On this blog we started a series of posts focusing on some of the different roles and experiences of families living in patch towns of the Anthracite region. In previous posts we discussed the effects of the First and Second World Wars on the towns of Pardeesville and Lattimer. This post, however, focuses on textile mills during these periods which were accompanied by immense cultural transition.
From our conversations with members of the communities in Pardeesville and Lattimer, we learned that many of the residents of the patch towns worked in the textile mills. Our employee record card project affirms this fact. There is documentary evidence that folks shuttled back and forth between the coal and the textile industries. The textile industry in Hazleton endured until sometime around the late 1980s, long after the peak employment for the coal mining industry in the area. Though anthracite coal initially established the economy of the region, driving the large migration to the area and, for much of the country, defining its social identity, we suggest that the patch towns can be connected to the heritage of textile workers as much as that of the coal industry. When we look at the roles the industry played in national history, in industrialization and in important battles for labor reform and in vital contributions to the war effort, we can see that the industry played no small part in BIG history. And in the many ways that it affected the everyday lives of residents, bringing young women and men out of the towns and into the city, working together (even resulting in some marriages!), and adding to strapped family incomes, it drove Hazleton’s social and economic life in directions that the coal industry cannot account for alone.
In many ways, some of the changes Americans experienced between the end of the 19th century and World War II can be seen through the Northeastern Pennsylvania textile mills. Driven to achieve labor equality and social progress in the anthracite region, such famous reformers as Mary Harris, also known as Mother Jones, descended into the area during the Coal Strike of 1902. Because of the low wages men made as coal miners, often entire families were forced to work to make up enough income for families to survive. Labor rights activists, and the Anthracite Strike Commissioners alike, were shocked by reports of girls as young as 6 years working 12 hour shifts in textile mills. The strike gained worldwide attention as textile girls took the stand before the Anthracite Strike Commission to detail their experiences and advocate for child labor protection laws. These protective laws were not passed until 1916. The miner’s lawyer, Clarence Darrow, a life-long child labor law advocate, won the case. Darrow would later achieve national fame for defending John Scopes in the Scopes Monkey Trial.
“We are working for democracy, for humanity, for the future, for the day will come too late for us to see it or know it or receive its benefits, but which will come, and will remember our struggles, our triumphs, our defeats, and the words which we spake.”
– Excerpt from Darrow’s 1902 Closing Argument
After 163 days, the Coal Strike of 1902 came to an end, with the Commission meeting the demands of the workers and the owners in the middle. Factory girls, through their efforts, helped change the way American Industry treated their employees and did business. Through their sacrifice, Northeastern Pennsylvania textile workers helped make the industry safer and more equitable for workers everywhere.
Pennsylvania textile mills made national news in other ways, too. Textile mills were vital for supporting the war effort for both World War I and World War II. At the height of production during World War II, U.S. textile mills sold approximately one billion yards of cloth in one week to supply the U.S. and Allied markets. Abandoned mills in New England were reopened, and mills across the U.S. began running two to three shifts to keep up with demand. Textile and garment workers made silk and nylon, used for airplane cloth, parachutes, and tire cord; workers stitched and manufactured soldiers uniforms and boots; and they made canvas for boots, bags, and pouches.
As workers rushed to fill war time orders, companies took out ads and had stories published in trade journals and local newspapers about their worker’s contributions to
the war effort. Companies such as Duplan, which maintained its textile mill in Hazleton starting about 1896, took these opportunities to showcase their employee welfare programs. In 1914, Susquehanna Silk Company and Duplan Silk Company were recognized in Pennsylvania’s Annual Report by the Commissioner of Labor for their employee welfare programs. Susquehanna boasted a baseball diamond, lunch rooms, and first aid for workers, while Duplan outlined their future plans, including parks, playgrounds, and a girl’s club house.
As World War I ended, however, new union labor struggles for fair wages and an 8 hour work day reemerged. One union member, angered by the welfare works companies had instituted instead of negotiating with worker’s unions, took to song to express his feelings. (see below)
The first half of the 20th century proved to be a time of rapid industrial change across the country and Pennsylvania’s textile mills were at the forefront of this new era of work. The mills supplied needed materials for two World Wars, but also provided the tragic backdrop to call for national child labor laws. Understanding, preserving, and celebrating this history of workers is vital to ensure that future generations of Pennsylvanians know the hardships their ancestors faced, as well as the changes they’ve made to the course of U.S. history.
Understanding this historical context will change the kinds of questions we ask when investigating the Anthracite Region through archaeology.