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.
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.
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