Poland in Transition 1989-1991: The Mills

"Each factory was a cacophony of noise, a cloud of noxious vapor, a sewer of pollution. Each factory devoured people whole, laborers and managers both." The ninth chapter of the book by David R. Pichaske about Poland between 1989 and 1991.

It is not written that dark, Satanic mills must be constructed of red brick, but brick is absolutely correct, embodying as other surfaces do not the mindless and mind-deadening replication of product units by endless lines of workers manning endless lines of machines running endless hours and days and weeks. Brick in Dubuque. Brick in New England. Brick in Liverpool, brick in Manchester.

Brick in Łódź.

Łódź is a city of factories (most of them now idle most of the time) and a city of workers. It is the paths of the workers that crisscross Łódź, cut a little deeper, as Meridel Le Sueur once put it, by people who carry on their backs the endless weight of that which does not concern them.

Brick in Dubuque. Brick in New England. Brick in Liverpool, brick in Manchester. Brick in Łódź.

And brick is the working stuff of Łódź, although as often as not the brick has been cemented over to form long walls of unseamed beige or khaki. Sometimes the cement—in a superhuman effort that defies all logic but seems typically Polish—has been painted brick red, and then checked with a web of thin gray lines, and thus the walls are returned again to a representation of their actual construction. The characteristic exterior surface of Łódź is gray cement weathered in several spots to reveal red brick and white mortar.

Widzew, to the west of Piotrkowska Street, is the old industrial section of the city. Some factories are long dead. They hunker over the downtown skyline, windows vacant, mute reminders of generations that trod, trod, trod, and of just what the Communist Manifesto was about. Some factories have been converted to museums, or, in the New Poland, used car lots and wholesale grocery outlets. Some, although antiquated and inefficient, still produce cloth. Łódź is still textile town; these dinosaurs play a role in its present economy.

Łódź is still textile town; these dinosaurs play a role in its present economy.

Deceased, active, and renovated factory complexes litter this city; one learns quickly to recognize the nineteenth century pattern: mill on one corner, mansion on the other (often also an office, and a storehouse, and a place to entertain and impress visiting buyers), park across the street, a few blocks of workers’ apartments down the road, leased to those who had proven themselves competent and faithful, the section heads and straw bosses. Thus owners’ and workers’ families shared the noise and the pollution, although under very different circumstances. Workers were often paid in script, with which they paid the rent, and bought supplies from a company store. They were thus “thrice fleeced,” as the Polish saying goes.

In Widzew, or around Ogrodowa Street by Poznański’s works one sees complex after complex of mansion, factory, flats. By 1910 Łódź contained over 700 industrial complexes, some of them great ganglia of roads and railroad tracks, warehouses and weaving buildings, dying buildings and drying areas, shipping docks. Of half a million citizens in Łódź, a hundred thousand worked in these factories. Each factory had its own siren or whistle, familiar to employees as the sound of their own name, to rouse them early in the morning and pull them back to work after the dinner hour. Each factory was a cacophony of noise, a cloud of noxious vapor, a sewer of pollution. Each factory devoured people whole, laborers and managers both.

Each factory devoured people whole, laborers and managers both.

Between the middle of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth, the water table of Łódź dropped 35 feet, drying up whole rivers to provide steam for these factories. Each factory contributed its ruble or złoty to the wealth of Łódź, a city which rivaled anything American or British for rapacious capitalist growth, and gaudy ostentation of the newly rich.

Photo by David Pichaske.

The factories bear names like Poltex and Uniontex. The whistles are silent, weeds grow tall across acres of warehouse space and loading docks, and it’s not exactly a stream of workers that pours from the gates each afternoon around 3:00 p.m. Still, the very heft of their history oppresses: every brick the spent life of a worker.

Workers today have largely forgotten the founders: when a descendant of the former owner of the Steinert works, questing after family roots, asked the factory gatekeeper if the house across the street might be the old owner’s palace, his brusque response was, “I don’t know and I don’t really care.” The lot of those still employed is infinitely better than the lot of their great-grandparents: one worker at the Fako lace and curtain factory tends four modern machines—made in West Germany, and nearly self-operated—with plenty of time for chatter and tea and wandering off. Workers put in 42-hour weeks, get 26 days of holiday per year after ten years’ employment. They retire after 60 years for the women, 65 years for the men. Wooden floors help deaden noise and cushion the surface on which they stand all day. On top of their regular salary they are paid a quality-adjusted piecework bonus. Two unions—the old national workers’ union and the three-times-more-popular Solidarity—compete to resolve their grievances. Fako at least is clean and well lighted, and computers to aid design and production are on the way.

Where will the workers go if and when the factories close?

But what of the thousands of workers no longer employed at Łódź factories? And who knows if Fako, or Poltex or Uniontex will survive the year, much less until a worker’s retirement age? Rumor at the 1991 Łódź Textile Fair had Uniontex bankrupt come August, Solidarity or no Solidarity. Old suppliers and markets in the former Soviet Union are in chaos: nobody takes responsibility for shipping or receiving anything, and while all parties want payment in hard currency, neither is willing to offer payment except in rubles or złotych. Western markets account for only a small percentage of sales: goods are still too shoddy, production is still too unreliable, redesigning to Western tastes takes too long (in the Far East they are quicker and cheaper both) and the business arrangements in Poland are still too murky. Where will the workers go if and when the factories close?

It is the workers’ apartments which are most striking, sometimes renovated with new windows and new cement exteriors, sometimes just the old nineteenth century brick walls. They are three- or two-story brick rectangles, and they come, usually, in blocks of several buildings. On ulica Przędzalniana is a wonderful square of old workers’ flats erected in 1875 by Karol Scheibler: six large two-story brick buildings surround a central green, now shaded by mature chestnut trees. Cobblestone roads flank both sides of the green, in the middle of which stands a large public water pump of the type still found all over this city. Behind each building, on the side away from the center park, are out-buildings for storage and small private gardens and back alleys. In the nineteenth century, the complex contained a school, a hospital, and a social club for the workers. Through each apartment building runs a central corridor, dark and dirty, off which flats open to either side, stark and simple and replicated almost endlessly, like the barracks at Auschwitz.

Photo by David Pichaske.

Externally, I can’t imagine these apartments have changed much in the past century. White lace curtains fill the windows, and invariably some potted plant is framed by the white high-gloss enamel inner window frame (exterior frames are always either Forest Service brown or Kelly green). Outside, geraniums and hollyhocks and red roses. In a more prosperous Łódź, these flats would have the renovated trendiness of the mews section of, say, Earl’s Court, London.

The kids who play near these flats today are thin-legged in the manner I imagine workers’ children of a century ago. A small boy, exploring the neighborhood with his puppy, kicks his way through a puddle. A slightly older boy bounces a nearly black soccer ball off one brick wall with his feet, his chest, and his head. A couple of girls play a jumping game with some enormous rubber band they have stretched between the two support poles on a rug-beating frame: skip over, hop on the band, skip to one side, hop back, on with one foot, on with the other foot, straddle, skip over. Stop, raise the band a few inches, repeat.

Stop, raise, repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

The old White Factory at Piotrkowska 282 houses the City Textile Museum, ten cents admission. Although the windows are usually dark, this museum is usually open, usually empty. The city is conserving electricity. Attendants will light rooms ahead of you, and darken them as you leave, one floor at a time.

The Textile Museum celebrates the history of the Łódź textile industry. Its interior preserves the oppressive gloom of the nineteenth century factory: low ceilings of heavy plank floors, supported by massive one-foot-square timber pillars. Along the center of the ceiling runs a pipe with a sprinkler system, and a few undisguised electrical cables. A visitor’s first impression of the museum is dejection: this is exactly how it must have felt to come to work very early on a gray Łódź Monday morning, looking down the tunnel at another long work week.

Only the dust is missing, and the noise. First floor is devoted to displays of every imaginable spinning and weaving device, either there on the floor or in scale model: spinning machines, weaving machines, carders, dyers, rollers, dryers, dates like 1767, 1769, 1808, 1880, 1928, 1964, 1973, all combinations of wood, brass, machined and forged steel, wires, wheels, pulleys, spindles, shuttles, belts, chains. Equipment from England, Germany, Poland. At the back of the first floor, backlit by fluorescent lights which have bleached them almost unrecognizable, large color photographs of the really big machines still used in the really big Łódź factories.

It is the second floor which most impresses a visitor who has spent even a couple of days in Łódź: the nuts and bolts of the city’s commerce, told in enlarged photographs of one mill after another, in artifacts like swatch books and accounting records, in the reproduced office of a factory owner—elaborately carved, glass-front bookcase behind a high Victorian desk, facing the Victorian visitor’s chair backed by a huge tapestry of a boar hunt—and the austere simplicity of a factory worker’s apartment at the turn of the century. Much of the signage in the photos, much of the print in the advertisements and swatchbooks, in Russian, reflecting the market orientation of Łódź. There are huge depictions, which probably hung once in the offices of their respective owners, of the Scheibler works, the Poznański works, the Grohman factory, the Geyer works as they appeared in their heyday: little cities of warehouses, production buildings, warehouses, sales rooms, owners’ mansions, parks, ponds, workers’ quarters, walls, gates, train tracks, horse-drawn trucks, loading, unloading, trucking bales of cotton here, heaps of fabric there. There are maps of Łódź, and photographs of Piotrkowska Street, chronicling the transformation of village and street from rural mud puddle four streets wide and a hundred lots long into the Manchester of the East. There are photographs of buildings now gone and of complexes outside Łódź city limits. There is a Singer sewing machine, and a silver platter celebrating 100 years of the Geyer works in 1929.

One display recreates the typical worker’s flat in turn-of-the-century Łódź: unpainted pine table, two ladderback chairs, and a corner cupboard. A bed. A mirror. A coal-fired heater. A cookstove. A small wall decoration. A life not much different from the lives of turn-of-the-century workers in the United States or Great Britain or industrial Germany.

They are the soul of Poland, and whatever it is to become.

And there are photographs of the workers, posed photographs before the factory gates or at the edge of a loading dock, and unposed photographs of workers’ protests and rebellions, including the Rebellion of 1905, the first shots of which were fired at barricades in Łódź. Grainy faces stare at a visitor, the grimy faces of multitude long dead, not as they went to their graves, but as they looked when still young, strong, full of dreams and anxieties: the men with their brave moustaches, heads of dark hair, and work suits with suspenders; the young spinning girls with broad faces and strong shoulders in their high collars and long skirts. The unending numbers of workers, not yet dead in the eyes, but dirty to the bone, and weary in every fiber of their being. The people are nameless now, but not faceless. And these people are not strangers to anyone who has been long in Łódź. The faces staring out of those old photographs are the faces one meets every day walking down Piotrkowska, in the Cathedral praying, in the markets buying and selling, by the old mill pond fishing and drinking. These are the workers who built Łódź in the nineteenth century, who claimed it as their own in the early twentieth century, who—let us be candid—allowed it to collapse upon itself in the past decades.

These are the workers who, if anyone can, will build the new Łódź, and the new Poland. They are the soul of Poland, and whatever it is to become.

Photo by David Pichaske.


It’s the ninth chapter of the book by David R. Pichaske. Visit our website next week to read the next part of this extraordinary journey to Poland between 1989 and 1991.


Poland in Transition: 1989-1991 by David R. Pichaske is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. It is available to download as MOBI and EPUB at poland-in-transition.com.


David R. Pichaske
David Pichaske spent 1989-1991 in Poland, as Senior Fulbright Lecturer at the University of Łódź, during which time these essays were written. His other books include Beowulf to Beatles, The Jubilee Diary, A Generation in Motion, Song of the North Country: A Midwest Framework to the Songs of Bob Dylan, UB03: A Season in Outer Mongolia, The Pigeons of Buchenau and Other Stories, Here I Stand, Crying in the Wilderness, and Bones of Bricks and Mortar. Pichaske holds a Ph.D. in English and teaches at Southwest State University, Marshall, Minnesota.