Today is Labor Day, the last blast of summer. People gather together over picnics to celebrate in a very leisurely style. Some flock to stores for spectacular sales. As a child, we went to parades full of bands, flags, military personnel, and union workers from local plants. I thought of it as a celebration of workers everywhere.
Working on The Curious Quilter Cotton Chronicles has taught me to appreciate the origins of this day recognizing workers. The modern textile industry that feeds our quilting craft stems directly from the Industrial Revolution. In the United States, factories grew like weeds in the seventy year span between the Revolutionary War and the first struggles of the Civil War. Similar growth happened in every industrialized area of the globe. These early factories were steam powered, and factory owners built entire cities to support them. In hindsight, the social structure of a factory town was very similar to the fuedal serfdoms of history. Often workers had to live in homes built and owned by the factory owner, and paid rent, thus bringing a good part of their wages back to the factory owners.Poor working conditions and miserable living arrangements were not unique to factories. Apprenticeship to a trade or craft meant commitment to the work, and the teacher, twenty-four hours a day. In the farming industry, the labor it took to bring crops to market was often performed by slaves or indentured workers. This, also, was not unique to the U.S., as shown through the writings of Charles Dickens in England during the first part of the 1800’s.
Between 1795-1850, immigrants came to the United States in massive waves. For many, factory work was the first available option, and they shared harsh, tight living quarters with other families. Dealing with 12-15 hour work days, six days a week, with jobs for women and children, these immigrants made the industrialization of our country possible. Today we may wonder why people put up with this, but with the flood of new labor coming in every year, complaining workers were easily replaced.
The Northeastern part of the United States had the highest concentration of factories, including textiles, iron, and others. In the South, most factories were tied to the farming industry, so textile mills were common there as well. The economic division between the North and the South grew widely during this time, partly because of the huge investment in capital that it took to build the factory towns of the North.
After the American Civil War, life did not settle smoothly back into routine. Immigrants continued to flock to the U.S., helping to feed the pool of inexpensive labor. But labor unrest was growing in all industries and trades as workers sought to gain control over working conditions and hours. Organized unions grew rapidly in most industries, bringing limited relief, but raising social awareness. These unions developed political clout as well. In the 1890’s there was a large-scale economic depression, which added fuel to the growing unrest among workers as wages plummeted and jobs disappeared.In September 1892, New York City workers from many trades and industries marched in a one day strike to show their numbers. 1892-93 marked two historic strikes, the Homestead Strike and lockout in a Pennsylvania steel mill town, and the Pullman Car railway strike and boycott, starting in Chicago. The fallout from these strikes and other strikes, coupled with the severe depression, pulled the ground out from under many unions, leading to years of rebuilding.
In the campaign of 1892, politicians spoke of economic stability, sound currency, imports, and tariffs. President Grover Cleveland felt compelled to bring in troops to squash the violent Pullman strike. Workers were infuriated. Congress recognized the need to appease workers, passing the act that Cleveland signed in 1894, creating Labor Day. Honoring the workers strike of September 1892 in New York, the date was set in September—midway between the Fourth of July and Thanksgiving. Unions and workers celebrated and called it a day to reflect upon the toils of past generations, and stand in solidarity with all workers.Cotton, and the quilts made from it, are part of the fabric of history. As I look at the fabulous quilts on display at a local museum, I think of the workers who created the fibers and fabrics before the quilter started the project. For quilts made in the U.S. before 1890, it was probably a slave worker, or a small family-farm worker, who tended the cotton. Mill workers of that era labored in harsh and unhealthy conditions. The textile industry is deeply linked to the best and worst moments of our history. These vintage quilts are testimony to the talented quilters who created them, and to the workers who brought the fabric to market. I appreciate the labor they put in, and the struggles they endured.
Whatever perspective each of us has on politics and labor unions today, I hope we all can take a moment to recognize the historic struggles of the past that now permit us to enjoy Labor Day as a day for family, picnics, and end of summer celebrations.
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