Friday, December 6, 2013

Paterson, New Jersey, the SUM, and the Silk Strike of 1913

In 1791, Alexander Hamilton, then Secretary of the Treasury convened a group of investors and  started the Society for Useful Manufacturers (SUM). He chose Paterson, N.J. for its proximity to the Passaic Falls and opportunity for future growth. It would be one of the first planned industrial communities in the United States; its design and function centered around the encouragement of stateside commerce and manufacturing. Using the power generated by the falls, developers built an intricate raceway system along the river, from where most mills generated power. The first mill was built and operational by 1796 on Mill Street and by the 1830s the area was known as the cotton capital of the United States.
Passaic Falls, N.J. [1890-1900]. Image: LOC
Locomotive manufacturing came to Paterson first in 1835 with the opening of Rogers Locomotive Works, followed by Danford & Cook and Grant Locomotive Company. All three produced over 10,000 steam engines.  Samuel Colt opened the Colt Gun Mill 1836,  all while the textile and cotton industries continued to flourish. Sanborn maps of the area from 1887 and 1899 show rapid growth during the late 1880s and into the 1900s.

Image: LOC

Paterson, N.J. in 1901. Image: Shorpy

By the early 1900s, with over 100 silk firms located in Paterson, the area was dubbed Silk City, and in 1910 SUM built the first hydro-electric plant. Before, each plant was powered by individual water wheels.

Silk Factory, stripping and dyeing, Paterson, N.J., early 1900s. Stereoscopic: Paige Family

Workers weaving plain silk cloth at a Paterson silk mill, early 1900s. Stereoscopic: Paige Family

The increased industrialization and poor working conditions of the early 1900s led to the Paterson Silk Strike of 1913 (not the town's first strike). Among the demands were the establishment of an eight-hour work day and restrictions in child labor practices. Organized by Paterson workers with the help of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), the strikers succeeded in bringing international attention to abusive labor practices endured by workers all over the world, as well as cohesion to the growing movement to stop them. A pageant was held to raise awareness and support at Madison Square Garden on June 7, 1913.

Children from Paterson, N.J. attend a May Day parade in New York City as part of the Silk Strike protest efforts, May 1, 1913. Image: LOC

More than 25,000 skilled and unskilled workers effectively shut down the town's 300 mills and dye houses, however, they were defeated in July of that year. There remained animosity on both sides, with manufacturers making small concessions to striker demands to avoid further unrest. Finally, in 1919, the eight-hour workday was granted.

This year is the centennial of the Paterson Silk Strike. If you find yourself near Haledon New Jersey, check out the  American Labor Museum's exhibit commemorating the Silk Strike's centennial. It's up for another month.

Other sources:
1. NARA's Lewis Hine WPA Research Project photo gallery on flickr
2. Library of Congress research guides by New Deal Program
3. The Great Falls Raceway and Power System, Paterson NJ, National Historic Mechanical and Civil Engineering Landmark, Dedication Program, May 20, 1977
4. National Parks website

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