The foundation

1877-1890

Vision

Here we are, finally. Perhaps this is what Cristoforo Crespi blurted out, after roaming all across Lombardy, after years and years of research, as he was travelling around in a carriage, almost like an Italian version of the Far West.

What did he see before him? At first glance, it would have appeared as untamed terrain, set within natural borders – the Adda River and its confluent, the Brembo, on two sides and on the third, situated a bit higher, the area that was once called the Bergamo moat. The hollow had a single entrance to the north, which was steep and sandy.

That is what anyone else would have seen, but not Cristoforo, who had a dream he wanted to realise at any cost. He intuitively understood that this was the perfect spot for his cotton-spinning mill.

It is 1877. The property is in the province of Bergamo, at the border of the province of Milan, a strategically important area.

Land

Cristoforo was convinced early on that this was the right place, but in the beginning, it was not easy to determine the ownership.

The available maps only made the situation more baffling. The land was divided into lots by the municipality of Canonica d’Adda on one side, and the municipality of Capriate d’Adda on the other.

After having made his calculations, Crespi opened his wallet and bought 85 hectares of land. The last pieces of the puzzle had fallen into place, serving as the foundation for his ambitious project, essentially, his dream.

Water

Buying the land was only the first step; there was still much to do. The other indispensable factor was water, at that time the engine of industry, particularly the textile industry. Without power, there would be no mill. Crespi sought and obtained authorisation to use the water of the Adda River. In that specific area, the river runs straight, alongside the Naviglio Martesana, a marvellous inland waterway that leads directly into Milan. To use it, Cristoforo had to re-route the river to pass through the centre of his manufacturing facility.

Re-routing the river was no small task. Pickaxes, shifts of hundreds of working digging and moving 170,000 cubic metres of earth and 13,000 of solid rock, bringing the power of the river under their control.

All of this effort resulted in a 1-kilometre canal that ended in a drop of 4 metres, the height necessary to produce hydraulic energy.

However, when they began to build the engine room, things became even more complicated. Apparently, there was a water leak that the workers were unable to drain even using the mighty steam-powered pumps. They worked continuously for 40 days and 40 nights, but in the end, their efforts failed. Cristoforo was worried and disheartened and in one of his letters, admitted that part of his hair was going grey over the situation.

In the end, it wasn’t the effort of all the workers, but rather a drought, that resolved the situation. It was fate – the factory would be built.

Canapone

Once the obstacles had been overcome, the engine room was built followed by the power station. An enormous room, known as the canapone, held a large engine that produced the necessary power.

In the basements of the factory, mechanical arms, attached to the engine, extended to the various departments to operate the spinning equipment. In 1904, Cristoforo transformed it into a hydroelectric station that became operational in 1909.

Factory

When deciding on the design of cotton mill, Cristoforo followed the model of British factories. The saw-tooth profile of the roofs, which is still visible today, is known as “English shed”.

Cristoforo decided on large single-story spaces with the sections of roof facing north inclined and made of glass, to diffuse lightly uniformly without blinding workers.

The first production centre was built with fewer problems than those that plagued the construction of the canal. The result was a 7,650 square metre cotton mill with two departments: spinning and twisting. The latter type of processing, which was very rare in Italy, involves intertwining several cotton yarns to obtain a more resistant yarn.

The noise generated by the machinery filled the air on 25 July 1878. A typical noise that former workers and residents of Crespi remember very well. On that particular day, a 10-year-old child approached the loader and threw in the first handful of raw cotton. The child was Silvio Crespi, the elder son of Cristoforo.

There were 1,200 mechanical looms and 5,000 spindles installed in the initial production site. The spindles were self-acting, or machinery with intermittent cycling, the most advanced technology of that time, imported from England.

Labour

The land surrounding the growing factory had been agriculture fields for many years. Families had worked them for hundreds of years, fields that had been cultivated and then abandoned because they were depleted of resources. These farmers did not coordinate their activities and had very little entrepreneurial drive.

In addition, the rivers had no banks and often the surrounding areas were infested marshes.

In other words, farmers were barely able to be self-sufficient, and many would travel to other countries for a season to supplement their meagre income. Cristoforo believed that these farmers, and the perseverance with which they laboured day after day, could be used for industrial production.

However, he needed two things: someone to teach them their jobs and homes near the factory.

Residential buildings

To satisfy these needs, Cristoforo constructed residential buildings near the factory. Three linear structures of three stories were erected, with forty rooms in each. Some specialised workers from other cotton mills were housed here with their families, together with the first group of local farmers who have to learn the trade. There was also space for a small Sunday school, a pre-school for children and a store that stocked necessary products for the inhabitants.

Other services were also provided. Construction began on a cafeteria, hotel and stables for animals used to transport goods.

Over a period of three years, this previously abandoned area began to bustle with life. There was a continual coming and going of people, animals, wagons and goods. The town had begun to take shape.

Women and children

At the time, the cotton mill opened, only 30% of Italian workers in the textile industry were adult males. The rest of the labour force consisted of women and children.

The shifts could last anywhere from twelve to fifteen hours. Inside the factories, there were numerous hardships and dangers caused by the excessive heat from machinery, the dust from the cotton and the movement of large equipment.

In 1889, the Crespi factory employees were broken down as follows: 210 men, 250 women, and 140 children, of which 80 were girls and 60 were boys, all under 15 years of age.

Transportation and connections

During this period, a bicycle was considered a luxury item. Real roads didn’t even exist. Going to work meant leaving the house very early, walking for a half hour or more to reach the factory, finishing your shift and then starting the long walk back home, exhausted from the day’s work.

At Crespi, there was an additional problem – crossing the river. Carriages, wagons, horses, flocks, individuals, even the rare vehicles, had to cross the river at what was generously referred to as the “port”. This port was located in Trezzo sull’Adda, at the end of a road that zigzagged its way to the banks of the Adda. A single raft was used to transport everyone and everything to the other side.

There were no bridges at the time Crespi was established, except for the one at Canonica, several kilometres downriver. Therefore, Cristoforo decided to build two crossings between the Milan side and the Bergamo side. One bridge provided a direct connection from the Milan side to the factory entrance but was later demolished in the 1930s. The bridge was opened 15 minutes prior to the start of each shift and closed 15 minutes after.

The other bridge was located 500 metres upstream and can still be seen today.

Electric lighting

Artificial beams of light from fibres of carbonised cotton – a technical innovation that splintered the darkness of night.

Electric lighting had arrived at the Crespi factory. The equipment arrived directly from the United States, from the laboratory of Thomas Edison, the inventor of incandescent light bulbs. By 1889, the whole town used electric lighting.

Development continues

Cristoforo had already planned to expand the factory and add other equipment, based on his vision for the workshop.

In 1884, there were 20,000 spindles. Of these, 3,000 were ring spindles, which differ from self-acting spindles in that they are continuous. The increase in the number of machines also required an increase in production power.

Bridge

A single large iron arch that supports the road, an astonishing mosaic of shapes and forms. The bridge constructed between Capriate d’Adda and Trezzo sull’Adda from 1884 to 1886 features a design that is both simple and bold at the same time. The architect, Julius Röthlisberger, was often compared to the creator of the Eiffel Tower.

The connection provided additional opportunities for Cristoforo’s business, and by 1888, its rails were part of the Monza, Trezzo and Bergamo line and was known as Gamba de lègn, or Wooden Leg.

The new general manager

Just before Christmas in 1889, Cristoforo presented his son Silvio with a gift that was both heavy and delicate. Eleven years after having thrown the first handful of raw cotton in the loader, his eldest son was named general manager of the factory.

He had recently graduated with a law degree and had worked abroad, in a spinning mill in England, then in Germany and finally in a London bank.

From the outset, Silvio seemed to be the right person at the right time: experienced, intelligent, and enterprising. Cristoforo’s dream had truly taken flight.

Workers’ houses

Silvio’s initiatives involved both manufacturing as well as housing. In 1886, Cristoforo built the first workers’ houses. His son’s residential project had a more systematic organisation, involving the construction of homes according to an orthogonal layout with a uniform distance between them.

It was a radical change. No more dormitory-style residences, but individual homes for a maximum of two nuclear families.

Wash-house

They set off in a straight line, one after the other, laden with dirty clothes, making their way through the streets to the Adda’s riverbank. They are the women of the village, young and old. The river that provided the power for the factory was also necessary for daily life, including washing clothes, in both winter and summer.

The families were very numerous and although the standards for hygiene were different than they are today, and the amount of clothing the family owned much less, washing the laundry was exhausting work. Hence, in 1890, near the first residential buildings, a covered wash-house was built, divided into two sections. The first for washing, the second for rinsing.

It was constructed from exposed brick, with arches supported by decorated columns and with geometric shapes around the perimeter, just under the roof.

Later a second wash-house was built, near the heating plant, using stone and cement rather than brick.