It’s at 1 Jackson Street. What I like to call the Fortress of Shoddy.
It was constructed around the turn of the last century by the United Waste Manufacturing Company, and served as a warehouse for cotton and wool shoddy. The company’s main headquarters and factory was in Cohoes.
Troy, as most people know, is famous for its 19th century detachable collar and cuffs industry. Shirts and other clothing items were however, also made in the many factories that once lined the Hudson River and it’s tributaries.
All of those cut goods produced fabric waste – these scraps, the ends of bolts, the damaged goods, plus other rags and fabrics were collected. Such waste could not just be tossed when there were methods of manufacturing it into new goods.
Shoddy is a cloth made from reconstituted wool and cotton rags. Shoddy was used to make blankets, workmen’s clothing, and more often, soldier’s uniforms. Many of the uniforms of the Union Army during the Civil War were made of shoddy, a practice that continued until the First World War.
Shoddy was not a superior material, it did not have the strength of either good wool or cotton, as the threads were short, not the long fibers of new goods. Not surprisingly, there was a great deal of complaining, especially during the Civil War, about the quality of the uniforms. The adjective shoddy, meaning inferior and badly made, as you can guess, comes from this fabric.
The manufacture of shoddy was a small, but lucrative business. Troy actually had two shoddy mills, the second, operated by the Troy Waste Manufacturing Company, still stands at 444 River Street (it was recently converted into apartments).
The United Waste Manufacturing Company was one of 88 shoddy mills across the country by 1909; an industry that employed over 2,000 people. By 1906, the factory in Cohoes employed over 130 workers. In addition to the factory headquarters, they had an office in this warehouse, an office in Boston, and one on Leonard Street in lower Manhattan.
Producing shoddy was hard and hazardous work for the factory workers. The rags were soaked in muriatic acid (a kind of hydrochloric acid) and then dried at temperatures above 100 degrees in a process called “carbonizing.” The whole mass was then mixed and oiled before being ground into a fibrous mass.
From this soup, threads were twisted out, and woven into fabric that looked like dyed wool. As can be imagined, this was toxic to workers, especially those working with the hot and dry “carbonized” rags, and respiratory conditions similar to white lung disease were common.
Fire was a danger as well. The factory had a horrific fire in 1908, when the dress of worker Ann Rumnick caught fire from machinery sparks in a baling room where the rags were bundled. The fire spread quickly in the dusty room of flammable rags forcing women to leap from the second story windows. Fortunately, there was a working sprinkler system and the fire department was able to put out the blaze. Ann Rumnick died however, burned beyond recognition, the only fatality. The fire caused over $50,000 in damages, and probably hastened the company’s demise.
United Waste’s Fortress
Modern photos by Suzanne Spellen; vintage photos of Slack Shoddy Mill in Springfield, MA.