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Shoemakers' Strike

Shoemakers' Strike

United States 1860

Synopsis

The New England Shoemakers' Strike was the largest pre-Civil War labor event in the United States. Between February and April 1860, over 20,000 workers (including both men and women) from all over New England struck both for higher wages and the concession that workers would have an active voice in salary and labor decisions. Though it had some success with the wage issue, the strike gained nothing in terms of the latter demand. Several factors influenced this outcome, including the factory owners' ability to send work to out-of-town laborers (thus bypassing the need for the local, striking labor), and the fact that winter was fast approaching and the strikers needed their lost wages to buy provisions. The strike's historical importance lies not so much in concessions gained or not gained, but rather in the fact of its sheer existence, in which successful worker organization led to the first regional strike in the United States.

Timeline

  • 1841: Act of Union joins Upper Canada and Lower Canada, which consist of parts of the present-day provinces of Ontario and Quebec respectively.
  • 1845: Publication of The Raven and Other Poems by Edgar Allan Poe.
  • 1849: Harriet Tubman escapes from slavery in Maryland. Over the next eight years, she will undertake at least 20 secret missions into Maryland and Virginia to free more than 300 slaves through the so-called Underground Railroad.
  • 1853: Commodore Matthew Perry arrives in Japan, and the United States forces the Japanese to permit American trade.
  • 1856: British inventor Henry Bessemer introduces his process for producing steel cheaply and efficiently.
  • 1858: British explorer John Hanning Speke locates Lake Victoria, which he correctly identifies as the source of the Nile.
  • 1860: South Carolina secedes from the Union.
  • 1860: Maleska: The Indian Wife of the White Hunter by Anne S. W. Stephens is the first "dime novel." The publisher, Beadle & Adams of New York City, will over the next few years produce hundreds of such books, many of which chronicle the adventures of Deadwood Dick and Nick Carter.
  • 1860: Louis Pasteur pioneers his method of "pasteurizing" milk by heating it to high temperatures in order to kill harmful microbes.
  • 1862: Major Civil War battles include Shiloh, Second Bull Run (Manassas), and Antietam. During the latter battle, 17 September is the bloodiest day in American history, with nearly 5,000 dead and more than 20,000 wounded.
  • 1866: Introduction of the Winchester repeating rifle.
  • 1869: Black Friday panic ensues when James Fisk and Jay Gould attempt to control the gold market.

Event and Its Context

On 22 February 1860 an excited crowd of nearly 10,000 people gathered to watch a parade in the town of Lynn, Massachusetts. It was, not coincidentally, the birthday of George Washington, and those gathered in anticipation knew that the parade would share a philosophical, though not overt, connection to America's first president. The marchers were striking shoemakers, and the spectators their sympathizers. The marchers gathered in Central Square led by their chosen marshal, Willard Oliver, a politically active watchmaker, at around 10:00.M. The Lynn Cornet Band playing "Hail, Columbia" headed up the procession of 3,000 striking workers, who carried banners emblazoned with numerous mottoes, including "As men, we do this day unite to pack our kits and strike for rights; our prize is fair and our aim is just—that you'll assent we hope and trust."

The marchers received encouragement from well-wishers who packed the town. Patriotic feeling ran high, and the marchers' spirits were bolstered by the show of support—though that support was by no means unanimous. The marchers, who were "most orderly," nonetheless jeered at one nonsupportive boss whom they found working in his shop, with cries of "scab," "kick him out," and "for shame."

The strikers gathered again at 12:30 P.M. in Central Square to listen to speeches, which shared common threads: the determination to preserve the artisan tradition in New England, and the need for men to provide for their families. The executive strike committee based its platform on these two morally irreproachable stances. The excited crowds met again at 3:00 P.Mfor more speeches and reports.

Flushed with a feeling of triumph, the organized shoemakers of Lynn nonetheless had no idea that they had begun what would become known as the New England Shoemakers' Strike. Though both the procession and the strike it inaugurated carried with them a feeling of spontaneity, they were in reality anything but spontaneous. The strike actually had roots as far back as the Panic of 1857 and in the rise of industrial sewing machines; both events had caused severe rifts between workers and the owners who paid them.

By the late 1820s, a number of factors, including the abandonment of the Puritans' negative view of profiteering and certain strictures on the economy, had caused a philosophical shift regarding capitalism. This new outlook allowed factories in small cities and villages to dramatically increase their rates of production, at least initially. The period 1820-1860 was marked by an economy that was given to fits and starts. A healthy economy and demand for goods caused rapid increases in the number of workers, which in turn caused a period of almost feverish growth; inevitably, this was followed by a "panic," which suppressed the demand for goods and caused unemployment and poverty for the workers. Between 1830 and 1836, Lynn manufacturers increased production of goods by two-thirds; a depression began in 1837 and lasted until 1844, severely restraining production growth. After rebounding, the economy and rate of production strengthened (at a somewhat feverish rate), only to be hit with another depression in 1857. This latter depression caused the virtual cessation of shoe production in Lynn and severe poverty as shoemakers throughout the town were let go. Moreover, industrialization was taking hold, and shoemakers were experiencing its consequences in the form of lower wages. Factory owners embraced automation as a more cost-effective means of production. In short, mechanized binding, made possible by sewing machines, was on the rise. The shoemakers had not willingly accepted this innovation and sent a delegation to one shop where a sewing machine had been installed to request that the operator cease running it. The shoemakers' concern reflected that the cost of one sewing machine was only one-third to one-half of a shoe binder's annual wages.

In November 1857 at a meeting at Lyceum Hall, businessmen and politicians were not prepared for the workers' reactions to the businessmen's suggestion of public relief for their struggling companies. Winter, a time of reduced demand for their goods and therefore reduced income, was coming on, but the suggestion of charity was insulting and did little to ease strained relations between workers and bosses. At a second meeting, the workers made their own suggestions, one of which was that the shoe manufacturers continue to give them at least some work until demand for shoes once again rose; another was that the owners distribute 10 percent of their profits equally among their workers. The owners instead insisted that public relief was necessary, and the public debate seems to have ended there. Hostility between workers and owners, however, was still very much alive, and the distressed economy did little to improve their relationship.

In the spring of 1859, in an uncertain economy bolstered by mistrust toward manufacturers and a revulsion at the idea of receiving charity, the shoemakers formed the Lynn Mechanics Association and began publishing the New England Mechanic, which enabled them to organize New England's largest strike. In the winter of 1860, after three years of frustrated livelihood paired with resentment toward both sewing machines and the manufacturers, the workers had had enough and organized the New England Shoemakers' Strike. Though it was by no means the first strike in Lynn, it was unique in its sheer numbers and scope. Estimates indicate that at least 20,000 people struck—half the employees in New England and one-third of the 60,000 workers employed in Massachusetts factories. From Marblehead to Swampscot, workers laid down their tools and hoisted banners as they took to the streets.

The chief goal of the strike, at least at the beginning, was to secure higher wages for shoe bottomers. Though the striking workers presented a united front to the world, the movement was actually rife with opposing views and goals. Chief among the disagreements were the issues of men versus women and factory workers versus home workers. The strike committee wisely associated the strike with George Washington, the artisan tradition, and the duty of men to provide for their families. These associations, along with the cheerful banner-waving parades, gathered tremendous support for shoemakers and other workers alike. When it became apparent that some factory owners were determined to continue with business as usual, some of the strikers decided to take matters into their own hands and use force to gain their objective. The first three days of the strike were characterized by several incidents of mob assaults on "scabs," confrontations with city officials, and public drunkenness that threatened the carefully crafted image of moral Republicanism.

On 25 February, while many of the Lynn shoemakers were in a meeting, William Eaton, a "scab," was seen taking home a basket of work from a manufacturer. He was set upon by an indignant mob. Though both the mayor and the city marshal tried to intervene, the crowd paid them little attention. Alonzo Draper, a member of the strike committee, came on the scene, and finally the crowd released the unfortunate man and dispersed. Another mob attacked a policeman stationed at the depot. Crowds attacked several wagons that contained packages of shoe goods, on one occasion dispersing when the driver brandished a pistol. Throughout the day the crowds seized boxes and goods, and uneasy chaos prevailed. This was not at all the atmosphere desired by the executive strike committee, and they called a meeting that evening to remind strikers of their purpose. In spite of resolutions to the contrary passed at the meeting, by the next afternoon several more incidents had occurred, and the mayor swore in about 100 special policemen. The executive committee formed its own police from among the strikers to work with the mayor's appointees and reiterated its vow of noninterference with shipments. The relationship between city officials and strikers, who before had seen themselves as closely allied by community ties, had already been damaged. In the minds of strikers, the violence caused the officials to ally with the shoe bosses.

This belief was only reinforced when the mayor, responding to an appeal by manufacturers, called in the Lynn light infantry militia. Meanwhile, manufacturers persuaded their friends in city government to contact the state attorney general, the sheriff of Essex county, a major general in the state militia, and the city officials and police chiefs of Boston and South Danvers. As a result, detachments of Boston and South Danvers police were dispatched along with the militia, and the next morning the citizens of Lynn realized that they were living under martial law. At the end of the third day of the strike, the outside police and militia forces left, and there was no more major violence.

During the six weeks of the strike, there were a total of five processions through Lynn itself, with each procession having at least 1,000 people in it. During the procession on 7 March, more than 800 women marched. The largest procession occurred on 16 March. Participants numbered some 6,000 men and women from Lynn and other towns that were sympathetic to the cause. Members of volunteer fire departments, militia companies, and community music groups such as the Lynn Cornet Band all joined in the procession. Many who joined the parade were not strikers themselves; the purpose of the gathering was to demonstrate to the bosses and to themselves the solidarity of not only the striking workers, but that of the entire community. This solidarity extended to at least some of the bosses: several had decorated their buildings for the first procession, just as many had willingly pledged to the strike fund.

The executive strike committee had successfully marketed the strike to the region as both a defense of the artisan tradition against the evils of soulless automation, and as a defense of the family wage. Though these selling points had bought quite a lot of support for the strike, not everyone was entirely pleased with its objectives; among the disenchanted were machinists and unmarried "shop girls" who relied only on themselves for their living.

A great deal of the women's involvement in the strike was carefully considered and manipulated by the men of the executive committee. Knowing that female workers had struck successfully in nearby Marblehead, Draper had suggested on 21 February, prior to the start of the strike, that they should include women in the action. The committee did not pursue this course until after the moral position of the men's strike was called into question by violence and drunkenness that had stimulated criticism by the press. The strike committee needed to reestablish its moral authority, and it believed that the association of women with the strike would reinforce to sympathizers the values of home, family, and the artisan tradition that had originally garnered so much support for its cause.

The executive committee decided that women should boycott owners who did not support higher wages for the shoe bottomers. At a meeting on 23 February, the committee told the men to encourage their wives, girlfriends, and daughters to attend a meeting that night. When Draper addressed the women, he categorized their concerns only in terms of the men's concerns, assuming that they were one in the same. The women called attention to the fallacy of this assumption when they interrupted to point out that not all of them were married or engaged. Draper tried to persuade the women to strike and departed in a flush of excitement to inform the waiting men. During the lively discussion that followed, the participants decided to appoint committees to garner additional local support and draw up a list of wage demands, and to organize other women shoe workers in the shoe towns of Essex County (Marblehead, Newburyport, and Danvers). Their third decision shocked the executive committee: far from remaining passive and taking orders, the women also decided to strike to raise the wages of women workers.

The women's second meeting convened on 27 February in Liberty Hall with nearly 2,000 women attending. The women had agreed to boycott owners who were not sympathetic to the male strikers' goals; the strike committee believed that higher men's wages were the women's only goal. The purpose of the meeting was address the price lists being created for use in bargaining with owners. Two factions, the shop girls and the home workers, formed the heart of the discussion. The committee responsible for determining prices had not considered the fact that wages for home workers should naturally be higher, as the latter bought their machines, threads, and all other materials. Severe jealousies and rivalries appear to have existed on both sides, as reporters witnessed the shrieking match that erupted between the groups. Oliver, who chaired the meeting, attempted to gain cooperation by reminding the participants of their higher purpose. He became disgruntled when the factory girls criticized the recommended wages as too low and argued for striking to increase wages for all women workers, regardless of whether they worked in homes or factories. Clara Brown, a 21-year-old factory girl who emerged as a leader of this group, effectively seized control of the meeting with her persuasive argument, and in the end, the women voted (though not unanimously) to strike for higher wages for men and women. The next order of business was whether or not the women should join the male strikers in the next parade, scheduled for 7 March. Contention on this point as well finally ended with a vote by a small majority to participate. The women ended the meeting with the decision to send out canvassing committees to find more striking women and to report female "scabs" who were still working and had refused to join the strike. Oliver and Mary Damon (speaking for the home workers) insisted on another meeting the next night to reconsider the issue of women's wages.

On 28 February at Lyceum Hall, 2,000 women met for their third official meeting. Draper again addressed the meeting to persuade them that it was more important for their husbands to get higher wages than it was for them. One woman spoke up to remind him that not all of them had husbands, and was greeted with laughter by the crowd. Draper reminded the women that the men had garnered widespread support in 14 towns and effectively urged the women not to mess things up for the men. Oliver then read two wage lists, one a high wage list, and one prepared by the home workers who were closely allied with the men's strike. Debate again broke out between Clara Brown for the factory girls and Damon for the home workers. Brown made an impassioned speech, exhorting the women to hold out for higher wages. Her eloquence carried the day. Oliver, no doubt peeved that he had lost control of the meeting and that the high wage list was once again endorsed, then announced that he no longer thought the women should participate in the 7 March parade. The women ignored him and voted unanimously to march.

Oliver, Damon, and the executive strike committee refused to accept the women's decision in regard to the high wage list and altered the list to their own liking. The list was printed and circulated as the official list. The enraged shop girls confronted them at the fourth and final meeting of the women workers on 2 March. James Dillon, president of the strike committee, replaced Oliver, who had been implicated in the list scandal, as meeting chair. Dillon played on the women's love of their families, convincing them that to strike for themselves was indecent. Many of the home workers truly felt this way and viewed the unmarried shop girls as selfish individualists. Though Clara Brown argued the case for women's wages, the women yielded to the pressure to change their votes: more than 1,700 reversed their decision to support the strike for women's higher wages. The executive committee and the home workers had won, and the chance to change the status of all women workers was lost.

The strike, which ended in mid-April 1860, had won for some the higher wages that were one of the goals but failed to secure a collective voice for wage determination. Had the strike continued for a longer period of time or if factory owners had been unable to secure labor outside of Lynn, perhaps then the strikers would have won this concession. Workers were facing a complete loss of wages and could not afford to continue. Practical needs outweighed philosophical desires. The relationship with manufacturers was no better than before. The independent-minded Lynn shoemakers would not soon forget or forgive the factory owners and town leaders for bringing in the military to squash what they viewed as their Jeffersonian-given right to protest.

Key Players

Dillon, James: Vice president of the Lynn Mechanics' Association; chairman of the strike committee.

Draper, Alonzo (1835-1865): Born in Brattleboro, Vermont, Draper appears to have been a dabbler, claiming no particular occupation. He worked for a time for his father-in-law at the Leverett Street jail and also taught writing, bookkeeping, and French at various times. Though he himself was not a shoemaker nor even employed in a factory, it was he who established both the New England Mechanic newspaper and the Lynn Mechanics Association. At one point he also had political aspirations, hoping to be elected to the state legislature. It is unclear how or why Draper managed to acquire and maintain so much influence over the workers in Lynn when he himself was not one of them.

Oliver, William: President of women's strike movement.

Bibliography

Books

Blewett, Mary H. Men, Women, and Work: Class, Gender, and Protest in the New England Shoe Industry, 1780-1910. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1988.

Dawley, Alan. Class and Community: The Industrial Revolution in Lynn. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1976.

Faler, Paul, G. Mechanics and Manufacturers in the Early Industrial Revolution: Lynn, Massachusetts, 1780-1860.Albany: State University of New York Press, 1981.

Periodicals

"The Bay State Strike—Movement Among thu Women—Acts and Proceedings of Employers and Workmen." New York Times, 25 February 1860.

"The Massachusetts Strike." New York Times, 9 March 1860.

"The Massachusetts Strike: State of the Movement at Lynn—Mass Meeting of the Strikers at Lyceum Hall." New York Times, 2 March 1860.

"The Massachusetts Strike: The Females Afoot—Mistakes of the Strikers." New York Times, 3 March 1860.

"The Shoemakers' Riots: Follies of the Strikers—Threatening Letters, A. C." New York Times, 25 February 1860. "The Shoemakers Still Striking—The Hemmers and Stitchers in the Field—Feminine Spirit Aroused." New York Times, 1 March 1860.

"The Strike of the Massachusetts Shoemakers." New York Times, 24 February 1860.

—Kimberley Barker

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