Tailors' Strike

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Tailors' Strike

United States 1827


In 1827 journeymen tailors in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, went out on strike to protest the discharge of several colleagues who had demanded higher wages from their employer. After the tailors picketed, the employer took them to court on the theory that their actions constituted a conspiracy to harm commerce and the interests of third parties. The jury found the journeymen guilty, setting back early efforts of trade unions to take collective economic action to protect their interests.


  • 1802: Beethoven publishes his "Sonata quasi una fantasia," later nicknamed the "Moonlight Sonata."
  • 1805: Britain's Royal Navy, commanded by Admiral Horatio Nelson, defeats the French at Trafalgar, thereby putting an end to Napoleon's hopes of dominating the seas.
  • 1810: German art publisher Rudolph Ackerman invents the differential gear, which enables wheeled vehicles to make sharp turns.
  • 1815: Congress of Vienna establishes the balance of power for post-Napoleonic Europe, and inaugurates a century of British dominance throughout most of the world.
  • 1820: In the Missouri Compromise, Missouri is admitted to the Union as slave state, but slavery is prohibited in all portions of the Louisiana Purchase north of 36°30' N.
  • 1821: Mexico declares independence from Spain.
  • 1823: U.S. President James Monroe establishes the Monroe Doctrine, whereby the United States warns European nations not to interfere in the political affairs of the Western Hemisphere.
  • 1825: Opening of the New York Stock Exchange.
  • 1826: French inventor Joseph-Nicéphore Niepce makes the first photographic image in history.
  • 1828: Election of Andrew Jackson as president begins a new era in American history.
  • 1830: French troops invade Algeria, and at home, a revolution forces the abdication of Charles V in favor of Louis Philippe, the "Citizen King."
  • 1836: In Texas's war of independence with Mexico, the defenders of the Alamo, among them Davy Crockett and Jim Bowie, are killed in a siege. Later that year, Texas wins the Battle of San Jacinto and secures its independence.

Event and Its Context

A Changing Economy

The Philadelphia tailors' strike was one piece in a mosaic of labor unrest in the early nineteenth century. This unrest was the result of distinct changes taking place in the American economy, changes that were a harbinger of the nation's growing industrial might throughout the century. During the colonial period, most of the nation's workers were farmers, and even in 1820, farming supported 72 percent of the population, while only 12 percent earned their living in manufacturing. A crafts worker during this time normally began his career as an apprentice and then worked as a journeyman until he became an independent master craftsman. As such he was a worker, an employer, a capitalist, a merchant, and an entrepreneur all rolled into one. To such a worker, home and factory were often the same.

As the nation expanded in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, these "retail" crafts workers and small, localized manufacturing concerns on the eastern seaboard were unable to keep pace with growing demand for their products, largely because they often lacked the capital to expand their operations. This need gave rise to a new class of entrepreneur, the merchant-capitalist, usually an affluent man who had access to capital and credit, was able to buy raw materials in bulk and therefore lower their costs, and understood the larger markets in which he operated.

This accumulation of capital laid the groundwork for the emergence of the factory system, whose birth can be dated to 1791 at a cotton-spinning factory in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, and that later spread to such places as Boston, Massachusetts, and the area around Paterson, New Jersey, and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. From the standpoint of labor, the chief effect of the factory system was to divide and specialize the functions that formerly had been combined in the colonial-era master craftsman. Now, the merchant-capitalist worried about capital and markets; workers in the factories provided muscle and skill to transform raw materials into finished goods.

Those workers quickly discovered, however, that their employers, faced with competition from other employers in other areas, had to cut costs to the bone in order to survive. One way they did so was to cut wages, particularly during unstable economic times, such as the embargoes connected with the Napoleonic Wars, the War of 1812, and the postwar depression that inevitably followed from 1815 to 1820. To protect their interests, house painters, carpenters, printers, hatmakers, weavers, masons, and members of other trades began to organize, bargain for higher wages, and go out on strike when their demands were not met. It should be noted, though, that during this period unskilled workers—often women and children—lacked the clout to organize, so the nation's earliest trade unions were formed to protect the interests principally of skilled craftsmen, most of whom were men.


In response, employers began to form associations of their own to hold down wages and thwart the activities of the unions. Anticipating the approach of their twentieth-century counterparts, they frequently turned to the courts, though instead of seeking injunctions, the favored twentieth-century tool, they argued at common law that the unions were guilty of unlawful conspiracy. Between 1806 and 1842 at least 17 such cases were tried in the courts. Early on, from 1806 to 1815, six of these cases were directed at cordwainers' (shoemakers) unions and collectively are referred to as the Cordwainers' Conspiracy Cases.

The most famous of these cases was the first, against the Philadelphia cordwainers, in 1806. The position taken by the employers was essentially that when union pressure succeeded in raising wages, products became more expensive. Higher costs reduced the demand for products and caused unemployment in the community. Unions, therefore, injured the community, suppressed commerce and trade, and hurt the interests of other workers. Further, nonunion workers were injured by the activities of unionists who refused to work with them because employers either had to discharge nonunion workers or face a strike by union members. In ruling against the union, the court concluded, "A combination of workmen to raise . . . wages . . . [occurs for two reasons]: One is to benefit themselves . . . the other is to injure those who do not join the society. The rule of law condemns both." Thus, the court declared organizing to increase wages illegal.

The public outcry that followed this decision had an impact on later judgments. In a similar trial involving the New York cordwainers in 1809, the court insisted that unionism itself was not illegal. But the court did call into question the means the workers used: they could not use means "of a nature too arbitrary and coercive, and which went to deprive their fellow citizens of rights as precious as any they contended for." Similarly, in an 1815 trial of Pittsburgh cordwainers, the court declared, "Where diverse persons confederate together by direct means to impoverish or prejudice a third person, or to do acts prejudicial to the community," they are guilty of an unlawful conspiracy. The court went on: it was illegal to conspire "to compel an employer to hire a certain description of persons"; "to prevent a man from freely exercising his trade in a particular place"; and "to compel men to become members of a particular society, or to contribute toward it," or to "compel men to work at certain prices."

The Cordwainers' Conspiracy Cases, combined with the depression following the War of 1812, all but crushed the budding labor union movement. When better times returned in the early 1820s, expanding markets increased the demand for labor. Once again, however, employers often found themselves having to cut wages to meet the prices of the competition—this at a time when a factory worker took home as little as $7 or $8 after a week of 12-and even 14-hour days. In 1821 labor began to reorganize as housepainters, stonemasons, ships' carpenters, hatters, weavers, cabinetmakers, and tailors; even unskilled laborers and women began to join "associations" and "societies." Like the earlier unions, they pressed for higher wages and often relied on the "turnout," or strike, as their principal weapon.

Though records are sparse, these unions apparently enjoyed some success, for once again employers turned to the courts, and the 1820s saw six more conspiracy trials. The first of this new crop of cases was Commonwealth v. Carlisle in 1821—though the case represented a turnabout, for it was the union that accused the employer, Master Ladies' Shoemakers, of conspiring to reduce wages. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that it was lawful for the "masters" to combine to restore wages to their "natural level." But again, the court focused less on the object of the combination than on the means used to attain that object. In the second of these cases, the 1823 trial of the New York hatters, the court took a similar position. It focused not on whether a combination to raise wages was an illegal conspiracy but on whether the hatters conspired to injure a third person, in this instance to deprive a nonunion worker of his livelihood by coercion and intimidation. Records for a third case, against the tailors' union in Buffalo, New York, are incomplete, but an 1824 newspaper account of the trial suggests that the issues were similar. A strikebreaker "was stigmatised by an appropriate name, and rendered too infamous to be allowed to labour in any shop where his conduct should be known." The doctrine that emerged from these cases—that the means a union adopted to press its demands could be unlawful—had important consequences for the Philadelphia tailors' case in 1827.

The Philadelphia Tailors' Strike

The Philadelphia shop of Robb and Winebrenner manufactured women's clothing. For most of the clothing, tailors worked under a fixed-wage scale. But the shop also manufactured women's riding clothes made out of pongee, a thin, light fabric composed of raw silk. For this type of work, there was no fixed-wage scale, as there was for heavier fabrics. The tailors that worked with pongee were paid at a lower rate, so they demanded to be paid at the higher rate paid for work on heavier materials. Their demand got them discharged, and in protest the shop's journeymen tailors went out on strike. The methods they adopted seem startlingly modern. They picketed the shop, accosted strikebreakers and urged them not to work for the company, and persuaded other companies not to do work for Robb and Winebrenner. Sporadic violence erupted, and Robb and Winebrenner took the tailors to court.

Significantly, the judge, in his instructions to the jury, declined to consider whether a combination to raise wages was illegal, calling the proposition "bad law." Instead, he directed the jury's attention to the issue of intimidation and coercion: "Direct your attention to the sole inquiry, how far the combination charged and the overt acts are calculated to affect the rights of innocent third persons." He further noted, "[Do not] . . . examine the question as to the right to combine to raise wages; which has never been decided on in the United States." In a blow to labor associations, the jury found the actions of the strikers illegal. While unions themselves remained technically legal, they were stripped of their most effective weapons: picketing, circulation of strikebreaker lists, and secondary boycotts.

The Aftermath

In spite of the setbacks of the 1820s conspiracy cases, organized labor continued to grow throughout the 1830s. Several hundred local unions sprang up not only in eastern seaboard cities but also in cities and towns farther inland. The first federation of labor unions, the National Trades Union, was formed in New York City in 1834. In 1836 the New York tailors struck, and after they were found guilty of conspiracy, New York City workers erupted in fury and staged a rally that drew 27,000 people. But the legal status of unions remained precarious, particularly since the courts often backed a new tool used by employers' associations to break the unions, the blacklist.

In 1842 the union movement finally found some relief in court. In Massachusetts a group of shoemakers were convicted in a lower court of conspiracy because they refused to work beside nonunion workers. They appealed to the state Supreme Judicial Court, and in its landmark decision in Commonwealth v.Hunt, the court affirmed the legality of unions and union activity. It held that union members could lawfully agree not to work for an employer who used nonunion labor and that union efforts to raise wages were lawful even if they reduced employer profits or increased the prices of goods.

See also: National Trades Union.



Commons, John R., et al. History of Labour in the UnitedStates. New York: Macmillan, 1936.

Perlman, Selig. A History of Trade Unionism in the UnitedStates. New York: Macmillan, 1922.

Rayback, Joseph G. A History of American Labor. New York: Macmillan, 1959.

Wright, Chester Whitney. Economic History of the UnitedStates. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1949.


Nockleby, John T. "Two Theories of Competition in the Early 19th Century Labor Cases." American Journal of Legal History (October 1994).

Witte, Edwin E. "Early American Labor Cases." Yale Law Journal 35 (1926): 825-837.

—Michael J. O'Neal