Thursday, October 9, 2008

February 4, 1930 - New York City



Most beloved Jeanie Dear:

I sincerely hope that you are in a
better mood today, I was really sorry
to have seen you aggravate yourself last
night the way you did.

It is in my belief a nervous state of
mind due to accumulation of various
troubles of late.

I'm sure you're over it now.1

I've had no chance to call you up
today so I'm writing you these lines,

This was quite an eventful day
to me as well as to many another
person connected with the trade
I am pertaining to the walkout in



my industry.

Being in the midst of it all
throughout the day and being a keen
observer I've got enough impressions
to last me for some time.

From early in the morning the
people in the place looked up to me
as their guide and leader waiting
impatiently for the hour when they
would lay down their tools.

Promptly at 10 o'clock we stopped
and the establishment became all

We said good by to the employers
who watched us in amazement at
the unanimous response to the Union
Call, and as we came down
streams of enthusiastic workers


were emptying the huge buildings
in the garment district, The scenes
were very touching indeed, The
strickers went to many halls
Similar scenes as I have described
have been repeated at almost
every dressmaking establishment,

Every canopy in front of of big
buildings on 7th Ave. was occupied
by news and reel cameras taking
down scenes of the masses.2

Of course whatever I'm writing
here is from the human side of it,

The only embarrasment of the
day came while standing on the
platform at Bryant Hall 3an Italian
girl worker overcome with emotion
ran up the platform and



embraced me just immediately
after I've made an announcement.

It appears that the stricke won't
last long I am very optimistic at
the outcome of it.4

I don't know whether you are interested
in the descriptions of scenes, but I
am connected with it, and thought
I have to share my impressions with
my beloved.

So long Jeanie Dear, I
will call you at the office tomorrow




Fathers photograph buttons will be ready
Thursday night.5


1 - My grandmother’s “nervous state of mind” really was “due to accumulation of various troubles” at this time, as she was both mourning the recent, premature death of her father and struggling to prevent the consequential, sudden dissolution of her family’s wealth. (As I’ve mentioned before, her father had built his wealth by financing his holdings against each other. This house of cards quickly collapsed when he was no longer there to tend it, despite the best efforts of my grandmother and her brother, Bob.)

That said, my grandmother wasn’t exactly known for her adherence to the Serenity Prayer, and as my mother points out might have had “a fit the night before” Papa wrote this letter for any reason, or even for no reason. I think Papa’s willingness to explain away her mood tells us less about her specific circumstances than it tells us about his capacity to tolerate (and even take pleasure in tolerating) her chronic grouchiness.

2 - While Papa’s last few letters showed him at his most desperate and helpless as he virtually begged my grandmother not to reject him, this passage reminds us that he occupied a much more authoritative and respected position in the world of labor activism (and was, it seems, admired by women like the “Italian girl worker” who embraced him during his speech.)

The strike detailed here involved some 25,000 to 35,000 garment workers who, according to the New York Times, sought “a $5 wage increase for week workers; a 10 per cent increase in the minimum basic rates for piece workers; elimination of the sweatshop; confinement of all outside production to union contracting shops; creation of impartial machinery to police the industry and establishment of an unemployment insurance fund.” The International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union was the primary labor “factor”, while the Affiliated Dress Manufacturers, Inc., the Wholesale Dress Manufacturers, and the Association of Dress Manufacturers represented the management “factors.”

Papa’s account of the walkout provides, as he points out, a good look at the “human side” of the story and a good complement to the Times’ coverage:

Approximately 25,000 men and women employed in the dressmaking industry here went on strike at 10 A.M. yesterday to reorganize and stabilize the industry, to eliminate sweat shops, and to regularize employment.

Promptly at 10 A.M. the shop chairmen gave the signal. In thousands of shops power was shut off, sewing machines stopped, pressing irons clattered on the shelves and scissors and needles were thrust aside...

Chatting and joking vivaciously the dress employees circles the garment zone under the eyes of 4,000 patrolmen and then marches to the fifteen meeting halls, where they were registered and advised of the tasks awaiting them...

The union leaders were gratified by the large number of negro women who responded to the strike call. The walkout is the first one involving the negro dressmakers, who are comparatively new to the industry. Bryant Hall, Arlington Hall and the other meeting places were jammed with strikers who registered and who will return today for mass meetings.

3 - It looks like Papa was one of the “shop chairmen” mentioned above and, as his account indicates, supervised some of the goings-on at Bryant Hall, a venue with which he was probably quite familiar; located at 1085 6th Avenue near 42nd Street, it was an important gathering place for labor activists until the Horn and Hardart company converted it into a restaurant in 1934. Here’s a photo, via the Library of Congress, of a mass meeting held there in 1912:

Papa’s political activism stemmed from a sincere wish to make the world a better and safer place. His descriptions of his leadership role, the “anonymous response to the Union Call,” the stunned faces of factory managers, and the welcome site of “the masses” on the march show how truly carried away he was by the ideological and historical thrill of the moment.

4 - The Times' coverage characterizes the dressmakers’ strike of 1930 as a rather orderly and reasonable affair thanks to the negotiating efforts of then-New York Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lieutenant Governor Herbert H. Lehman. Still, the Times does mention one violent incident in which strikebreakers brawled with Millinery Workers on 38th Street, which implies, I think, that plenty more violence went unreported. My mother reminds me that that Papa had his nose broken by a strikebreaker at some point before he got married; could it have happened during the eight days of this strike?

Papa with his original nose (left) and strike-broken nose

5 - It was fairly typical for people to make photo buttons of loved ones back in the day, though why my grandmother wanted photo buttons of her father made three months after his death is a mystery. Perhaps she ordered them right after he died and it just took a long time to make them, or maybe she planned to distribute them at some sort of memorial service. In any event, it looks like Papa, who was now engaged to my grandmother and increasingly involved in her day-to-day life (in his last letter he discussed an electric bill he payed on her behalf) took care of the arrangements.


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