Fierce & Fashionable: Philadelphia Female Labor Fighters Of The 20s & 30s

 

Women strikers in Jail, Open Shop Strike, 1931, Philadelphia Record Photograph Morgue [V07] | Image courtesy of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania

Of the thousands of properties on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places pathetically few, despite their architectural ambition and historical significance, are mills, factories, or workshops. Of the hundreds of Pennsylvania historic markers installed on the streets of the city stunningly few commemorate inventions, technological innovations, machines or consumer goods produced by Philadelphia workers. Even fewer acknowledge the people who made these products, their training, apprenticeships, societies, or trade unions. Some of the largest strikes have been recognized and safety and workplace advances noted, but in this city that prides itself on an unsurpassed industrial heritage, there’s no labor or manufacturing museum, no way to visualize just how much material culture was produced here before the collapse of the industrial economy (what a sublime collection that would be).

By privileging Philadelphia’s role in American political history above all else and by failing to protect commercial architecture, we’ve also lost sense of the all-encompassing social nature of neighborhood life before 1970, once embodied in busy retail streets, all-night cafes, brightly lit movie houses, union halls, singing societies, taprooms, churches, and squares. This loss of material culture and consciousness has skewed our vision of Philadelphia; we tend to think of neighborhoods as empty during the day and quiet at night and above all uniformly low-rise. This was hardly the case for most of the city’s history.

Cover, Silk Stockings and Socialism, with the hosiery union’s 1920s-era feminist logo | Image: UNC Press

In a revelatory new book, Silk Stockings and Socialism: Philadelphia’s Radical Hosiery Workers from the Jazz Age to the New Deal (UNC Press), the scholar Sharon McConnell-Sidorick offers a portrait of Kensington from the late 19th century to World War II as fashionable, politically progressive, tolerant (but on matters of race), and so spirited on matters of worker rights to be considered “revolutionary.” I will lead a discussion with McConnell-Sidorick at 6PM on Thursday, September 7 at Penn Book Center, 130 S. 34th Street.

Of the many strikes launched by the Kensington-led American Federation of Full-Fashioned Hosiery Workers (one of the most vital American trade unions of the 1920s and 30s), McConnell-Sidorick writes, “the vast majority […] were not over wages, but were for dignity in working conditions, and for representation—the right to unionize.”

Philadelphia, McConnell-Sidorick reminds us, was a top textile center and full-fashioned (or fitted) hosiery was one of its fastest growing sectors. The product was a key element of flapper fashion of the 1920s, as it allowed women to wear short skirts. Rare in scholarship, McConnell-Sidorick draws material and popular culture into economic and political history. “As a gendered product (and one that carried with it sexual connotations),” she writes, “silk stockings were full of meaning that the workers who made them incorporated into their own lives, both on and off the job.” Those lives, she reveals, were lived in public, at dances and movie houses, on the strike line and the union hall, and in schools and training programs created to enrich the lives of workers and unify them politically. In this regard, the female-led, politically infected Kensington youth movement of the 1920s feels distinctly familiar to our own urban age.

Allegheny Theater, where female workers could see their flapper heroes on screen | Image courtesy of the Glazer Collection, Athenaeum of Philadelphia

For women members (and later leaders) of the hosiery union, the medium was the message. Their youth, their liberation as modern women, their demand for equal treatment and equal pay, and their commitment to the labor movement was embodied in the union’s striking 1920s-era logo. The women profiled in this book were true pioneers, and McConnell-Sidorick’s narrative brings them out of hiding, defying historians’ conventional analysis that, after the 19th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified in 1920, feminism fell apart until the 1960s. Labor history is all-too-often ignored.

McConnell-Sidorick tells a national story that happens to be set in Philadelphia but is sensitive to the powerful force of place in history. Here, then, is Kensington of the 1920s and 30s in full blush. She directs our attention to the dozens of mills, including the doubly infamous Apex Hosiery mill, at 5th and Luzerne, now being demolished; the Labor Lyceum, at 2nd and Cambria (demolished); Knitters Hall, 2530 N. 4th Street, both local Branch 1 and the national hosiery union headquarters into the 1930s until the national moved to a new site on Broad Street (now True Light Pentecostal Church); Upholstery Weavers Hall; the Labor Institute; the groundbreaking Carl Mackley Houses; and McPherson Square, long before it became a site and symbol of the opioid crisis. In the 1920s and 30s, hosiery and other union leaders organized massive unity protests in McPherson Square—some of the largest in American history. It was here that working people asserted their demands for fairness, dignity, and equality. That profound and temporarily successful movement makes today’s crisis, predicated as it is on the struggle of working people to cope in the changing economy, ever-more devastating.

***

Nathaniel Popkin in discussion with author Sharon McConnell-Sidorick, 6PM September 7, at Penn Book Center, 34th and Sansom Streets
More HERE.

About the author

Nathaniel Popkin is co-editor of the Hidden City Daily and author of three books of non-fiction, including the forthcoming Philadelphia: Finding the Hidden City (Temple Press) and a novel, Lion and Leopard (The Head and the Hand Press). He is the senior writer of the film documentary "Philadelphia: The Great Experiment."



11 Comments


  1. Thank you for this article. Will your talk be recorded in some way? Unfortunately that is the same night as the Baltimore Avenue Dollar Stroll.

  2. A nice write-up. Although Philadelphia has no museum exclusively devoted to manufacturing, the Philadelphia History Museum (formerly the Atwater Kent) holds many tens of thousands of artifacts related to Philadelphia’s industrial history, although space considerations permit the museum to display only a limited number at any one time. The Franklin Institute also shows aspects of Philadelphia’s industrial history, particularly in its railroad collection.

    As to strikes for union recognition, those largely came to an end in 1935, when the right to unionize was enacted into federal law. Thereafter, questions of representation were resolved through secret ballot elections conducted by the Philadelphia regional office of the National Labor Relations Board from its office at Walnut and Juniper Streets.

    • You make a good point that after the 1935 National Labor Relations Act (Wagner Act) representation strikes should not have been necessary, because there was then another way to gain recognition through secret ballot elections. However, given the reality of extreme employer opposition to workers having a say in their workplaces through unions, workers still very often had to go on strike to gain recognition. The massive wave of sit-down strikes in 1937 beginning with the historic Flint sit-down strike against GM, and including Philadelphia strikes like the one at Apex Hosiery, were mostly representation strikes. Workers usually need to rely on their strongest weapon–their ability to withhold their labor–to make any real gains, though it is also true that the 1935 Wagner Act was extremely important in legalizing their efforts.

  3. A member of this union named Carl Mackly was shot and killed during a strike by a “scab.” The Carl Mackley Apartments in Juniata Park honors his name. The apartments were a New Deal project. It was first in the nation built by a union with federal financing.

    • Sharon McConnell-Sidorick

      Yes! Carl Mackley was 22 years old, killed in the Aberle strike in 1930. The Mackley Houses were innovative and forward-looking. They even had a nursery school for the children of working mothers and utilized passive solar. They still look like they are very well maintained.

  4. You state Apex Hoisery was at 5th and Master and that it is currently being demolished, however, I drive by there regularly and do not see a building being demolished.

    • Sharon McConnell-Sidorick

      Hi Ken,

      You are correct, the address of 5th and Master appears to be a typo. If you follow the link provided in the article it correctly states that the Apex was at 5th and Luzerne, which I also discuss in my book.

  5. Hello, interesting history of hoisery union workers. A lot of hat manufactoring plants
    were also in Phila. along with brewery companies.

    My grandmother lived on the 3200 block of Chatham Street down a block or so from
    Richmond and Allegheny Avenues during the 40’s and 50’s. There was a manufacturing plant right across the street. I often wondered what was made there.

    Is there a way to look up that sort of information?

    Thank you.

  6. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to get down to Penn for the talk last night. Very sorry that I
    missed it. I’m eager to read the book. Great interest in the area & the history personally. My family lived there & my great Aunt Mary, the Matriarch of our family, worked in the Hosiery factory. I don’t know if she was an organizer but I do know that she was “ball of fire” she was a suffragette. She was arrested in @ 1920 picketing at the Frankford arsenal for Women Rights. I was very young when she died but she had a last impact on the family.

    • Sharon McConnell-Sidorick

      I’m sorry you missed the event. I will be speaking at the Philadelphia City Institute of the Free Library on Rittenhouse Square on October 11th at 6:30. If you can make it I would love to talk to you about your connections to the area and your great Aunt Mary!

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