The Lynn Shoemakers’ Strike of 1860
By Susan Martin, Collection Services
The MHS just acquired a letter written by an eyewitness to the historic shoemakers’ strike in Lynn, Mass. in 1860. I decided to dig into the story and, as usually happens, learned much more than I anticipated. It’s remarkable how much history can be represented in a single document.
Moses Folger Rogers (1803-1886) was a Quaker living in Lynn. Most of his 6 March 1860 letter to John Ford of Marshfield, Mass. is dedicated to the biggest story in town, the shoemakers’ strike then underway. Lynn was a major center for the manufacture of shoes. Labor unrest in that industry had been growing for many reasons—increased mechanization, market glut, the economic crisis of 1857—all of which resulted in record low wages.
Workers took to the streets on George Washington’s birthday, 22 February 1860, and the strike lasted for several weeks. Newspapers covered it extensively, and many historians have written about it, but it’s hard to overstate the value of first-hand accounts like this one.
Rogers was not pleased. He lamented the “agitated & excited state of this community.” A week before, it had appeared “that it might be thought necessary to call out the malitia to quell the mob, but with the additional Police force, which came from Boston, order & quiet were restored without the aid of the malitia, a fact for which I feel very grateful, for I feared there might be blood shed – every thing here is now very orderly & quiet, though the ‘Strikers’ continue to hold on, to the number of from 2500 to 3000 persons and what will be the final result remains to be known.”
There had been some violence, including clashes with police and seizures of goods. But it subsided after the first few days, and the rest of the strike consisted of meetings, marches, rallies, and other demonstrations of peaceful solidarity. It was the largest strike in American history up to that time, spreading across New England and involving tens of thousands of workers.
But it wasn’t just the possibility of bloodshed that worried Moses Rogers. He was also dismayed by the active involvement of women in the uprising. In fact, the Lynn strike was notable for the vital role women played in both planning and execution. It makes sense—women were integral to the shoemaking industry. They worked at home as “binders,” or hand stitchers, or operated sewing machines in factories. In his book Class and Community, Alan Dawley wrote: “Without the action of women, it is questionable whether the strike would have occurred at all, and certainly without them it would have been far less massive in its impact.”
But Rogers described these developments in a horrified tone with lots of outraged underlining: “In addition to the above number there is a strike amongst the Ladies, who I understand propose parading the streets tomorrow to the number 2000.” The march did happen, and in dramatic fashion. Thousands participated, including 800 women, in the midst of a snowstorm. Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper published an illustration.
Rogers finished his diatribe with a flourish: “I will not undertake to give an account of the disgraceful & shameful deeds enacted in this city since the Strike commenced, suffice it to say that I never witnessed anything in my life which appeared so appaling & fearful.” His response to the strike was not atypical, judging by newspaper accounts. But the strikers had substantial support from townspeople, Lynn’s Bay State newspaper, and even Abraham Lincoln, who was campaigning for president at the time. (The shoemakers’ demonstrations, protest songs, and slogans were infused with antislavery rhetoric.)
Although the Lynn strikers had some temporary political success, ousting most of the city government in the next election, they ultimately failed as negotiations fell apart and workers’ differences proved insurmountable. When the Civil War broke out a year later, attention shifted away from the issue, and war-time demand for manufactures accelerated. However, the Lynn shoemakers’ strike was a watershed moment in American history, remarkable for its size and scope, a clash of old and new systems that foreshadowed labor disputes of the next 150 years.
- Dawley, Alan. Class and Community: The Industrial Revolution in Lynn. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1976.
- Faler, Paul G. Mechanics and Manufacturers in the Early Industrial Revolution: Lynn, Massachusetts, 1780-1860. Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York Press, 1981.
- Juravich, Tom, William F. Hartford, and James R. Green. Commonwealth of Toil: Chapters in the History of Massachusetts Workers and Their Unions. Amherst, Mass.: University of Massachusetts Press, 1996.
- Lewis, Alonzo and James R. Newhall. History of Lynn, Essex County, Massachusetts: Including Lynnfield, Saugus, Swampscot, and Nahant. Boston: John L. Shorey, 1865.
- Melder, Keith E. “Women in the Shoe Industry: The Evidence from Lynn.” Essex Institute Historical Collections 115.4 (October 1979): 270-287.
| Published: Wednesday, 29 June, 2016, 12:00 AM
This Week @ MHS
It is a quiet week here at the Society as we approach the holiday. Here's what's happening:
- Wednesday, 29 June, 6:00PM : "A New Perspective on the 19th Century Rivalry Between New York and Boston" is a talk about how changing technology introduces tools that can change the way we see and understand history. Join Dr. Michael Wheeler who will talk about the use of Historical Geographic Information Systems (HGIS) in the development of three-dimensional animated maps for studying historical events, placing New York and Boston in the limelight. This talk is open to the public free of charge, registraiton required. A recption precedes the talk at 5:30PM and the event begins at 6:00PM.
- Saturday, 2 July, 10:00AM : The History and Collections of the MHS is a 90-minute docent-led walk through our public rooms. The tour is free, open to the public, with no need for reservations. If you would like to bring a larger party (8 or more), please contact Curator of Art Anne Bentley at 617-646-0508 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
While you're here you will also have the opportunity to view our current exhibition: Turning Points in American History.
Please note that the Society is CLOSED on Monday, 4 July, in observance of Independence Day. Normal hours resume on Tuesday, 5 July.
| Published: Sunday, 26 June, 2016, 12:00 AM
Retail and Romance: Boston's First Department Store
By Grace Wagner, Reader Services
Behind this façade
lies a story – the romance of a great
New England institution
It is worth telling. It should be
In the hope that the public
may find it so, it is
here set down
In reading this verse and examining the accompanying sketch, you may be surprised to learn that the “great New England institution” referenced is, in fact, a department store. Strange as it might seem today, department stores were highly influential in shaping urban spaces and changing how the consumer industry was run in the nineteenth and early twentieth century. By incorporating an unprecedented variety and quantity of apparel, home goods, and entertaining diversions, and showcasing these items in vast, high-ceilinged and well-lit halls, department stores lent glamour to the middle-class shopping experience.
The above inscription is an excerpt from the book, Retail and romance, which recounts the history of Jordan Marsh & Company, the first, and for a long time, the most prominent department store in Boston. Struck by the intriguing title and the compelling case made by its author, Julia Houston Railey, I decided to explore the history of Jordan Marsh.
Railey’s story begins in 1841, when Eben Jordan, the founder of Jordan Marsh, established his first store at the age of 19. At this time, Jordan also conducted his first sale, which consisted of “one yard of cherry colored hair ribbon,” sold to Louisa Bareiss, a young girl, who, according to Railey, was just as breathless with excitement over the purchase as Jordan himself (9). This story is depicted pictorially in this publication as well as the centennial Tales of the Observer by Richard H. Edwards, published in 1950. Jordan’s famous sideburns are present in both imaginings.
In 1851, Jordan partnered with Benjamin L. Marsh and in 1880, they established Jordan Marsh’s Main Store at 450 Washington Street, where it would remain for the next 100 years. An 1884 article in the Boston Post referred to this establishment as “the most colossal store the world ever saw, surpassing by far anything that had been attempted either in New York or Philadelphia” (The story of a store, 4).
Railey’s book also discusses the continued philanthropic efforts of the Jordan family, particularly those of Jordan’s son, Eben Jordan, Jr., who was particularly active in the arts community. Jordan, Jr. built the Boston Opera House, founded Jordan Hall for the New England Conservatory, and installed art exhibits at the Main Store on Washington Street (22).
Whereas Retail and romance focuses on the romantic aspects of Jordan’s humble beginnings and subsequent charitable endeavors, The story of a store, published by the Jordan Marsh Company in 1912, captures the glamorous nature of early department stores. This publication is filled with glossy black-and-white photos and descriptions of the innumerable goods contained in each department of Jordan’s store.
This set of images showcases several large glass display cases in the women’s department, containing from top to bottom: handkerchiefs, gloves, laces, and neckwear. However, commodities of all kinds were sold at Jordan Marsh. To name a few: umbrellas, children’s apparel, jewelry, silverware, eyeglasses, toiletries, books, leather goods, upholstery, rugs, stationary, luggage, kitchen goods, hardware, garden tools, and toys.
Like some of the best department stores of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Jordan Marsh also offered a variety of services for patrons, including store credit (a new concept at the time), personal services like a Post Office, Telegraph and Cable Station, and Waiting Rooms, complete with “easy chairs, writing materials, newspapers, check-rooms, lavatories, and other necessary conveniences for customers” (28)
Today, 450 Washington Street, formerly the site of Jordan Marsh’s Main Store, is occupied by Macy’s. Although the Jordan Marsh Company continued to thrive and expand throughout much of the twentieth century, it was eventually bought out and replaced by the larger company entirely by 1996.
This story is not an uncommon one in the business world. Massachusetts Historical Society has a number of records that provide insight into the former business and commercial world of Boston. Perhaps you may discover a former company or store, similarly overlooked or forgotten today.
| Published: Friday, 24 June, 2016, 10:28 AM
#BSS16! A Second Year of the Boston Summer Seminar @ MHS
By Anna Clutterbuck-Cook, Reader Services
Tomorrow night will be the final celebration for 2016 participants in the GLCA Boston Summer Seminar, a three-week program offered by the Great Lakes Colleges Association and hosted at the Massachusetts Historical Society. After a successful inaugural year, we had a competitive group of applications submitted to the Seminar last winter, from which we selected three teams to join us this June. Over the past three weeks, we have been excited to get to know a new group of soon-to-be alumni BSS16 participants:
“Northern Black Lives Matter: The Experience of Black Northerners in the Era of Southern Emancipation”
Marcy Sacks, Chair & John S. Ludington, Endowed Professor of History
with students Corey Wheeler and Elijah Bean
“Boston and New England in Atlantic Contexts”
Frank “Trey” Proctor III, Chair & Associate Professor of History
with students Rachael Barrett and Margaret “Maggie” Gorski
“Haunted Subjects: Occult Practices and New Literary Traditions in Nineteenth-Century America”
Danielle Skeehan, Assistant Professor of English
with students Amreen Ahmed and Sabina Sullivan
These three teams have been with us since June 6th, conducting research at the Massachusetts Historical Society as well as the Seminar’s other partner institutions: the Center for the History of Medicine at Countway Library, Houghton Library, Northeastern University Archives & Special Collections, and Schlesinger Library.
The Seminar’s guest presenters this year were Kimberly Hamlin, Director of American Studies at Miami University of Ohio, and Stephen R. Berry, Associate Professor of History at Simmons College. Hamlin spoke to the group about her research on evolutionary theory, gender, and race in the archive; Berry walked participants through the intricacies of using ships’ logbooks as sources of information on the practice of religion at sea.
A new feature of the program this year, enthusiastically received by the group – despite the windy evening on which it was scheduled! -- was the opportunity to participate in a walking tour, Boston’s Construction of Self, which introduced our participants from the American Midwest to some key moments and public history sites in central Boston.
We wish all of our 2016 participants a fruitful last few days in the archive and a productive return to campus this fall. Learn more at bostonsummerseminar.org and, if you are a faculty member or student one of the GLCA member institutions, watch for BSS17 call for proposals which will be posted and circulated during the upcoming fall semester.
| Published: Wednesday, 22 June, 2016, 12:34 PM
This Week @ MHS
It's time for our programs round-up. On the slate this week, we have :
- Monday, 20 June, 6:00PM : "The Defender: How the Legendary Black Newspaper Changed America." Drawing on dozens of interviews and extensive archival research, author Ethan Michaeli constructs a revelatory narrative of race in America and brings to life the reproters who braved lynch mobs and policemen's clubs to do their jobs, from the age of Teddy Roosevelt to the age of Barack Obama. This talk is open to the public, registration required with a fee of $10 (no charge for MHS Members or Fellows). Reception begins at 5:30PM and the talk begins at 6:00PM.
- Wednesday, 22 June, 5:00PM : MHS Fellows Annual Meeting & Reception. MHS Fellows are invited to the Society's annual business meeting. RSVP required. The meeting begins at 5:00PM
N.B.: The library closes early at 4:00PM on Wednesday, 22 June, in preparation for the annual meeting.
- Saturday, 25 June, 10:00AM : The History and Collections of the MHS is a 90-minute docent-led walk through our public rooms. The tour is free, open to the public, with no need for reservations. If you would like to bring a larger party (8 or more), please contact Curator of Art Anne Bentley at 617-646-0508 or email@example.com.
While you're here you will also have the opportunity to view our current exhibition.
| Published: Sunday, 19 June, 2016, 12:00 AM