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The Living Mill

Village of Perry, Wyoming County, New York (1902): A Matrix of Connectedness

In the Clark Rice Collection, many photographs of the Perry Knitting Co. are of machines. They are organs of the human brain, created by the human hand; the power of knowledge, objectified. Sometimes the machines stand alone and in other photos they are accompanied by mill-hands. During the 19th century critics of industry were horrified by that symbiosis. Karl Marx & Friedrich Engels decried how a factory-hand becomes an appendage of the machine, and it is only the most simple, most monotonous, and most easily acquired knack, that is required of him. Is this really how workers at the Perry Knitting Co. experienced their lives, though? What if we still thought of the mill as a living machine, created by human hands, and tried to envision its daily work? Sometimes it was experienced as hard and repetitive work, sometimes as a satisfaction (however fleeting) at the awesome transformation of cotton bolls into clothing. Industrialization changed the ownership of labor, but not entirely the satisfaction of cooperative production; a community endeavor bigger than even factory shareholders could harness.

5. In the Sewing Room, sometime during the mid-1950s, a couple pauses to celebrate. It's their 33rd anniversary, whether of marriage or employment at the mill we don't know. Along with a sign, the gentleman seems to be holding a bonus check. Meanwhile work continues in the background. What memories  haven't made it into the frame of this photograph? Plumbing-lined walls carry gallons of water in and out of the mill, machines are brought to life by the flow of electricity. Perry Knitting Co. lived a lifetime; it grew and aged alongside those who gave it purpose. After workers finally leave their shift, the Sewing Room appears empty but still vibrates with remembered movement, potential energy left stiff in the stale air. Inaudible, clanging metal reverberates through the glaring factory floor. Light presses against tired eyes no longer here. Nimble hands and cramped fingers have moved in time with the sleepless machines; muscles have made calculated movements in the name of industry or, simply put, life. Now the building exhales them beyond its foundation, back to the complex depth of each life lived outside its brick walls.

Sources Consulted

This is a work of speculative nonfiction, drawing upon images from the Clark Rice Photography Collection and texts (which are italicized) from the following documents for each numbered paragraph.

Introduction: Kark Marx, "Fragment on Machines," Grundrisse (1858). Web link here. Karl Marx & Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto. Web link here.

1. Frank D. Roberts and Carl G. Clarke, History of the Town of Perry, New York (1915): 61, 85. Courtesy Internet Archive. Web link here.

2. Roberts and Clarke, 86-87.

4. Bessie Van Vorst, "The Woman That Toils: Experiences of a Literary Woman as a Working Girl," Everybody's Magazine 7 (1902): 413-425. Courtesy HathiTrust. Web link here.