Made in New Hampshire: Manufacturing's Rise and Fall in Manchester

Mar 27, 2017

A century ago, Manchester, New Hampshire was known for just one thing: the Amoskeag Manufacturing Company.

“Amoskeag at one time, at its peak, around World War I, was more than 17,000 employees,” says John Clayton, executive director of the Manchester Historic Association and a longtime New Hampshire journalist.

  “So if you consider the scale of the city, at least half of the people who lived in this community worked for Amoskeag.”

Amoskeag grew to become the largest textile mill in the country, its red brick buildings stretching for more than a mile along the banks of the Merrimack River. The company’s 25,000 looms cranked out more than 50 miles of cloth per hour, providing textiles for everything from the first Levi’s jeans to high-fashion gingham dresses.

Credit Sara Plourde / NHPR

Cheap labor from waves of immigrants, including French Canadians, as well as cheap power harnessed from the river, fueled the prospering city. Amoskeag sponsored baseball teams, theater troupes and public health campaigns.

“So it was a company town in every sense of the word,” says Clayton, who grew up in Manchester.

Outside the Amoskeag Manufacturing Company circa 1880.
Credit Library of Congress

But post-World War 1, the economics of textile manufacturing shifted. The southern states gained competitiveness, aided by lower wages and weaker unions. Amoskeag, hampered by labor strife, was slow to react. By Christmas Eve, 1935, the company was in bankruptcy.

Old newsreels describe Amoskeag’s vacant factories as “a New England ghost town.” But let’s not count the Queen City out just yet.

The manufacturing workforce—the skill-set—was still there. They just needed a new product to make. And that new product would quickly emerge.

“So Manchester had been textile oriented, all of a sudden, it is focused on footwear,” says Clayton. “The single largest shoe manufacturer in the world was the WH McElwain Company, in Manchester, New Hampshire.”

So Manchester reinvents itself. It scales up on shoes, which was already a strong industry in town, and during the middle of the 20th century, the city celebrates a manufacturing renaissance.

For many working class kids in town, their future livelihoods were those shoe factories. But let’s not romanticize this.

“Growing up in town, a lot of my friends, their folks worked in the shoe shop,” says Clayton. “And our teachers used that as a cudgel against us to get us to do our school work. ‘If you don’t do your homework, John, you’re going to wind up working in the shoe shop.’ And it was a motivator for many of us.”

Russ Thibeault, who grew up on Manchester’s west side, remembers hearing the same message from his parents.

“My father would not even let me go into the factory,” says Thibeault. “He had such an abhorrence to the kind of work that manufacturing involved.”

Thibeault heeded his father’s advice, and today works as an economist based in Laconia.

“He was a shoe cutter, which was, you’d get an entire hide, you put in on your table, and you have a machine that would punch out parts of the shoe...manufacturing jobs then were really the human being was an extension of a machine. It was hard work. You were burned out by the time you were 60.”

Thibeault’s parents had 5th grade educations. They didn’t have many skills or options, but with manufacturing, they gained entry into the middle class.

“It was an uncertain life, hard physically, but it still afforded you access to what was then the American dream of a house, a car, a pretty decent television set, and good food on the table,” he says.

What happens next, of course, is well known. By the 1970s and 80s, foreign competition and cheaper overseas labor start taking their toll. Consumer tastes also change; people become more willing to trade quality for cost.

“So it was a confluence of economic things that spelled the death of these industries in Manchester, and in America,” says John Clayton.

After losing textile jobs to southern states in the first half of the century, losses to Mexico and South East Asia defined the end of the century. As economist Russ Thibeault explains, that’s reshaped the state’s work force.

“In fact, as recently as the year 2000, we had over 100,000 manufacturing jobs in New Hampshire. Now we have 66,000,” he says. “So the state’s economy has gradually moved away from manufacturing as the key part of the state’s economy, although it is still important.”

Credit Sara Plourde/NHPR

Today, about 10% of New Hampshire’s economic output is manufacturing based, half what it was in the late 1990s. It’s still $8 billion worth of goods - not nothing, but far short of where the sector used to be as a share of the total economy.

Credit Sara Plourde/NHPR

So, will those manufacturing jobs come back? Do companies still need to import goods if they want to be competitive?

We’ll pick up the story there in our next installment of NHPR’s On The Line: Manufacturing in New Hampshire.