Nepperhan Avenue, between Axminster Street & Lake Avenue, Yonkers
In June 1954, the Alexander Smith and Sons Carpet Company, once Yonkers’ largest employer, announced it was ending operations in the city and moving to Greenville, Mississippi. At its peak just after World War II, the company operated on over 56 acres of floor space across Yonkers and had 7,000 workers; its core plant was the largest comprehensive carpet factory in the world in the early 20th century.
The company’s departure from Yonkers is linked to the city’s economic decline in the mid- to late-1900s. The company’s rise and development are also tightly tied to the state of Yonkers’ economy and the struggles of its workforce over almost a century.
Smith and Sons was established in Yonkers in 1865. In less than a year it became the most profitable business in the city. And by the 1870s, the single building at the corner of Palisade Avenue and Elm Street had expanded into a large industrial park. By the end of the 19th century, the carpet mills employed over 3,000 people, the majority of whom were young women, and soon reached 5,000, with immigrant men – especially Poles and Slovaks – becoming a growing share of the workforce.
The mills were more than a place of employment. Over the decades, Alexander Smith and Sons increasingly took on the look of a company town within Yonkers. In the 1880s, for example, the company built row houses across the street from the complex and offered them to its workers at subsidized rent costs. The company also assisted with employee’s health and education needs and provided financial support for a nearby hospital.
Such amenities were an outgrowth of a paternalistic approach toward the workers as well as a response to growing worker agitation in the face of increasingly difficult working conditions.
The company’s first major strike, led by the Knights of Labor, took place from February to July 1885, with over 3,000 workers participating. The strike enjoyed massive support within Yonkers and throughout the east coast of the United States. It resulted in wage increases not only at Alexander Smith and Sons, but at carpet mills throughout the industry.
In the 1930s, workers organized again (the Knights of Labor chapter had faded away by the end of the 1880s) – despite strong opposition from the company. This time the organizing took place under the United Textile Workers (UTW) of the Congress of Industrial Organizations.
The 1940 and the 1950s, a time of wage cuts and growing competition from abroad, saw further labor stoppages. In 1952, for instance, the UTW led a 61-day strike, with the workers only returning to work when it became clear that the mills would close permanently if they did not. Two years later – by which time the workforce had dwindled to 2,500 – workers went on strike again. It was during this walkout that the company announced it was shutting its doors in Yonkers and moving to Greenville.
Smith and Sons had many reasons for moving its production out of Yonkers. The company was participating in the widespread flight of U.S. capital to Southern states in the post-WWII era in the pursuit of higher profits. In the case of Mississippi, the state offered low taxes and a variety of subsidies to attract capital; it was also a place characterized by staunch anti-union politics which kept wages low.
The closure had profound effects on Yonkers and its citizens. Employees collectively lost over $100,000 in weekly wages. Many families had multiple members working in the mills, which meant that households lost multiple sources of income at once. And the City of Yonkers lost a major taxpayer.
Within a few years of Alexander Smith and Sons’ departure from Yonkers, a cigarette company and, later, a greeting card company purchased much of the complex, bringing with them over 3,000 jobs, albeit non-union ones. Smaller businesses filled the gaps and leased the rest of the industrial sprawl.
Today, the Alexander Smith Carpet Mills complex is a designated historic district and listed on the National Register of Historic Places. While some of the former mill buildings in the 39-acre complex are under-utilized, they are home to a variety of business endeavors, including piano restoration, furniture wholesale, air engineering companies and self storage facilities.
In 2016, the City of Yonkers designated much of the area as the Carpet Mills Arts District. Central to the district is It YoHo Artist Studios, which describes itself as “a community of artists, craftspeople, and creative professionals.” With dozens of artists working in a former mill building, YoHo Artists holds public events and an annual open studios event every May.
From the Yonkers (Metro North) train station, a 1.3-mile (29-minute) walk. Various Bee-Line bus routes also pass through the Carpet Mills area.
To learn more:
Susan Levine, “Honor Each Noble Maid’: Women Workers and the Yonkers Carpet Weavers’ Strike of 1885,” New York History, Vol. 62, No. 2, 1981: 153-176.
John Masefield, In the Mill, New York: The Macmillan Company, 1941.
Marilyn Weigold and the Yonkers Historical Society, Yonkers in the Twentieth Century, Albany: State University of New York Press, 2014.