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Determining the Facts

Reading 1: Working "In the Silk"

Silk is a natural fiber taken from the cocoons of the silk worm. The silk fibers are so fine that a single pound might measure 1,000 to 1,500 miles or even more. All raw silk used in Paterson was imported, principally from China, Japan, and Italy. The process of producing silk fabrics was divided into four stages: throwing (twisting the silk fibers into threads strong enough to be used in the looms), dyeing, weaving, and finishing. In 1913, Paterson dominated the weaving of high quality broad silk and ribbon.¹

Paterson's share in the silk dyeing industry was expanding. In the dye houses, workers dipped skeins (length of thread wound in a loose long coil) of silk thread and pieces of fabric into large vats of hot chemicals. Almost all of the workers were men. Master dyers, many from traditional silk centers like Lyons, France, or Como, Italy, were highly skilled craftsmen. Dyers' helpers were generally unskilled and low paid. Italian dye house workers had a reputation for being political radicals.

In Paterson's ribbon and broad silk weaving factories, the delicacy and high cost of the fiber and the value of the end product defined the work, the working conditions, and the relations between the workers and the owners. Weavers were skilled workers. Most were immigrants, often from traditional silk textile areas in England, Germany, and Italy. Nearly half were women, but men dominated the best paying jobs. Children began work at about age 14 and might spend the rest of their working lives "in the silk." They could expect to move up to skilled jobs like weaver or loom fixer or even, in rare cases, independent manufacturer. Workers who wanted to set up in business for themselves did not need much money to rent space in the old mills along the S.U.M. raceways. Plenty of skilled labor was available, and the new owners themselves could provide the necessary experience and expertise.

The working day was 10 hours long by 1913, with a half day on Saturday. Wages were well below the average for industry as a whole. Many workers preferred working in the silk mills to other employment, however. Because the products were so valuable, the mills were generally clean. The silk threads had to be watched carefully to detect and correct problems, so good lighting was critical. New mills, located all over Paterson by the early 20th century, were carefully designed to provide the necessary natural light. Their machinery was well protected and spaced to allow the workers to move around in safety.

In spite of the owners' efforts to reduce silk weaving to a series of simple tasks that could be performed by unskilled workers, many operations involved a high proportion of hand work that depended on the skill of the individual worker. In testimony submitted to a Congressional committee, a silk manufacturer from Connecticut reported:

The hands of the silk worker are one of his most important assets. . . . Machinery does not do away with the use of hands in silk manufacture. The hands still remain, and will always remain, in my opinion, a very important factor in the operation. A man with clumsy, awkward hands handling silk warp is a very different factor from the man whose grandfather before him handled the silk fabric.²

Conflict between labor and management was common in Paterson's silk industry. Between 1881 and 1900 there were nearly 140 strikes. Many silk workers came from countries with long traditions of commitment to the working class and willingness to confront management to improve working conditions. Although they did not form permanent unions, they organized effectively at the factory level to defend themselves against changes in traditional work practices, to resist wage reductions in hard times, and to demand raises when sales were up. In most early strikes the workers enjoyed support throughout the community. It was the workers who elected the city officials and who were friends or relatives of the police, customers of the merchants, and members of the churches. By the first decade of the 20th century, practically every broad-silk and ribbon-silk mill had one or more labor organizations. A 1911 government survey of the silk industry credited organized labor in Paterson with achieving the 55-hour week and delaying the introduction of the four-loom system that was already common in new mills elsewhere in the country.

Beginning in the 1880s, Paterson's owners began moving some of their operations to Pennsylvania, in part to avoid labor disputes. Reacting to increased competition, they tried to change work rules that had been accepted for a generation. They used differences of gender, ethnicity, skill, and ideology to keep workers divided. An enlarged and strengthened police force began to see labor protest as a threat to established society. Violence, discrimination against Italians and other recent immigrants, and repression of radicals increased. By 1913, the old ways of settling disputes between the workers and the owners were no longer working.

Questions for Reading 1

1. What were the major steps in silk production? Why would the mill owners want to break the process down into so many separate steps? How might that have affected the workers?

2. How would you describe working conditions in the silk industry? In what ways was working in a silk mill better than working in other industries?

3. What did the workers hope to gain from their frequent strikes?

Reading 1 was adapted from John A. Herbst and Catherine Keene, Life and Times in Silk City (Haledon, NJ: The American Labor Museum, 1984); Philip Scranton, ed., Silk City, Studies on the Paterson Silk Industry, 1860-1940 (Newark: New Jersey Historical Society, 1985); U.S. Senate, Report on Condition of Woman and Child Wage-Earners in the United States, Vol. IV: The Silk Industry (Washington, Government Printing Office, 1911); National Industrial Conference Board, Hours of Work as Related to Output and Health of Workers: Silk Manufacturing, Research Report No. 16 (Boston, Mass.: 1919); and James Sheire, "Pietro Botto House" (Passaic County, NJ) National Historic Landmark Documentation, Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, 1982.

¹ Fabrics 12" or more in width were classified as broad silk, used primarily for clothing and home decoration. Fabrics under 12" wide were classed as ribbon goods and were used for trim in hats, clothing, and decorating.
² National Industrial Conference Board,
Hours of Work as Related to Output and Health in Workers: Silk Manufacturing, Research Report No. 16 (Boston, MA: 1919), 20.

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