During that fateful Friday afternoon in May of 2002, when the workers at the Scranton Lace manufacturing facility were unceremoniously told, mid-shift, that the factory was closing “effective immediately”, local broadcasting icon, David DeCosmo, happened to be in the area with his cameraman, searching for a nearby address.
“We had just crossed the small bridge near the factory when we saw a man walking nearby and stopped to ask if he might know how to get to the location we were looking for”, explained DeCosmo, “Before we could ask, he, realizing we were in a news vehicle, speculated we had come because of the notice the workers just got. It was, of course, their notice the plant would be closing its doors and they would be losing their jobs. We managed to catch up with a few of the workers as they were leaving for the day. Everyone who was willing to speak with us was shocked and saddened by the announcement. Some stood and talked with colleagues and friends they had worked with for many years. We saw several shedding tears. A couple told us they knew the business had been facing tough times because of competition from less expensive foreign goods. A few of them expected to see cut backs of some sort. But no one expected the decision to close down completely. There was, of course, concern about their future since there were few other manufacturing jobs available in the area.”
While not exactly the ruins of Ancient Greece, you could easily argue that the ruins of The Scranton Lace Company stand as a monument to the demise of the national prosperity created in America during the Industrial Revolution. Originally established in 1890, this company spanned two centuries of American history, and was renowned world-wide as the largest producer of Nottingham Lace in the United States for 86 years, between 1916 and 2002, until the day that the workers were told the factory was closing.
At that point, all manufacturing stopped, even leaving unfinished lace, mid-production, within the looms while many of the workers, in a state of shock, left behind personal belongings. What was left standing was a virtual museum of lace production, frozen in time and space, as the remaining factory was abandoned to rot away in this working-class community, where both the local residents and the factory employees once set their watches by the looming clock tower that still sits arrogantly poised above the industrial complex.
Now fast-forward to 2011, nine years after the end of its official-life existence as The Scranton Lace Company, when I had the opportunity to enter the facility twice to photograph what remind behind the walls of the massive manufacturing complex. I cringe at some of these photos; the quality is just so bad from an aesthetic point of view. I had just started learning about photography one year before having the opportunity to photograph Scranton Lace. But the historian in me understands that people are just curious to see what was left behind– photo blemishes be damned! So it is in that spirit that I am going to share as many images as I can— dust spots, poor lighting, lack of skill and all—so that viewers can have a real sense of what it was like to explore the entire facility, not just the locations that lend themselves to creating a pleasing image.
I often say that photographing abandonments is ultimately about photographing failure. In many ways, Urban Explorers are really modern-day archeologists, documenting the downfall of America as an economic superpower. This was definitely true at the Scranton Lace factory where you could easily find yourself sifting through the different layers of history, abandoned by the former owners and employees. Tools were still strewn about on desks; bowling shoes were left waiting on shelves for feet to step into them, and employee documents were still stuffed away in long forgotten filing cabinets. Despite the passage of time and numerous break-ins by explorers, scrappers and garden-variety thieves, there were still many artifacts to be found within the hushed walls and harsh light of the factory.
Some people who engage in urban exploration also liken the experience, given the current economic conditions in the United States, to photographing a crime scene. What is actually being photographed in an abandoned manufacturing facility is not the building, but the savage economic beating of the American blue-collar worker, after being exploited by business owners and sold-out by political interests, leaving behind the battered corpse of Industrial America. That being said, I offer these photos to you, the viewer, as a visual autopsy of the abandoned Scranton Lace factory and the American Dream that died along with it.
The Boss Man’s Office
Scranton Lace Workers early 1900s
Mention The Scranton Lace Company to someone with ties to the city and they will likely tell you about a relative who worked at the factory, usually right out of high school, where they made “the good money”—enough to comfortably support their family. In the homes they were able to purchase with their salaries, sometimes right in the same neighborhood, the families would proudly display nothing but Scranton Lace curtains in their widows. Those who lived nearby as children, fondly recall hearing the “whistle” blowing during the day, signaling to the workers, and the entire neighborhood, that it was lunchtime. And of course everyone recalls the grand clock tower that reminded the community that they were all living on “company time”.
MEMO—CLOCK TOWER STAIRS
TO: ALL EMPLOYEES USING THIS STAIRWELL
This stairwell has been cleaned. This area was an unnecessary mess, with trash strewn about. Dust and dirt from foot traffic are normal, coffee cups, candy wrappers, tissues, etc are not.
Keep this area clean. Anyone caught littering will be subject to disciplinary action.
Finding the area in this condition again may result in departmental shutdown to clean it.
The owners of Scranton Lace, who also owned a coal mine and a cotton field, certainly understood the advantages early 20th-century corporate welfare, especially during the height of the unionization movement in the United States. The facility contained bowling alleys, a gymnasium/theater, a barber shop, a fully-staffed infirmary, an event-sized kitchen, employee showers, and other recreational perks such as shuffleboard. The employees were strongly encouraged to take advantage of these provisions, which were great for workers, but also limited opportunities for them to gather together off of the company property, where they could talk about their employer and open themselves up to interactions with union bosses looking to infiltrate the ranks of the Scranton Lace employees.
Event Size Kitchen
Do The Scranton Lace Shuffle
Last Curtain Call
THIS IS YOUR LAVATORY
We try to keep it clean for the benefit of all—
Will you kindly help by:
1.Depositing paper towels and other refuse in receptacles for used towels.
2.Wiping wash bowl with paper towel after using.
Once upon a time in America, with the skills they held literally in the palms of their hands plus a strong work ethic, those employed by the manufacturing sector could earn enough money to live the American Dream. But as corporate greed became more and more indifferent to the contributions of the working men and women who helped to create a national empire of prosperity for everyone willing and able to work with their hands, industries began utilizing workers overseas, where the standard of living was lower and the cost of labor much cheaper. Add to that scenario the technological advances that made it possible to automate many tasks once performed by people, and one by one, the factories across the nation started closing, and workers were left to flounder in struggling economic conditions.
Post-Industrial Scranton, once a thriving manufacturing community, is struggling on the brink of financial disaster. With industrial production long gone, the population has steadily decreased over the years. By the summer of 2012, with only $300,000 left in its bank account and facing a $1-million payroll that July, the city was forced to reduce every city employee’s income to the minimum wage, because Scranton couldn’t make another deal with the devil and secure more bank financing in an attempt to postpone the inevitable yet again. While area hospitals and universities provide employment opportunities for some, those niche employers alone cannot carry this city and its people out of these dire financial circumstances.
When former Secretary of State and First Lady, Hillary Rodham Clinton, was campaigning during her bid for the presidency, she reminded local voters that her grandfather worked for over 50 years at the Scranton Lace mill. In the comment sections of the newspapers covering her visit, readers speculated about the kind of employment opportunities that would be available for Hugh Rodham in Scranton today beyond working at Burger King or a call center for little above the minimum wage. Today, Scranton, like many other medium-sized cities across the nation, is financially doomed, and for many of the people still living there, the American Dream has flatlined. The average income per capita in Scranton is only $19,000 a year, and less than $35,000 for a family. Raising taxes at the rate that would be required to dig the city out of the financial hole that it is in, is just not a feasible option.
Today, the long abandoned former Scranton Lace Company building, which is about the size of two city blocks, is under new ownership. Long term plans are finally underway to convert the building into a multi-use complex. Prior to the start of renovation, those allowed inside to photographically document the facility will never forget the sight of the 2.5-story, 19th-century looms, with unfinished lace that had become covered in dirt and grease, evidence of the passage of time. These pictures are from April of 2011. It’s been said that the looms weigh more than 20 tons.
To this day, Nottingham Lace, named for the city in England where the loom for manufacturing lace was developed in the mid-1800s, remains historically as the city of Scranton’s highest profile export.
Punch cards, predecessors of now obsolete computer punch-card technology, full of tiny holes for the loom needles to pass through were still scattered throughout the facility. Looking closely at the cards, you can easily make out the intended woven pattern based upon the arrangement of the holes. The mechanism needles either fall through a hole or are blocked by the card.
During World War II, the factory shifted gears to become an essential provider of mosquito and camouflage netting, bomb parachutes, and tarpaulins for the troops. At the end of that war, the company returned to making cotton yarn, vinyl shower curtains, and the textile laminates used for umbrellas, patio furniture, and pool liners.
In this section of the facility, conveyor lines run up the wall and into a stock room, filled with row after row of wooden racks.
Black Tie or Wal-Mart?
When I returned to photograph the factory again in September of 2011, renovations in many of the areas were underway, and the conveyor lines had been removed.
Also gone, was all but one of those impressively massive Nottingham Looms.
The Loom Room April 2011
The Loom Room September 2011
Loom Room Water Fountain
Showroom Display Window
Newsman David DeCosmo noted that prior to abandoning the facility completely; The Scranton Lace Company opened its factory to the public as it sold off lace curtains and other products that were already in stock. He said, “My wife and daughter took advantage of the savings! As I write this note I can glance at four of my windows which are covered with beautiful lace curtains manufactured by those workers at Scranton Lace. The workmanship and quality is fantastic! “
To learn more about the history of The Scranton Lace Factory and current plans for the building, you can find my article “A Community on Company Time” online in the Winter Issue of Independent NEPA.
Enjoy delving into images of the past? Check out
Wilkes-Barre (Images of America Series)
by local author Elena Castrignano
(Proceeds from the book benefit the Luzerne County Historical Society)
Can’t Get Enough “Scranton Lace” or “Urban Exploration”?
“As We Forgive Those Who Trespass Against US”
is available in UE Magazine