A sightseeing jewel, half an hour’s drive from Warsaw, since 2012 included on the list of the 50 most important historic monuments in Poland, hardly known to tourists at all. And no, it’s not Chopin’s birthplace.
Żyrardów, once the biggest flax production centre in Europe, employing nine thousand people, today boasts the only entirely preserved 19th-century industrial urban complex, complete with workers’ quarters, schools, a daycare centre, a social club, a hospital, baths, a laundry, directors’ houses, the owner’s villa. The factory buildings have been turned into a shopping arcade and loft apartments while the remaining parts of the complex have largely retained their original functions.
Żyrardów was built from scratch in the first half of the 19th century by a company, Karol Scholtz i Spółka, set up by entrepreneurs connected to Bank Polski, as the first flax factory in this part of Europe. Among the business partners were the Łubieński brothers of landowning nobility who provided the location. In 1833, when the first red-brick building of the spinning mill was competed, the factory started its conquest of the European markets. Its first Technical Director Philippe de Girard, who became the town’s namesake (‘Żyrardów’ derives from the polonised spelling of his surname), was a French constructor and the inventor of the first flax spinning frame.
The turning point in the history of the town came in 1857 with the arrival of new Austrian owners: Karol August Dittrich and Karol Hielle. It was thanks to their reforms and management that Żyrardów developed in line with their concept of an ideal city, and flourished as a town and business venture.
After hours the workers had access to various amenities. There were two cultural centres that organised concerts and staged theatrical productions. There was a bowling alley, billiards, a parlour for playing cards. The factory boasted its own orchestra and two choirs. Later on another building was added to house a cinema.
Guests from other European textile centres were awed by Żyrardów’s social programmes. Valued employees were given apartments in the workers housing estate, which was systematically extended. Education was especially appreciated by the factory management. As many as five schools were built: one downtown, two on the factory grounds (one for the children of the management and one for the workers’ kids), a school for girls, and a Jewish school. Those not old enough for school attended the day care centre for 1200 workers children. Medical care was provided to the employees free of charge by English doctors at the factory hospital. The latter had central heating and electric light, and was designed after the most modern Dresden hospitals. Also accessible to all were baths and laundry facilities.
This ideal city was financed with linen production, the biggest in Europe. The lion’s share was sold to the Russian Empire. Brand shops took up the most prestigious locations in many towns: Warsaw, Kalisz, Częstochowa, Poznań, Saint Petersburg. Żyrardów linen won awards at fairs in Paris, Munich, Berlin, Vienna, Budapest and Moscow. After a while the factory branched out into cotton production and began to churn out socks and stockings. Again, the volume hit European records.
The regular network of streets lined with oaks, chestnuts and lime trees, resounded with multilingual chatter. Poles were employed as workers and accountants, the management posts were taken up by Germans and Austrians. Among the mill’s labour force were also Scots, Czechs and Slovaks. Jews dominated crafts and trade, doctors were English, while Russians and Cossacks were responsible for preserving law and order. The multitude of churches built in the factory town tells of its multicultural character. There were two Roman-Catholic parishes, one Lutheran, one Baptist, and a synagogue. Żyrardów inhabitants lived peacefully side by side, there are no records of conflicts or acts of religious intolerance.
The town’s golden age came to an end at the time of World War I, when Żyrardów suffered material destruction as well as the loss of its traditional markets.
Author: Agnieszka Mitraszewska, Summer 2015