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Paterson Silk Strike, 1913

in: Labor

Paterson Silk Strike, 1913

By Catherine A. Paul

Great Falls of the Passaic River
Great Falls of the Passaic River
Photo: Public Domain

The Paterson Silk Strike of Paterson, New Jersey lasted from February 1913 until July 1913 and was one of many industrial conflicts that erupted between 1909 and 1913 (Golin, 1992). During the strike, 1,850 strikers were arrested and jailed, 300 mills and dye houses were shut down, and many of the most prominent leaders in labor came to Paterson to rally workers and boost morale (Worth-Baker, 2013). The Paterson Silk Strike is notable for its duration, the number of workers involved, the prominence of its leaders and supporters, and for the Pageant, during which revolution and art were melded together (Tripp, 1987). This strike was notable, too, for its non-violence, especially at a time when violent confrontations were happening in labor disputes around the country (Golin, 1992).

William Dudley Haywood at the 1913 Paterson Silk Strike
William Dudley Haywood at the 1913 Paterson Silk Strike
Photo: Library of Congress
Digital ID ggbain.12462

Paterson was an industrial boom town in 1913. The Great Falls of the Passaic river amassed enough energy for mills that produced nearly half of America’s silks (New Jersey Historical Commission, n.d.). Paterson’s silk mills ran six or seven days a week, and the owners of the mills were some of the region’s wealthiest individuals. Like most factories and mills along the eastern seaboard, immigrants typically comprised the bulk of the workforce. This was no accident; language barriers prevented successful attempts at large-scale organizing (Worth-Baker, 2013). 

In late January 1913, the silk weavers of the Doherty Silk Mill rejected a four-loom system for the second time, which would have required each already overworked weaver to run four massive looms instead of two. As a result, this would have eliminated the number of jobs at the silk mill. Workers already worked 55 hours per week, and children as young as nine were employed (Worth-Baker, 2013).

Strike leaders at the Paterson silk strike of 1913. From left, Patrick Quinlan, Carlo Tresca, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Adolph Lessig, and Bill Haywood
Strike leaders at the Paterson silk strike of 1913. From left, Patrick Quinlan, Carlo Tresca, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Adolph Lessig, and Bill Haywood
Photo: Public Domain

Had it not been for the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), established in 1905 to promote worker solidarity, the Doherty Mill protest may have fizzled out. However, I.W.W. activists “Big” Bill Haywood, Patrick Quinlan, Carlo Tresca, and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn rallied in Paterson in February to unionize Doherty’s workers, addressing them in at least six different languages. While the Paterson workers were already members of American Federation of Labor (AFL) craft unions, they invited the I.W.W. organizers to assist them because of their success in establishing an eight-hour work day in Lawrence, Massachusetts through the Bread and Roses strike in 1912. The IWW. helped to proliferate the strike to other mills and industries and helped to establish key demands: an eight-hour work day and improved working conditions, including a return to the two loom system (Worth-Baker, 2013). However, although the IWW can be credited with helping the Paterson silk strikers mobilize, they also have been primarily faulted by law enforcement with causing disruptions and inciting violence (Golin, 1992). 

Botto House
Botto House, Haledon, NJ
American Labor Museum
Photo: Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike License

When strikers were jailed, the IWW crossed the city line into Haledon, where Mayor Brueckmann, a socialist, sympathized with their efforts (Worth-Baker, 2013). Moreover, Pietro Botto, a skilled weaver from Italy, opened his family’s 12-room home to the organizers, and it quickly became a home base for the Paterson Silk Strike. Rallies held at the home drew crowds as large as 25,00 people (New Jersey Historical Commission, n.d.). Women played a key role in the Paterson strike. As described by “Big” Bill Haywood, “they are becoming deeply interested in the questions of the hour that are confronting women and are rapidly developing the sentiments that go to make up the great feminist movement in the world. With them, it is not a question of equal suffrage, but economic freedom” (Haywood, 1913). 

While morale was high at the beginning of the strike, as it continued, families began to go hungry. To raise money for relief, the IWW organized a pageant play at Madison Square Garden in June, reenacting notable moments in the strike with strikers playing themselves. Journalist John Reed took part in the pageant’s creation, and artist Robert Edmund Jones created the program cover. The Paterson Strike Pageant depicted conflicts with police and the death of one of the picketers. Despite their best efforts and a large audience, the pageant operated at a loss of $2,000 (Worth-Baker, 2013).

By late May, some strikers returned to work, while others were blacklisted. Many began working day-to-day in Pennsylvania mills, a practice that became known as “tramp twisting” (Worth-Baker, 2013). The longer the strikers picketed, the more likely they were to have been replaced (Golin, 1992). Though at a great cost, the Paterson Silk Strike is regarded as a pivotal event in advancing the 20th century labor movement toward improved working conditions (Worth-Baker, 2013). The Botto House is now the American Labor Museum (New Jersey Historical Commission, n.d.).

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For further reading:

“The Silk Strike of 1913,” courtesy of the Person Friends of the Great Falls

“Vivas To Those Who Have Failed: The Paterson Silk Strike, 1913,” poem by Martin Espada

“A New Social Art”: The Paterson Strike Pageant by Casey Nelson Blake, Professor of History, Columbia University and Senior Historian, The Armory Show at 100

Paterson, New Jersey: America’s Silk City,” courtesy of the National Park Service

American Labor Museum

“The Paterson Strike (1913),” by Patrick L. Quinlan (1883-1948)

Sophie Cohen, IWW worker, speaks on the 1913 Paterson, New Jersey silk strike

Labor’s Schoolhouse: Lesson’s from the Paterson Silk Strike of 1913, Harper’s Magazine

Labor History: Websites, NYU Libraries

References:

Blake, C.N. (2013). “A New Social Art”: The Paterson Strike Pageant. The Armory Show at 100. New York Historical Society Museum & Library. Retrieved from http://armory.nyhistory.org/a-new-social-art-the-paterson-strike-pageant/

Golin, S. (1992). The Fragile Bridge: Paterson Silk Strike, 1913. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press.

Haywood, W. D. (1913, June.) On the Paterson picket line. International Socialist Review, 13, 850-851. Retrieved from http://www.njwomenshistory.org/Period_4/haywood.htm

New Jersey Historical Commission. (n.d.). It happened here: Paterson Silk Strike. It Happened Here: New Jersey. Retrieved from http://www.nj.gov/state/historical/it-happened-here/ihhnj-er-paterson.pdf

Tripp, A. H. (1987). The I.W.W. and the Paterson Silk Strike of 1913. Chicago, IL: University of Illinois Press.

Worth-Baker, M. (2013). Striking out: Paterson’s famous labor dispute. New Jersey Monthly. Retrieved from https://njmonthly.com/articles/jersey-living/striking-out/

How to Cite this Article (APA Format): Paul, C. A. (2017). Paterson Silk Strike, 1913. Social Welfare History Project. Retrieved from https://socialwelfare.library.vcu.edu/organizations/labor/paterson-silk-strike-1913/

3 Replies to “Paterson Silk Strike, 1913”

  1. Thank you for your posting. Do you have any information pertaining to Vincenzo Madonna? He was my great-grandfather, (my grandmother was his daughter, Margaret Madonna), and I’d like to find out more about his death during the silk strike. Any information would be greatly appreciated. Thank you.

    1. We don’t have any information about Vincenzo Madonna, though I note that Anne Huber Tripp writes about his murder in her book, The I.W.W. and the Paterson Silk Strike of 1913 (1987), University of Illinois Press. The story was apparently reported in the New York Times and the New York Call. You might contact the American Labor Museum and the Paterson Historic Preservation Society to see if they can help you. The Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives at NYU might also be helpful. Good luck with your search.

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