Aurore Eaton's Looking Back: Ezekiel Straw, the King of Gingham - with a little help from Europe
BY AURORE EATON
With the Civil War over, Ezekiel Straw turned his sights towards finding a way to put the Amoskeag Manufacturing Company in the forefront of textile manufacturing in the United States and in the world. The answer was gingham. Gingham is a light or medium weight cotton fabric woven in stripes, checks and plaids. Prior to the mid-1860s the Amoskeag had specialized primarily in producing coarser types of cotton textiles, including tickings (for mattress and pillows), sheetings, flannels and denims. The company did very well financially with these products. The Amoskeag even won first prize in its class against European manufacturers in the 1851industrial exhibition in London.
During this era most of the finer fabrics used for dressmaking in the United States were imported from Europe. American manufacturers had not yet developed the know-how to produce these types of textiles. The most popular of these was gingham, which required expertise in dyeing the yarns and in setting up the looms to produce the patterns. Gingham was imported primarily from England and Scotland.
In July 1864 the U.S. Congress passed "An Act to Encourage Immigration" to stimulate the economy in the post-Civil War era. Under this law American companies were allowed to import skilled labor from abroad by paying the workers' transportation costs and by promising at least 12 months of employment. This was the opportunity that the Amoskeag needed. Agent Ezekiel Straw, the company's Treasurer William Amory, and its New York selling agent Gardner Brewer visited mills in England and Scotland to learn what it would take to establish gingham production in Manchester. While abroad, Brewer made arrangements with the American Emigrant Company to bring skilled gingham weavers to the city.
At the end of 1865, a total of 53 women and men from Lancashire, England, immigrated to Manchester, to form the nucleus of the company's new gingham department. Other skilled English workers followed, and in 1868 the company recruited 44 experienced weavers from Scotland, all women. Like the English weavers before them, they were required to pay back their passage costs to America once they started work.
In 1870, another group of Scottish women was brought to Manchester, mostly from Glasgow and vicinity. This time the Amoskeag required each weaver to provide a letter of reference from her pastor attesting to her fine character. Plus, the pastor had to agree to make good on the woman's promise to repay the Amoskeag for the $37.35 cost of her passage if she couldn't. A good number of these newcomers were older, experienced weavers who could train the novice mill hands.
Other skilled gingham workers from England and Scotland came to Manchester individually or with their families, bearing letters of recommendation from their former employers, family members, coworkers or clergy. Many of these remained with the Amoskeag for the remainder of their working lives, and their children often joined the company. These workers lived mostly in the brick Amoskeag workers housing west of the millyard.
A key factor in the Amoskeag's gingham production was its ability to develop beautiful and long lasting yarn colors. Ezekiel was determined to recruit the best dye masters in the world. These men were in Scotland. In 1867, Ezekiel hired James Reid of Glasgow to take over the Amoskeag's dyeing department. According to historian L. Ashton Thorpe, "Mr. Straw always regarded his success in persuading this very capable man to come to this country as one of the outstanding achievements of his career and a very vital factor in the ascendancy of Amoskeag in the gingham business."
Under Ezekiel Straw's leadership, the Amoskeag was able to recruit an important family of Scottish dye masters, Andrew Mungall and his three sons. Ezekiel purchased special gingham looms from Scotland, and he had several new mills built to accommodate the dyeing and weaving operations.
Gingham became the Amoskeag Manufacturing Company's major product. By the early 20th century, two thirds of the company's over 20,000 looms were used to produce gingham. The gingham works provided employment for many thousands of people, contributing significantly to Manchester's growth and prosperity. Ezekiel Straw's vision and managerial genius were essential factors in this story of achievement. He can truly be called Manchester's King of Gingham!
Next week: A Valley Cemetery Story — Ezekiel Straw's legacy.
Aurore Eaton is executive director of Manchester Historic Association; email her at email@example.com