This part of America’s industrial heartland has long held a special fascination for me. Scranton’s story is the history of America’s heavy industry. It’s the story of coal and coke, iron and steel and the other manufacturing industries that built towns like Scranton, Bethlehem and Allentown and whose demise turned those same, once booming towns into archetypes of the human tragedy that we now call the “Rust Belt”.
Driving into town in the early morning, I had Billy Joel’s “Allentown” playing on my car stereo:
“Well, we’re living here in Allentown
And they’re closing all the factories down
Out in Bethlehem they’re killing time
Filling out forms, standing in line.”
Production at Scranton Lace spanned three centuries. The factory first opened for business in 1890 and, for the last eighty years of the twentieth century, it was America’s and the world’s largest manufacturer of Nottingham lace, employing 1,400 workers in its heyday. It closed abruptly in 2002, the workers shown the door with no notice, leaving the looms standing in mid-run and abandoning personal belongings. As a result of its brutal end, Scranton Lace stands as a museum to a once-dominant industry.
As an employer, Scranton Lace had been extraordinarily paternalistic, providing generous facilities for its employees, to keep them from the embrace of the unions: a bowling alley, a theatre, a beauty parlor, an infirmary and an indoor basketball court.
Once inside, I was struck by the vast scale of the place. It’s not one building but a labyrinth of several, as the factory was expanded at various times throughout its 112-year history. The site comprises room after cavernous room crammed with machinery, shelving, production materials, broken furniture and personal artifacts, all linked by long, shadowy corridors.
In every room, there were relics of the long-abandoned lives of former employees: bowling shoes, clothing and glasses. Also, evidence of their long-ago toil: looms with thread loaded and ready to run, curtains arrested in mid-manufacture, hand-painted drawings of elaborate lace designs and carts filled with the cards once used to stamp those designs into fabric.
Much of the time, I wasn’t taking any photographs at all; just standing, staring at various personal belongings, left-overs of hard-working people with once secure, well-paying jobs, wondering about the lives they led, the work they did. I visualized the people who worked here in the 50s and 60s: men with greased-back DAs, women with beehive hairdos.
Alternatively, I would stare at the vast halls, the monstrous industrial machines, built on a scale beyond the human, and imagine them swarming with workers sweating amid the din created by myriad moving mechanical parts.
The combination of vast, dark interiors and bright early-autumn sunlight cascading through broken glass made exposure bracketing and a wide-angle lens logical choices: I shot almost all day using just my 16-35mm lens.
All of the featured images are high dynamic range (HDR), which was essential to deal with the wide contrast between light and dark inside the factory. The range varied from room to room, the lead image requiring seven images shot at one-stop intervals, the black & white image of the staircase needing five.
In a five-hour shoot, I barely scratched the surface of the place. More from Scranton Lace in a future blog. In the meantime, I’m already planning a return visit to capture more of this inspirational old facility.