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Saturday, July 19, 2014
The Girl in the Window at Pilling Shoe, the Acre
It’s about this point in summer vacation in the 1960s that we as ten year olds would start getting bored. There are only so many trips down to the river to look for fish swimming around, or walks over to Burbeck’s to look at the list of different flavors declaring which one we’d get the next time we had some money. There were only so many times you could make your way over to Francis Gate and throw a stick into the canal then run across Broadway Street and watch it reappear on the other side of the bridge. We’d walk the streets looking to find Coke bottles we could return to the store for 2 cents. When we were really desperate we’d go through garbage cans looking for empties. A few empty tonic bottles would award us with a visit to Ovie’s or Charlie’s, the 2 competing stores on the corners of Broadway and Walker Streets to get mint juleps or peach stones. Peach stones were the best buy- 3 for a penny.
On a list of things to do would be a trip over to Shaffer Street to go to the Pilling Shoe factory. The brick building was flanked by tenements and small houses along Shaffer Street and the Pawtucket Canal and Tyng Street on the other. I’m not sure when the downsizing happened, but by the time we hung around Shaffer Street the shoe business was about gone. I do recall stories of workers throwing shoes out the windows. If you knew the right person a young woman could darn well end up with a new pair of high heels. Just know what was coming off the line, be at the right window at the right time, and be able to catch pretty well and they were yours. I think a lot of romances began and ended at the windows of Pilling Shoes.
By the time I stood outside those windows, shoes weren’t being thrown. The building had been chopped up into smaller businesses. Old shipping docks for the millions of shoes made on site were now part of a fruit and vegetable distributor. The bottom floor was a small book store. I went walking in one day looking for comic books and walked out with a new world opened to me. The young clerk handed me a copy of To Kill a Mockingbird. It was the first real novel I ever read and was hooked from that point on. The rest of the old shoe factory had been rented to a printing business.
One day in the early 60s a group of us made our to Shaffer Street. All the windows were thrown wide open in the July heat. Looking up we saw guys in t-shirts and work pants manning the presses. Some of the workers were sitting on the window ledges trying to get what breeze they could. Others were sneaking a smoke and throwing the butts out the window. Our little group yelled up to a group of women leaning out the window. They were packing notepads into cartons. My friends whistled and cat called up to them. They begged for a few notepads to be tossed down. They pleaded and cajoled, knelt on the ground blowing kisses up to them. I bashfully stood on the side. The girls loved it and threw little notebooks out from the third floor. My friends scrambled to the sidewalk taking away all they could. One young blond woman with her hair tied back with a yellow scarf yelled out, “Hey kid, this one is for you.” Down from the third floor window floated her gift to me, a small white notepad. It was like Juliet on the balcony. I kept that notebook for the longest time safeguarding it, like a knight’s favor from his lady.
But I digress. The Pilling Shoe factory had quite a past. Lowell is well known for its cotton manufacturing history, but the story of shoe production is almost important. Lowell was once one of the nation’s leading producers of shoes, and Pilling Shoes boasted being the seventh oldest such business in the US. The factory on Shaffer Street was built in 1890 and had had a number of additions since its opening. John Pilling wanted more than to produce shoes. He prided himself on making a quality product and providing his employees with a decent wage and proper work environment. Each summer an annual outing to Canobie Lake Park was sponsored by Mr. Pilling. And each winter Mr. Pilling would clear out the bottom floor of his factory and give his employees an evening’s entertainment by putting on a “hop.” The walls were lined with white cloth so oil from the machinery would not soil the ladies’ dresses. Crates were also covered to provide makeshift benches for the revelers. The high point of the evening was a grand march and a cake walk. In 1899 the prizes were an umbrella for the gentleman and a feathered fan for the lady. John Pilling once decorated a tree on Pawtucket Blvd with 1000 one dollar bills to prove to a friend of the Yorick Club that money did grow on trees.
At the beginning of the 20th century there were whispers of unions making their way into the shoe industry. Mr. Pill wanted nothing of this and announced a 10% wage increase immediately. When the rumors resurrected again a few years later workers walked out of Pilling Shoe. Mr. Pilling again announced no union would be allowed at his factory, but welcomed all back without fear of repercussion. The notice in the Lowell Sun also included the announcement of another wage increase.
The sounds of the lasting and tacking machines filled the neighborhood during work hours, and then there would be a sense of silence as the shift ended. A writer talking about Pilling Shoe said that once you were employed you had a job for life. Multiple members of the same family and even multi-generations of the same family worked for Pilling. But like many factory jobs they would find cheaper labor and resources in other places. By the 1970s Pilling Shoes was converted to elderly housing and remains so today.