THE WESTERHOFF SILK MILLS
Henry Westerhoff (1860-
Brother Peter would follow a similar journey in the textile industry, except he worked specifically in the silk industry. As a young boy, he worked as a helper in a local silk mill in Passaic County. He worked hard and was soon promoted Foreman. Eventually he was hired as Superintendent at one of the largest silk mills in Paterson, New Jersey, a position he would hold for several years.
Why were Henry and Peter able to work as young boys in the mills? The child labor laws were much different in the late 19th century in New Jersey, compared with the laws today. In 1816, the New Jersey legislation required factory owners to provide at least one hour per day in reading, writing, and arithmetic to the children they employed. In 1871, about the time both Henry and Peter began working in the mills, New Jersey designated all public schools free, thus weakening parents’ most common argument for keeping children out of school (lack of money). In 1874, New Jersey required all children ages 8 to 13 to attend either a public or private school for at least 12 weeks per year, 6 of which had to be consecutive. Because so many children had to work to support their families, working from seven in the morning until five or six in the evening, they would have to attend these evening classes. A study in 1903 has shown that at least 38 percent of the working children had attended night school for some length of time. Both Henry and Peter attended night classes while working at the mills during the day. Raised speaking Dutch, they probably had to learn English quickly. It must have been a hard life for both boys, with long days spent working and studying, with seldom time available to enjoy the pleasures of childhood.
Paterson, New Jersey is the county seat of Passaic County and is known as the “Silk City” for its dominant role in silk production. The Passaic area originated from a Dutch settlement on the Passaic River established in 1679. Silk manufacturing came to Paterson in 1841 when John Ryle and other silk textile workers were hired to staff a small factory. The city soon became a mecca for immigrant laborers entering America through Ellis Island, traveling about 30 miles from the city and then working in its textile mills. They would labor long hours for low wages under dangerous conditions, living in crowded tenement buildings around the mills. There were two major reasons Paterson became the silk capital on the East coast: 1) the city was located near the powerful 77-
In 1889, when Henry was 28 and Peter was 27, the two brothers combined their skills and obtained capital provided by Stephen Keyser, a Dutch immigrant grocer from Goeree-
On January 8, 1897, a silk mill was established in Ephrata, Pennsylvania, after lengthy negotiations, which included the Westerhoff brothers and Thomas Napier that had begun in the autumn of 1896. They would negotiate with a committee of local citizens formed to encourage industry in the Ephrata borough. In return for starting a mill in Ephrata, Ephrata’s leading citizens provided financial inducements. They agreed to invest $10,000 in the firm at 5% interest, and to pay for the first three years rental of the building in which the new silk mill was to locate. The company would move into a building located on the triangle formed by the intersection of North State Street and the tracks of the Reading and Columbia Railroad. This building was originally built in 1881 as an animal feed store and warehouse, and was owned by the Ephrata National Bank in 1897. By December 11, 1896, the company received the $10,000 and machinery was moved into the new facility in January 1897. By mid April 1897, the company employed 60 people. The mill was used for weaving the silk fabric. In August 1897, Henry Westerhoff moved from New Jersey to Ephrata with his wife and children to supervise the mill, leaving Peter to manage the Paterson, New Jersey facility. Mr. Napier remained in New York to deal with their customers.
In early 1898, subscriptions to finance a large addition to the Ephrata silk mill were solicited. The money needed was raised in a few days’ time. Work on the addition proceeded through the spring and early summer. The completed addition measured 94’ by 44’, was well lit and featured 152 large windows and 16 smaller windows. The older building was attached to the new with bridges connecting each floor. The new factory now employed 100 people. The four-
In the year 1900, the Company incorporated in New Jersey and bought control of the Pennsylvania Silk Company, which owned a mill in Fleetwood, Pennsylvania and two in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. The two mills in Carlisle were then sold the same year to the American Silk Company, located in York, Pennsylvania. The silk mill in Fleetwood was sold in 1901.
In January 1902, the Ephrata silk mill began a branch in Denver, Pennsylvania. The new plant, located on the corner of Walnut Street and North Second Street, would eventually employ 75 people and specialize in crepe de chine, satin taffita and cotton-
In 1902, a large silk mill plant was built in Jamesburg, New Jersey, with Peter’s oldest son, Jacob (1882-
In 1903, The Westerhoff Brothers and Napier Co. bought the Wilhelm Bicycle Works, located in Hamburg, Pennsylvania and converted the building to a silk mill, renaming the company the Hamburg Silk Company. In 1905, it was decided to sell this mill to a local group.
Also in 1903, The Westerhoff Brothers and Napier Co., along with other silk production companies, organized the Wilkes-
Peter Westerhoff would eventually assume the title of President of The Westerhoff Brothers and Napier Co. , while supervising the New Jersey plant located on 216 Van Houten Street in Paterson, New Jersey. He lived in Ridgewood, New Jersey. Henry was appointed Vice President and Treasurer of The Westerhoff Brothers and Napier Co. and supervised the Ephrata plant, while remaining in Ephrata, Pennsylvania.
The Westerhoff Brothers and Napier Co. was not the largest silk operation in Paterson in 1913, but it did stand at the center of the nation’s newspaper headlines during the first half of the year. Strikes were commonplace in Paterson, but no other work stoppage rivaled the impact that the strike of 1913 had on the history of Paterson and its Dutch community. Some Dutch Americans were agitators who supported the IWW, the union that led the strike. Others steadfastly opposed it from the beginning to end and became strikebreakers. The conclusion of the strike took place on the sidewalks outside their mills, when Dutch American silk manufacturers escorted their Dutch American workers through a picket line that also included Dutch Americans, who were then arrested by Dutch American city police officers. In 1913, 10% of the 24,000 silk workers in Paterson were Dutch Americans. They worked as weavers, dyers, winders, finishers, loom fixers, and warpers in the mills.
When the strike shut down Westerhoff’s Paterson mill during February 1913, production continued in Ephrata and Denver, Pennsylvania. Gradually, some of Paterson’s silk producers decided to defy the pickets and restart the looms in the city. Peter Westerhoff, President of his company, was among the first to reopen, and his employees paid for their decision to resume work. Each day Peter and his son Benjamin escorted their female employees from the mill to the station, running a gauntlet of fists, rocks, and epithets hurled by the strikers. Each day the city police appeared in force to keep the picketers at bay, as they shouted insults through the factory’s windows during working hours. During April 1913, as tensions and insults rose exponentially, the police began to arrest strikers -
The Paterson Silk Strike of 1913 ended in a defeat for the strikers, as production resumed fully during the last weeks of July. The Westerhoff Brothers and Napier Co. would remain active for several more years, but the silk industry would begin a steady decline as synthetic fabrics and cheaper labor costs in Pennsylvania and the South sapped the economic energy that had propelled Paterson to the top of the industrial pyramid during the nineteenth century.
Henry’s oldest son, Rutger Gerard Westerhoff (1889-
Sometime before 1920 Thomas Napier left the company. The company’s name was then changed to The Westerhoff Brothers Company. Peter continued to supervise the New Jersey facility until his death in 1923 after a brief illness, at the age of 60.
Upon Peter’s death, Henry Westerhoff became president of the Westerhoff Silk Company in Ephrata and its branch, located in Denver, was still supervised by his oldest son Rutger. Peter’s eldest son Jacob became Vice President and Treasurer of the company and presumably supervised the Paterson mill. Rutger was appointed Corporate Secretary.
Henry Westerhoff died after a short illness in his home at 208 E. Main Street in Ephrata in 1936. The Ephrata and Denver mills were still in operation at his death, although production had slowed considerably at both plants by then.
Since 1912, American knitting mills had been using “artificial silk” imported from Europe to make stockings. After the Great War ended in 1917, I. Du Pont de Nemours was looking for peacetime products that would replace their wartime money-
In 1921, a company began making artificial silk and few years later they called it rayon. Rayon was handled exactly as silk. It could be woven on looms, like silk. A competitive synthetic, Celanese, was also being promoted by the American Viscose Corporation. A few silk mills tried weaving the new materials. A mill accustomed to natural materials such as silk encountered unpleasant surprises, working with the new fiber, which at first even tore and fell apart when wet. The silk mills had to learn to handle it, although many mills resisted because they didn’t like change or they knew nothing about the technical end of the business. There were other obstacles too, in converting to rayon. Synthetic fabric was being woven on old, slow silk looms. It became obvious that manufacturing rayon was a completely different kind of operation; it used high-
In 1929, New York City had 2,300 dress houses, producing millions of dollars worth of garments. The demand for silk was still high – Americans were buying huge quantities of clothing during the Roaring Twenties. Therefore, the mills stayed with all or almost all silk fabrics. Then the market crashed!
As bank failures, unemployment, foreclosures, and evictions spread across the country, the weight of the Depression fell on the silk manufacturers. The garment business was ailing, almost half the dress houses in New York City were forced to close in 1929. Competition from other fabrics was undermining silk. The capital needed to convert or update the equipment was not available now. As a result, silk manufacturers laid off workers and cut their wages.
American women were still buying some silk for luxury use, but the market was now dominated by the new fibers. Rayon production soared by 1940 in the United States. And nylon was sold publicly for the first time. This new fabric was a sensation in the fashion industry, as a synthetic that had the elegance of silk, and, in addition, properties that made it easy to wash and care for.
The appearance of nylon was the end of silk. Japan then cut off shipments of silk to the United States in July of 1941.
Both the Ephrata and Denver plants would close in the late 1930’s. I presume the Paterson mill closed sometime after Peter’s death: his son Jacob would continue to supervise production until its closure. Rutger Westerhoff continued to supervise both the Ephrata and Denver plants until their closure.
The Ephrata facility would continue to be used as a hosiery mill and then house several dress manufacturing plants. In 1965, the building was demolished to make room for a parking lot for the Eaby Shoe Corp.
The Denver facility was taken over by Vanity Fair, a top-
In summary, the Westerhoff family had a major impact on silk production on the East Coast during the first half of the 20th Century. Proud business men, Henry and Peter Westerhoff began a family business that became highly successful. Unfortunately, with the change in technology, the next generation was unable to compete with the new synthetic fabrics and, therefore, were forced to close their doors.