the elevator before he suffered more than a bad scalp wound, a broken chin, and several knocked-out teeth. In the 1910s, at least two employees cut their hands so badly on machinery at the mill that they had to have fingers amputated. In 1944, an 18 year old suffered chemical burns on his hands. That same year, a man lost two toes when his right foot got caught in an elevator. No word if it was the same elevator in which the 14-year-old was injured years before.

View inside the sewing department at Elmira Knitting Mills, c. 1900
The promise of steady work was one that was fairly easy for Elmira Knitting mills to keep during both World Wars. In 1918, the factory turned to war production. It manufactured 159,000 winter drawers and 13,000 winter undershirts for soldiers fighting in the Great War. The recession after 1920 brought hard times, but the company was able to partially overcome its financial problems by introducing the production of women’s rayon underwear. When World War II came around, the company received lucrative contacts to produce gloves, sweaters, underwear, and other clothing for the U.S. military.

Display of products of Elmira Knitting Mills, 1944
In 1945, right after the war, the plant underwent major upgrades. New sewing machines, new tables, and better lighting were added. Changes were also made in how employees worked. Better groupings of workers on single projects were made, rest periods of 10 minutes were added in mid-morning and mid-afternoon, and a public address system played music for about 15 minutes each hour. The previous staff of about 350 was reduced to 250, but production increased because of the improvements that had been made. So, for about 100 employees, work abruptly stopped being steady.

Elmira Knitting Mills, 1941
Despite the reduction in the workforce, Elmira Knitting Mills enjoyed post-war prosperity for years. In 1957, the mill manufactured 120,000 cotton garments a week including shirts, panties for women, children’s sports shirts, pajamas, and children’s bibs. It produced 25 different items in all. It sold primarily to chain stores, but also did work for the military, making over 12 million shirts for the Army, Navy, and Marines. The company did about $2.5 million in business a year.

By the early 1960s, however, business went into steep decline because of increased competition and the loss of major contract from two of the company’s large customers. In September 1963, Elmira Knitting Mills closed its doors for good.