St. Crispin Organizations

views updated

St. Crispin Organizations

United States 1867, 1869


Massachusetts shoemakers organized the International Knights of St. Crispin (KOSC) in the mid-nineteenth century to oppose the worst effects of industrialization on the work of shoemaking and to preserve the values of their equal rights ideology based on artisan culture. Industrialization centralized production of boots and shoes in factories. The introduction of steam-powered machinery increasingly divided jobs by specialization. Resistance to the growing power of industrial capitalism required factory workers to organize and confront their employers as trade unionists. Resisting both wage cuts and seeking control of work processes as mechanization continued, the activities of the KOSC, led by the craft lodges in Massachusetts, expanded into emerging shoe centers in the American Northeast and Canada.

The sexual division of labor and the mechanization of sewing light leather also introduced women shoeworkers into shoe factories. With the goal of protecting women who moved among Northeastern shoe centers in search of higher wages, the national Daughters of St. Crispin (DOSC) sought to represent the economic interests and political rights of migratory female shoeworkers and those resident in shoe towns. Led by women workers, the DOSC operated separately from the Knights but cooperated in strikes and in pressuring employers to arbitrate wages and grievances.


  • 1860: South Carolina secedes from the Union.
  • 1861: Within weeks of Abraham Lincoln's inauguration, the U.S. Civil War begins with the shelling of Fort Sumter. Six states secede from the Union, joining South Carolina to form the Confederate States of America (later joined by four other states) and electing Jefferson Davis as president. The first major battle of the war, at Bull Run or Manassas in Virginia, is a Confederate victory.
  • 1862: Though Great Britain depends on cotton from the American South, it is more dependent on grain from the North, and therefore refuses to recognize the Confederacy.
  • 1862: Victor Hugo's Les Misérables depicts injustices in French society, and Ivan Turgenev's Fathers and Sons introduces the term nihilism.
  • 1863: President Lincoln issues the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing all slaves in Confederate territories, on 1 January. Thus begins a year that sees the turning point of the Civil War, with decisive Union victories at Gettysburg, Vicksburg, and Chattanooga. Thereafter, the Confederacy is almost perpetually on the defensive, fighting not to win but to avoid losing.
  • 1864: General William Tecumseh Sherman conducts his Atlanta campaign and his "march to the sea."
  • 1865: Civil War ends with the surrender of General Robert E. Lee to General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox, Virginia. More than 600,000 men have died, and the South is in ruins, but the Union has been restored.
  • 1865: Ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits slavery.
  • 1866: Introduction of the Winchester repeating rifle.
  • 1867: United States purchases Alaska from Russia for $7.2 million.
  • 1868: Congressional efforts to impeach President Andrew Johnson prove unsuccessful, but they do result in his removal from any direct influence on Reconstruction policy, and ensure his replacement by Ulysses S. Grant as the Republican presidential candidate later that year.
  • 1869: Black Friday panic ensues when James Fisk and Jay Gould attempt to control the gold market.

Event and Its Context

Borrowing the patron saint and preindustrial rituals from English cordwainers, the Knights of St. Crispin in the United States and Canada transferred the political and cultural values of their artisan training into the environment of the emerging post-Civil War shoe factory. These male factory workers organized the most successful union of industrial workers in the 1870s. The KOSC represented various jobs, including skilled lasters and teams of shoeworkers called bottomers. Native-born Massachusetts residents, migratory Yankee workers from Maine and New Hampshire, and Irish immigrants joined the Crispin movement, which reflected the interests of about half of all American shoeworkers in 1870. At the same time the activism of artisan-trained shoeworkers in Canadian factories in southern Ontario and Quebec provinces made the KOSC organization international.

Efforts by large New England manufacturers to dominate sectors of the American shoe market through higher productivity and lower costs confronted shoeworkers with intensifying mechanization, wage cuts, and concentrated, intense seasons of production. As employers defined labor costs as just another commodity in their calculations, shoeworkers experienced downward pressures on piece rates. Manufacturers blamed the forces of supply and demand during the busy seasons of shoe production for cuts in wages, while shoeworkers struggled to support their families. A former Massachusetts shoemaker in Milwaukee founded the KOSC in 1867. In 1868 Lynn shoe-workers organized the first KOSC craft lodge in Massachusetts to control the pace of work and gain better wages. Crispins feared that wealth and power were being concentrated into a few hands and undermining their fair share of the value created by factory labor. They contended that their labor was not a commodity to be buffeted by market forces; supply and demand could not justify unfair wages for exhausting effort. Crispinism was both a general critique of industrial capitalism and a labor organization. KOSC members also organized to prevent migratory shoeworkers called green hands from overcrowding the labor market and being introduced into teams of experienced workers. Unless the Crispins were able to stabilize wage levels, manufacturers would use green hand labor to cut wages.

By 1869 the Crispin organization in Massachusetts, spear-headed by activists in Lynn, Worcester, and Brockton, claimed 30,000 members or sympathizers. In 1870, 2000 Lynn lasters organized Unity Lodge of the KOSC to seek a citywide wage scale protected by procedures for arbitration of grievances. A Mutual Lodge of 500 factory workers quickly backed this move. A strike timed to interrupt the beginning of the busy fall production season backed their demands to negotiate with their employers on an equal basis. Many smaller manufacturers, wishing to stabilize wage levels, agreed to arbitration. While unfilled orders piled up, KOSC negotiated a one-year citywide wage scale. Five Crispins and five manufacturers formed a joint board of arbitration to avoid the rigors of intense industrial competition on both production and wages. This agreement stabilized wages in 1870 and was renewed in 1871. As the leading center of shoe production in New England, Lynn factories, joined by others throughout Essex County in Massachusetts, set the scale of wages for the Crispin organization, which was expanding in shoe centers such as Utica, New York, and Philadelphia. Similar agreements stabilized wages in Toronto and Hamilton, Ontario, although Canadian Crispins left the international order in 1873.

The Knights of St. Crispin in Massachusetts pushed for labor reform, linking up with a statewide movement to restrict hours of factory work and involve the Commonwealth in protecting labor from the degradations of industrialization. In 1869, reacting to outrage over the state legislature's refusal to grant a charter for their union, local workers formed a Labor Reform club. Labor Reform Party candidates for state offices won Lynn elections. In 1878, the Workingmen's Party candidate and long-time Crispin activist beat the incumbent mayor, a large manufacturer and key opponent of the KOSC. In 1869 Crispin leaders encouraged the organization of women shoe-workers in the Daughters of St. Crispin and endorsed women's rights including suffrage. The Crispin movement also advocated cooperative shoe factories as a fairer alternative to industrial capitalism. After the destruction in 1870 of the KOSC in North Adams, Massachusetts, by Asian strikebreakers, the KOSC used politics and strikes to oppose Chinese immigration.

The Lynn strike of 1878 signaled the decline of Crispinism in Massachusetts and undermined KOSC lodges in other shoe centers but not the impetus for future union activity among shoeworkers. Shoeworkers had faced hard times during the depression of 1873, which undercut their organization and agreements on wages. A strike in 1872 failed to renew the citywide wage scale. Small manufacturers closed their factory doors; larger firms dominated production and set wages. Cutthroat competition worsened in 1874 and 1875, and wages dropped.

Crispinism began to revive to oppose the worst practices and conditions of the depression years. Led by the lasters of Unity Lodge who struck against further wage cuts in 1875, Lynn Crispins denounced "injurious competition" and sought the support of manufacturers who were sick of industrial chaos. Arbitration of wages and grievances revived in a search for stability. Between 1875 and 1878, arbitration in Lynn settled strikes, protected profits, and maintained wages for union men. This ended in 1878.

The large Lynn manufacturers, eager to sustain their dominant position in the reviving national shoe market, targeted local Crispin activism. Destroying the Crispin arbitration system in Lynn meant undermining wage levels in the key center of American production of popular ladies high-buttoned shoes. Eliminating arbitration would allow cuts in labor costs and sharpen their competitive edge against competitors outside of New England. In 1878 most Lynn firms insisted on direct negotiations with their workers and thus isolated the Crispin board. In response, the Lynn KOSC lodges struck all firms that had cut the previous year's wage scale. The manufacturers fired Crispin members and recruited strikebreakers from the depression-era labor market. After five weeks of extreme tension, the Lynn Crispins lost the right to arbitration but not the right to organize in lodges. Without a negotiated citywide wage scale, their fight to sustain wages against competitive pressures failed. Still the KOSC developed effective trade unionism to mount opposition to the power of industrial capitalism. After the defeat of arbitration, men's wages in 1879 declined as much as one-third from 1872 levels. Supply and demand determined wages in shoe factories until American and Canadian shoeworkers reasserted the spirit of Crispinism in the Knights of Labor in the 1880s and later in trade unionism.

Daughters of St. Crispin

In late 1868 young female workers in Lynn shoe factories organized Central Lodge No. 1 of the Daughters of St. Crispin (DOSC) to prevent manufacturers from lowering costs through wage cuts. Meeting in Lynn during the summer of 1869, 31 female delegates from local DOSC lodges met to form the national association, which stretched from lodges in Maine to California and south to Philadelphia and Baltimore. The persistence of the sexual division of labor in post-Civil War shoe production, even with the advent of stitching uppers by machine, meant that there was no serious competition with men over jobs. Male Crispins encouraged and supported the movement, but women shoeworkers organized themselves. Labor reformers Jennie Collins and Elizabeth Daniels of Boston attended the organizing convention to promote the involvement of the DOSC in broader activities on behalf of the rights of workingwomen.

The DOSC represented skilled women shoe stitchers, many of whom were unmarried, self-supporting boarders in shoe towns. The organization also included women resident in shoe centers who lived in male-headed families. The leadership of the Lynn and Stoneham lodges provided many national officers between 1869 and 1874. Emma A. Lane of Central Lodge, the wife of a Lynn shoeworker and a strong supporter of Crispinism, became the First Grand Directress. Martha Wallbridge of Excelsior Lodge, an unmarried, self-supporting boarder from New York state who stitched shoes in Stoneham, Massachusetts, was elected Second Grand Directress. Other officers came from Maine and New York. They represented the self-supporting boarding stitcher and the female head of family to a greater extent than residents living in male-headed families. In late 1869, 24 lodges formed with the largest in Rochester, New York. The combined efforts of the Knights and Daughters won strikes in Syracuse, New York, and Baltimore in 1871. The KOSC and the DOSC cooperated, but they held separate meetings and conventions and chose different newspapers for public statements. Stitchers' wages did not appear on citywide KOSC wage scales of 1870 and 1871 in Lynn, nor were they discussed at arbitration meetings.

In the summer of 1869, shortly after Samuel Cummings participated in the DOSC's organizational convention, he and Martha Wallbridge represented the Crispins at the National Labor Union convention. They, along with other New England delegates and over the objections of trade unionists, voted to seat Susan B. Anthony of the Woman Suffrage Association as a delegate to the NLU, but Anthony's ideas were unpopular and she was ejected from the convention. Martha Wallbridge also attended the 1870 NLU convention as the First Grand Directeress of the DOSC, having just defeated Emma Lane, who opposed women's suffrage. At this NLU convention Wallbridge reiterated Anthony's call for equal pay for equal work and for equal access by women to all trades. Whether equal rights for working women should include both economic rights as workers and political rights as women citizens remained a divisive issue for the DOSC.

Wage cuts in 1871 became the primary issue for Crispin shoeworkers and prompted the KOSC and the DOSC to join forces. During the busy season, Lynn employers who ran shops that subcontracted stitching for large manufacturers attempted to stop the turnover of skilled working women who left to seek higher wages elsewhere. The manufacturers imposed the requirement of either a week's notice backed by a wage deposit or the disgrace of a "dishonorable discharge." Denouncing these "obnoxious rules" and exposing them as a ruse to cut wages, the infuriated stitchers insisted that their rights as "free-born women" would not be infringed. They rejected the requirements and struck the subcontract shops. The DOSC and the KOSC in Lynn quickly backed these women workers and helped win the strike. The action forced the employers to agree that if the stitcher were dissatisfied with their wages, they could leave the shop without penalty. The settlement protected the mobility of skilled, experienced workingwomen who were important to the DOSC organization.

Wages for stitching stabilized for part of in 1872. Women shoeworkers held the enviable position as the highest paid female industrial workers in Massachusetts next to women typesetters in Cambridge and Boston. In 1872, the large shoe manufacturers targeted these high wages and the citywide KOSC wage scale in Lynn. That year DOSC women shoeworkers in Stoneham and Danvers struck against wage cuts. Enlisting the support of the local KOSC lodge was crucial to success in Danvers but failed in Stoneham. The DOSC in Lynn faced downward pressure on wages with the collapse of the KOSC citywide wage agreement. The wages of skilled women shoeworkers declined 10 percent as Lynn manufacturers cut labor costs to dominate the national market in the production of high-buttoned ladies shoes. The fine quality of the finished product often depended on the expert stitching on uppers executed on sewing machines by experienced workers, but lower production costs determined market dominance. Wage cuts became commonplace in shoe centers during the depression years of 1873-1878, which reduced demand for fancy styles and crowded the labor markets.

Only Central Lodge No. 1 survived the disappearance of the national DOSC in 1874. When the Crispin lasters revived KOSC wage arbitration in Lynn in 1876, the reawakened local DOSC in Lynn sought to stabilize stitching wages. When the stitchers refused a KOSC offer to arbitrate in 1876, they lost their strikes as underemployed and desperate women returned to work at lower wages. The depression undermined the DOSC's effectiveness. Women shoeworkers did not participate in the last important strike by the KOSC in 1878, which destroyed the men's organization. Efforts to organize Liberty Lodge in Lynn faded in 1879.

Diversity within the DOSC produced both strengths and divisions. Civil War losses and westward migration had pushed single women in the Northeast into paid work, postponing marriage and creating a pool of migratory, self-supporting working-women. High wages in shoe factories attracted them. Intensifying seasons of shoe production encouraged geographical mobility; this phenomenon explains why the DOSC became the first national women's union to organize successful resistance to employers. Many of these workingwomen believed their rights included the right to vote. Cooperation with resident workingwomen in shoe centers, who were loyal to family and more interested in Crispinism than in female political rights, sustained effective organization. The DOSC lodges tried to represent this political diversity during the years of postwar prosperity and high wages, but, as the depression years undermined the wage scale, competition among working women over jobs made diversity a source of weakness.

Key Players

Cummings, Samuel P.: A native-born resident of Danvers, Massachusetts, and International Grand Secretary, Cummings became the key leader of the KOSC organization in Massachusetts (1869-1874). He pushed for craft union recognition, labor reform legislation, cooperative shoe factories, and the arbitration of wages. As a KOSC delegate to the 1869 National Labor Union convention in New York City, Cummings strongly supported labor reform politics, the organization of women shoeworkers, and equal rights for women including suffrage. Cummings represented the interests of shoeworkers on the executive board of the NLU.

Litchman Charles H.: A native-born resident of Marblehead, Massachusetts, and factory worker, Litchman was the First Grand Scribe of the International Knights of St. Crispin. During the 1878 lockout against the Lynn Crispins, Litchman secretly organized an association of 8,000 men who later formed 11 assemblies in the Knights of Labor. As a Master Workman Litchman successfully linked the Crispins with a new nationwide organization to advocate the rights of workingmen.

Wallbridge, Martha: An unmarried native of New York state who worked as a shoe stitcher and boarded in Stoneham, Massachusetts. In 1869 at age 30, Wallbridge became an organizer of the DOSC and its leader from 1870 to 1874. As DOSC delegate, Wallbridge represented self-supporting migratory women workers and chaired the Committee on Female Labor at the 1869 National Labor Union convention in 1869. She argued for equal access for women to the trades and backed the controversial presence of delegate Susan B. Anthony from the Woman Suffrage Association.

See also: National Labor Union; Panic of 1873.



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

——. We Will Rise in Our Might: Workingwomen's Voices from Nineteenth-Century New England. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1991.

Dawley, Alan. Class and Community: The Industrial Revolution in Lynn. Rev. ed. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001.

Lescohier, Don D. The Knights of St. Crispin, 1867-1874: AStudy of the Industrial Causes of Trade Unionism. New York: Arno, 1969. Original work published 1910.

Palmer, Bryan. A Culture in Conflict: Skilled Workers and Industrial Capitalism in Hamilton, Ontario, 1860-1914.Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1979.


Commons, John R. "American Shoemakers, 1648-1895: ASketch of Industrial Evolution." Quarterly Journal of Economics, 24 (November 1909): 39-83.

Hall, John Philip. "The Knights of St. Crispin in Massachusetts, 1869-1879." Journal of Economic History, 18 (June 1958): 161-75.

Kealey, Gregory. "Artisans Respond to Industrialism:Shoemakers, Shoe Factories and the Knights of St. Crispin." Historical Papers, Canadian Historical Association (June 1973): 137-57.

Additional Resources


K.O.S.C Monthly Journal, constitutions and by-laws of various lodges of the Knights of St. Crispin, convention proceedings, rituals, see scattered copies and dates (1868-1870). Crispin newspapers in Lynn, Little Giant (1870-1873) and Vindicator (1878-1879).

—Mary H. Blewett

About this article

St. Crispin Organizations

Updated About content Print Article


St. Crispin Organizations