Home Business and Labor The Unmaking of Rhode Island’s Manville Jenckes Mills

The Unmaking of Rhode Island’s Manville Jenckes Mills

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In 1923, Senator Henry Lippitt decided it was time for him to retire. At age 66, he had served in the U.S. Senate and gone on to run the family’s textile mills, the Manville Mills. With no obvious successor in his family, Lippitt reached out to the owners of the Jenckes Mills. mostly the Jenckes family. Merging their two operations seemed a reasonable approach to ensuring a peaceful succession for the mills. And the Manville Jenckes Mills were born.

Manville had three operations in Rhode Island — Woonsocket, Manville, and Georgiaville. It specialized in fancy, fine cotton clothing, draperies and upholstery fabrics. Jenckes had mills in Pawtucket and Central Falls, R.I., a large one in Gastonia, N.C., and a stake in a Canadian textile mill. Together, they had eight mills with 7,700 workers.

The combined companies had little overlap, and the merger anticipated savings by reducing the overhead and possibly sharing some specialized facilities. In total, it operated 620,000 spindles and more than 10,000 looms.

The stage was set for a disaster.

World War I Prosperity

Sam Slater’s mill. first in the U.S. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Both Manville and Jenckes had prospered during World War I, but Jenckes, especially, had experienced exponential growth. It produced fabric used to make tires.

The tire fabric business boomed during World War I and in the decade that followed. As demand for tires soared, tire manufacturers signed deals with fabric makers to operate a mill on behalf of that tire company. So one mill might be assigned to Firestone, for example, which would receive its total output. And Firestone would pay the entire cost of operating that mill, plus a fixed percentage of profit for Manville Jenckes.

Over time, the tire companies began demanding better pricing, ordering only as they needed at competitive prices. Some manufacturers simply set up their own fabric divisions. Through the 1920s, Manville Jenckes made up for the changes in business practices by selling to smaller companies.

The fine cloth markets, meanwhile, had been more volatile during the 1920s as the company shopped around for jobs producing sheets, cotton twill or satin, whatever kept the mills turning. With military contracts drying up after the war, the overall textile industry suffered from excess capacity, which kept prices low.

Sales of fine textiles shrank at the new company from $13.2 million in 1924 to just $6.3 million in 1928.

The High Life at Manville Jenckes Mills

Life was good for the owners of Manville Jenckes. The company paid dividends to its owners of $600,000 to $1 million per year leading up to 1929.

Salaries were even richer. Salaries paid to the company management increased from three percent of all revenue in 1924 to five percent of revenue by 1930.

In The Financial History of the Manville Jenckes Company, the author concludes that the management salaries at the family-run enterprise were “high, though not exorbitant.” But the salaries undercut one of the original goals of the merger: reducing overhead. Rather than decrease after the merger, overhead increased over five years by 44 percent.

Henry Lippitt

Labor Unrest

As the family that owned the company prospered, its employees did not. To try to increase profitability, mills would speed up machinery and demand longer days from their employees. In 1927, Rhode Island used its police to force workers to return to the mills. Manville Jenckes simply closed two mills that had formed unions rather than negotiate with workers.

The violence would reach a peak in Rhode Island in 1934 when the National Guard shot four mill workers in Saylesville. When word spread that a crowd of workers were massing at Manville Jenckes North Carolina plant, the governor of Rhode Island banned public assemblies in Rhode Island. The Guard ordered an emergency supply of teargas. The plane carrying it crashed, killing the pilot.

Manville Jenckes’ North Carolina plant saw the worst violence. Northern mills had a long history of shifting work to the South. In the 1920s, a northern mill worker could expect $21.50 for a 48-hour work week. Southern workers got $15.80 for a 55-hour week.

But a squeeze on cotton continued, and even the North Carolina plant pushed its workers to work more hours at faster paces. By 1929, all across the South workers were furious. They walked off the job and demanded the right to unionize. In April of that year, workers struck the Manville Jenckes plant. Police and militia broke it up. In that strike, a local police chief was killed, a crime that was never solved.

End of an Era at Manville Jenckes Mills

The 1929 stock market crash and beginning of the Great Depression took a heavy toll on the tire fabric business. Small tire makers failed by the score. Manville Jenckes sales figures highlight just how deeply the crash hurt the company. In the first half of 1929, sales were $14.4 million. That dropped to $8.8 million during the second half of the year. The first half of 1930 saw the company take in $7.7 million. Only $4.9 million came in during the second half.

The impact on fine textiles was just as bad. Before the crash, annual sales were hovering at $5 million to $6 million. In 1932 the company sold just $2.7 million worth of fine textiles.

What demand for fabric existed focused on cloth used for essentials — underwear, coat linings and casket cloth.

Depression Days

Manville Jenckes had been blindsided by the Depression of the 1930s. The company purchased raw materials well ahead of when it needed them. That way production would not halt should commodities such as cotton become scarce. Now, with no demand for its own goods, the company had a massive oversupply of raw material. To make matters worse, the Depression crushed prices. So raw cotton that Manville Jenckes owned was worth less than half what it had paid for it. Even if it could find a buyer, the company would take huge losses on its raw materials.

The company was pressed to pay for orders of raw goods it didn’t need and years of fat salaries and dividends left it without enough cash to operate.

Mills fell quiet and workers lost their jobs. The pain was passed on to the families that owned the mill, as well, as the dividends stopped.

Sen. Henry Lippitt in 1930 came out of retirement at 73 to try to rescue the mills. Other members of the owners’ families would resign. Lippitt himself would die less than three years later.

In February of 1931, facing demands for money it didn’t have, the company went into receivership and reorganized.

Thanks to The Financial History of Mansville Jenckes Company, by Henry Lippitt II and Working-class Americanism: The Politics of Labor in a Textile City, 1914-1960, by Gary Gerstle.

If you liked this story you might enjoy The Brunswick Children Strike the Cabot Mill. This story last updated in 2022.

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