No matter how restless and adventurous my soul is, there is no place like home. Sometimes I find this ironic, because for many years I couldn’t wait to escape the seemingly mundane Lehigh Valley. Yet several years ago, I became very curious about the former textile industry of Easton, PA (my hometown).
While a textile historian would be familiar with the Onondaga Silk Company, the origins of Easton’s textile manufacturing are much older. Herman Simon (1850-1913), a German emigre, was the man that brought silk to Easton. Simon had an early appreciation for textiles, and attended school at both the Hassell’s Institute and Royal Weaving School from 1862-1867.
At the age of 18, Simon moves to New York, and started working at A.T. Stewart & Company, a wholesale silk department. After learning the trade, Simon decided to stat his own operation. In 1874, along with his brother Robert, Herman Simon built a silk mill in Union Hill, NJ ““ establishing the R. & H. Simon Company. The mill was three stories high, and contained 165 handlooms, as well as looms Robert invented himself to produce grosgrain silk. R. & H. Simon Company became so successful that a 9 acre plant is built in Easton in 1883.
During it’s heyday, the Easton mill operated 24 hours a day, 6 days a week. It’s daily output was 12,000 yards of broad silk, and variable amounts of silk ribbon and velvet. The company also employed 1200 workers.
Herman had run the company as sole proprietor since the death of his brother in 1901. In 1913, Herman died. He willed $3,000,000 to his employees and ensured the continuance of the company. The company remained in business, thanks to the vogue for silk velvets. Yet to keep a positive cash flow, the company leased parts of the factory to other manufacturers. In 1933, the R&H Simon Company mill in Easton was purchased by the Onondaga Silk Company.
The Onondaga Silk Company was extremely active in creating fashionable textiles. However, they are best known for their American Artists prints in the late 1940s. The silk company collaborated with six American artists to style unique fabrics. The collaboration was described in the New York Times:
Onondaga’s aim . . . was not to turn the painter into a textile designer, but rather to make intelligent and expert use for fashion of the motifs, coloring and style expressed by his special talents . . . to catch the spirit of the fine painter’s work on fabric is a real contribution to modern American fashion. (New York Times, December 17, 1946. Page 41.)
The artists participating were: Gladys Rockmor Davis, Dong Kingman, Waldo Pierce, Doris Rosenthal, Julien Bindord, and William C. Palmer. Their works were exhibited at the Midtown Galleries. The exhibition was entitled The American Artists Print Series. A fashion show was also included, and designers such as Sophie of Saks and Nettie Rosenstein participated.
The Onondaga Silk Company created stunning prints that were used by many fashionable couturiers and designers. Ultimately, the mill had difficulty competing with the quality and price of synthetic fabrics, like rayon. It operated throughout the 1970s with difficulty. The mill was closed in 1981.
Today, the city of Easton is seeking to revitalize the old mill. Potential uses for the building include a community arts center or an artist-in-residence space. The coolest part of this renaissance? Movies at the Mill, an annual outdoor film festival, where the movies are projected onto the facade of the old mill. It’s good to be home!