The American Labor Museum in Haledon, NJ, honors Labor Day every day with its exhibits documenting conditions and common goals of early factory workers. The museum is in the 1908 Botto House that was built for Italian immigrants, Pietro Botto, a silk mill worker, and his wife, Maria. The front balcony of the house was where union organizers addressed an estimated 20,000 workers on a single day during the 1913 Silk Strike that started in the silk mills of neighboring Paterson, NJ, bringing national attention to unsafe working conditions, low wages and long hours.
European immigrant laborers who worked in the Paterson silk mills were skilled artisans. They were established in the community, owned their own homes and handlooms. Even though industrialization was becoming part of the nation’s landscape during the 19th century, power looms were not introduced to silk mills until the 1870s. The new looms stopped automatically when thread broke and cost less to manage. By 1900, the handlooms had been replaced by power looms for both broad silk and delicate ribbon weaving. Paterson had become the “Silk City.”
The same workers who had used handlooms were now in demand to operate power looms. However, they wanted to be valued for their skills which had been cast aside by modern machinery. Various protests erupted from 1909 to 1913, divided by nationality, skill sets, and gender, but these were met with setbacks. In 1913, unlike any of the previous protests, a strike launched by one group became a unified strike for all that included workers of different nationalities, gender, skilled and unskilled labor.
The silk workers were joined by union organizers of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), and members of Greenwich Village intellectuals. The strike was gathering momentum within itself and also with other social and economic issues going on at that time. Women’s suffrage, formation of industrial unions, artists and writers furthering the cause as they saw fit, and politics all added to the silk workers strike. The mayor of Paterson would not allow the group to assemble in that city.
Pietro and Maria Botto invited the strikers to use their home, now the American Labor Museum, every Sunday from March to June for rallies. Silk workers in Haledon, including Botto, were not on strike but were sympathetic. The attendance grew weekly as laborers, organizers and activists spoke about common goals for factory workers. The rallies attracted the writer, Upton Sinclair, whose book about poverty and working conditions, The Jungle, had been published in 1906. The workers wanted an eight-hour day instead of working 55 hours a week. Many of them were expected to operate four looms at once.
The longer the strike lasted, the more difficult if was financially for the laborers. People were having difficulty feeding their children so activist Margaret Sanger helped organize sending the children to stay with families in New York and Brooklyn, and Elizabeth, NJ. Madison Square Garden in New York held a large fundraising effort in the form of a reenactment of the Paterson Silk Strike. This pageant had 15,000 people watching; some had walked more than 20 miles to attend.
The strike ended later that year after manufacturers transferred silk orders to mills in Pennsylvania. Paterson workers were hungry and returned to the mills. They were given promises of shorter hours and not having to manage three and four looms at once. Instead of agreeing to an eight-hour day, the manufacturers consented to a nine-hour day. The number of looms was reduced to two each in Paterson but other places did not see any changes until years later. It was not until 1919 that Paterson’s silk workers were finally given an eight-hour day.
The Botto House is on the National Register of Historic Sites, a New Jersey State Historic Site and a National Historic Landmark because of its importance in the labor movement. The owners believed in the right to assemble and to allow others the right of free speech in airing grievances and calling for change. The American Labor Museum has documented the Botto family life and common goals of early factory workers. In addition to the Paterson Silk Strike of 1913 exhibit, it also has other exhibits related to the history of the labor movement and the role of immigrants in the workforce. The museum will be open on Labor Day. For addition events and schedules, the website is listed below.
By Cynthia Collins
National Historic Landmarks – Botto House
Photo of Botto House – creative commons license