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Introduction

Cutters of the P.K. Co. (1897). Henry Page Historical Collection, Perry Public Library. Click here to view a larger image.

In 1908, the novelist Henry James wrote that "The house of fiction has in short not one window, but a million,” by which he meant that every novelist looked out upon the world from a unique perspective. “He and his neighbours are watching the same show, James continued, “but one seeing more where the other sees less, one seeing black where the other sees white, one seeing big where the other sees small, one seeing coarse where the other sees fine.” Each of us is constrained by our individual point of view, and grows from the experience of seeing through the eyes of another person. In the photograph above, what do each of the thirteen individuals see as they look at the camera? Some of them probably are recent immigrants to America, some of them look very young. Two of them are women in a mostly male occupation. They've all arranged their tools and themselves for a moment to announce who they are: Cutters of the P.K. Co.

For decades the PK, as it was called, stood as the town’s largest employer--a third of the community directly, and by extension many more. During the 1950s Nitey-Nite children's sleepwear had become the firm's most important commercial brand, a focal point of product research and marketing. At one such roll-out in 1954 for a new summer-weight sleeper, company executive George M. Traber, Jr. asserted that the new fabric was so comfortable because it was "the cloth with a million windows." Traber probably didn't know that he was closely paraphrasing Henry James, but we liked how it changed our perspective of the company's collectively manufactured fabric--the product of so many hands and individual lives. It changed our view of the company's five mills, each building full of windows looking out upon the world from so many different circumstances: men and women, young and old, farmers' children and Polish immigrants. Perhaps as we look into buildings that are no longer there, we can imagine some of the lives inside, looking back at us.

Glass Plate Print of Walnut Street Bridge

Glass plate print of Walnut St. Bridge, ca. 1900-1910. Clark Rice Photography Collection, Perry Public Library.

Because the PK went out of business in 1969, and very few print documents were preserved, almost all of our glimpses into its daily life come in the form of photographs. Some of them date to the early 20th century, or even the 1880s shortly after the mill was constructed. Most of the images were created after World War II by a Perry resident named Clark Rice, who served as a combat photographer in Europe. Upon his return home, Rice purchased the photography studio of M.N. Crocker that dated to 1857 along with its historical collection of glass plate negatives and prints; altogether there are more than 7,000 photographs of Perry. The image at right is one of the older plates, showing a steel bridge at Walnut Street not long after it was constructed in 1902. If you look carefully, you can see hunched figures crossing the Silver Lake Outlet (presumably) on their way to work at the PK, which is off-camera to the left. Besides what we can't see in the photograph, there's also obvious damage or perhaps transformation to the glass plate itself. It's a reminder of what changes with time: everything. This is why, in the absence of further documentation, the projects here sometimes make use of speculative nonfiction, which instead of seeking after the narrowly factual or informative "concerns itself with the figurative over the literal, ambiguity over knowing, meditation over reportage" (Robin Hemley and Leila Philip, "Manifesto"). The act of seeing is believing.

The Cloth With a Million Windows was researched and created by OpenValley students during the Fall 2020 semester: Meghan Cobo, Michaelena Ferraro, Melisha Gatlin, Andrew Gleason, Macaire Lisicki, Ethan Pelletier, Emma Raupp, and Mariah Rockwell. It was facilitated by Ben Michalak and Ken Cooper. For their generous assistance during a time of pandemic, we thank Sandy Schneible, Joanne Barth, Lorraine Sturm, Sonya Bilocerkowycz, Jessica Pacciotti, Paul Schacht, and Leah Root.