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Setting the Stage

The early 20th century was a time of increased conflict between labor and management throughout the United States. From the textile mills of the Northeast, to the steel mills and factories of the Midwest, to the mines and lumber camps of the Rocky Mountain West, thousands of workers all over the country walked picket lines. According to one source, there were at least 1,800 work stoppages a year at the turn of the century and as many as 2,000 a year in 1910.¹ One of the most famous strikes occurred in Paterson, New Jersey, in 1913, when more than 20,000 silk workers joined in an industry-wide strike that lasted more than five months.

Silk was a relative latecomer in Paterson's long industrial history. The city had been established during the great debate of the 1790s between Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson and their allies about industrial development. Hamilton encouraged the creation of the Society for Establishing Useful Manufactures (S.U.M.), a private corporation that selected the Great Falls of the Passaic as the location for an industrial city in 1792. By 1794 the S.U.M. had completed the first of a series of canals to harness the power of the falls for industrial use. When the first "manufactory" failed in 1796, the S.U.M. abandoned manufacturing to become a real estate and energy broker, leasing water power and land to private entrepreneurs, inventors, and industrialists into the post World War II era.

Silk was first manufactured in Paterson in 1840, but did not prosper until after the Civil War, when high tariffs on imported silk products helped American producers compete with their European rivals. Silk manufacturing was a big business before the days of synthetics. Silk, the "queen of fibers," dominated high fashion and the luxury trade, but women at all economic levels wanted their "best dresses" to be silk. Paterson had many advantages for the silk trade. It had abundant water supplies for power and processing and good transportation facilities. It also was close to New York City, the center of the fashion industry. Most importantly, Paterson had a supply of workers who understood the peculiar characteristics of the delicate silk fiber. By the 1880s, the city was producing almost half of the silk manufactured in the United States and had earned a nationwide reputation as "Silk City."

¹Bernard Bailyn, Robert Dallek, et al. The Great Republic (D.C. Heath and Company, 1981), 611.



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