The 1913 Silk Strike was a watershed moment in the history of Paterson, N.J. On a micro level it was about the workers trying to stop the implementation of a four-loom system, a system that meant more productivity to the mill owners, but harder work and loss of jobs to the laborers. But from a broader perspective it was about immigration and industrialization, unionization and income inequality. In other words it was a product of the social and economic movements of the times.
These two books are written by authors whose grandparents lived through the strike. Leslie Rupley’s work, Beyond the Silk Mills, is historical fiction. George William Shea was written a history that is also a family memoir, Spoiled Silk.
For late 19th and early 20th century immigrants who came to the Paterson area and worked in the mills, there were two different paths they often took to assimilate into their environment. One was to focus on the organization of the workers, some doing so along socialist ideals, while others clamored for more practical gains, like an 8-hour day. The other was to participate in the expanding economic environment and growing consumer culture by focusing on accumulating personal wealth. Those themes run through both of these stories.
Too often American history is about presidents and politicians, wars and legislation. Rupley and Shea have instead written their histories about people, about what it was like to live in the Paterson area, or in other industrializing areas in the Northeast, in the early years of the 20th century. A history of people not presidents. That’s a lot more interesting.
Beyond the Silk Mills, Leslie Rupley
The story of a family of Jewish immigrants from Poland in the early 20th century. Meyer is focused on organizing the workers in the silk mill. Emma is thinking about making money. He dreams of a socialist society, she of a big house on the east side. Rupley’s story follows this couple and their two children through the Paterson Silk Strike, World War I, a devastating flu epidemic, the suffragette movement and the meteoric rise and fall of the stock market in the 20’s.
One of the things I found most interesting about the book is the detail of the lives of immigrants in Paterson. For example her description of the Workmen’s Circle that Meyer retires to at the end of the workday seems to realistically capture the social environment for male immigrant workers. Having been born in Paterson and raised nearby I also appreciated the local color.
The book is mostly historical fiction and small touch of romantic novel. Personally I preferred the history. Rupley is a really good storyteller and I enjoyed reading it.
Spoiled Silk, George William Shea
Spoiled Silk is the story of two German immigrants, William Brueckmann and Katherine Ruhren, and the family they raised after immigrating to the Paterson, N.J., area in the 1890’s. Brueckmann was to become a prominent figure in the 1913 Silk Strike. Having settled in the nearly town of Haledon, he was elected mayor, running on the Socialist Party line. During the 1913 strike the authorities in Paterson prohibited the workers and their union organizers from meeting in the city, so they appealed to Haledon’s “Red Mayor” and he welcomed them to town. There they held regular meetings at the Botto House, home of an Italian immigrant who also worked in the mills and sympathized with the strikers. That house is today a national landmark and home to the American Labor Museum.
The Brueckmann’s story takes us through the times of the strike and the influence of the “Wobblies,” the radical left International Workers of the World. It also covers the anti-German sentiment that was inspired by World War I, the up and down financial times of the decades between the two wars and even captures a glimpse of the impact of the anti-Communist hysteria of the post World War II years on this by then retired couple.
Spoiled Silk is a well researched history of the times, but it is also a family memoir as the author is the grandson of the Brueckmann’s. So it is a story that is told to a large extent through the recollections of the participants. It has its lighter moments too, some of which involve the interactions between the author’s mother’s German family and his father’s Irish family.
When this book was published in 2001 Shea was a professor of classics at Fordham. Since it was published by the Fordham University Press. I suspect no one was paying for placement on the Barnes & Noble new and notable table, so it probably didn’t circulate that widely. Too bad. Shea is a really good writer and the story couldn’t be more interesting. It is a work that deserves a bigger audience.