The Rise and Fall of the Amoskeag Denim Mills
These days, when raw denim aficionados see a new pair of jeans advertising American-made selvedge, they assume it comes from the almighty Cone Denim Mills. Cone’s White Oak Plant essentially has a lock on American-made selvedge, providing to a vast number of brands, many of whom appear regularly on Heddels.
The question stands–what happened to the other great American denim mills? There were a vast number of them at one point, but the one we’ll focus on in this article is the Amoskeag Manufacturing Company in Manchester, New Hampshire–at one time the largest cotton textile plant in the United States and the primary denim supplier to Levi Strauss.
Those who live in the Northeast U.S. today know Manchester, NH as a fairly large city–specifically the largest in the state. However, at the turn of the 17th century, it was merely a spot in the wilderness. Centered around the Merrimack River, the city began on the power of the river’s current, like other nearby mill towns like Lowell, Massachusetts.
In 1807, Samuel Blodget built a canal and lock system on the Merrimack near the Amoskeag Falls. Planning for a water-powered textile factory similar to the one he had visited in Manchester, England. The “Manchester of America” officially became “Manchester” three years later.
The same year, a group of men lead by Benjamin Prichard incorporated the Amoskeag Cotton & Woolen Manufacturing Company. After going through several unprofitable decades and a series of owners, two additional mills were developed along with boarding houses and stores. The latter developments eventually became the village of Amoskeag, the small town within the mill. The new venture was vastly more profitable and incorporated as the Amoskeag Manufacturing Company in 1831.
The first railroad tracks entered Manchester’s city limits in 1842 and the business exploded. Amoskeag was previously limited to the American Northeast, but now they could serve customers all over the country. One in particular might ring a bell–Levi Strauss. It’s amazing to think that Amoskeag, a mill that’s probably unknown to most in this day and age, was a primary supplier to the most famous denim brand in the world. Until 1915, Amoskeag supplied all the XX denim used for the Levi’s 501.
Unfortunately, Amoskeag prospered on the backs of many young children, as did other famous mills of the time. Child labor was plentiful, as entire families lived, worked, ate, and slept within the greater property of the mill.
Immigrants flooded in from countries like Greece, Poland, and Germany to bolster the workforce and meet the outstanding demand for labor. This labor wasn’t limited to just textiles–during the Civil War, Amoskeag also produced muskets, carbines, fire engines, and locomotives.
Following the end of World War I, the US economy slipped into a recession, and Amoskeag wasn’t spared its wrath. Decreasing sales led to reductions in pay for its workers, and those workers eventually went on strike.
Even as the strike was temporarily resolved, new sources of energy were rising to compete with the water power that mills survived on. The arrival of electricity in the Southeast US meant that cotton could be woven where it was grown, cutting out expensive transportation costs to and from New England.
Aging technology and the Great Depression served as final blows, and the Amoskeag Manufacturing Company abruptly closed its doors and filed for bankruptcy on Christmas Eve, 1935. In the following years, the mill complex and its machinery were liquidated. Soon enough, other businesses moved in, and Amoskeag dissolved almost as quickly as it began.
It’s unfortunate that Amoskeag lives on only in historical texts and reflective articles like this one. Commercial denim mills still exist in the US, but Cone is basically the only one that selvedge fans look to for producing quality products. As the raw denim community continues to expand, hopefully more will come to look at the industry’s past and see how it influenced the jeans and jackets we wear today.