The city of Troy was one of the wealthiest cities in the entire United States by the end of the 19th century. It was blessed by a number of favorable factors, including location and natural resources. Located near the meeting of the Hudson and Mohawk Rivers, Troy was a major nexus of the Erie Canal. Goods came from the Midwest and Canada along the Mohawk, which basically was the Canal by that point, and then crossed to the Hudson, and down to New York City, much of it ending up in Brooklyn’s Red Hook warehouse facilities. Produce and meat also came west from Vermont and the New England states.
On the other side of town, in Troy’s more northern sections and along the Hudson, the textile industry made Troy even richer. There were large companies and small weaving fabrics in the mills, and sewing shirts and other garments in the factories. The Hudson River, and the other creeks and ponds that run through Troy provided needed water and power for these industries. But, as early as in 1825, a Troy housewife changed everything.
Hannah Lord Montague was tired of ironing her blacksmith husband’s shirts. She noticed that he only really soiled the collars, but could wear the shirt more than once, so she cut off the collars, finished the raw edges, and figured out how to attach the now separate collar onto the shirt with buttons and ties. The collars, and soon the cuffs, could be washed and starched separately. This small time saving innovation grew to be a multi-million dollar industry, and it all centered in Troy, giving the city the nickname the “Collar City.”
Cluett, Peabody & Company, which made Arrow shirts in Troy, soon became the largest of the detachable collar and cuff companies, but they were not the only ones. By the mid-1800s there were numerous companies making collars and cuffs in factories large and small. It didn’t take a lot of room to manufacture small items like shirt collars.
But what made the collars desirable was not just that they were detachable and could be washed, but that they could be stiff and starched to a crispy paper-like consistency desired by the fashion dictates of the day. A man of means could change his collars and cuffs several times during the day, and that meant thousands upon thousands of collars and cuffs needed to be made, starched and ironed for shipment to New York, and the entire country.
All of this meant a large labor force, and Troy grew in numbers as thousands of people came to work in the factories. The men worked mostly in the steel and related metal industries, and the women in the garment industry. The largest group of these workers came from Ireland. As the garment industry sorted itself out, four related manufacturing subsets developed. The first was the mills that produced the fabrics, the second was the factories that sewed the shirts, collars and cuffs, and the third was the laundry industry that washed, starched and ironed the thousands of shirts, collars and cuffs. The fourth was the waste companies that reprocessed the tons of fabric scraps generated into new fabric. This industry was the topic of these Troy posts: The Fortress of Shoddy, Part One and Part Two.
The laundry end of this industry was huge. By 1864, while the Civil War was still raging, there were 14 commercial laundries in Troy. The work there paid a bit more than in the sewing factories, but it was extremely hard work, dangerous, and was done almost exclusively by women, mostly Irish immigrants. The men, of course, supervised, and owned the plants.
Today, we can hardly imagine how difficult it was to do this job. We speak of “laundresses” as if all they did was put the clothes in the washing machine and dryer, and then ironed them. Tedious perhaps, but not so hard. Well, it was nothing like that at all. There was no electricity then, so first of all, there was only natural light from the windows, and the dim lighting of gas and kerosene lamps. The women worked twelve to fourteen hour days, from dawn to dusk, with few breaks, usually on their feet the entire time.
The collars and cuffs, as well as shirts, came to the laundries from the factories, and they were first washed in large vats of boiling water, with harsh soaps. They had to be agitated and swirled with poles, rinsed, and washed again. The garments were bleached with chloride of soda, with a dilution of sulfuric acid added to activate the bleach. Then they were rinsed again. There were no protective rubber gloves here, the women plunged their hands into the water throughout this entire process when necessary, and it was necessary all the time.
After bleaching, the garments were rinsed with bluing, which made them whiter than white, and then starched, with both thin and thick liquid starches, which necessitated more baths in chemically laced hot water. Following that, the shirts, collars and cuffs were dried until they were just a bit damp, and then they were ironed and finally packaged. This was not your mother’s iron, either. Pre-electricity – irons were heavy, made of cast iron, and heated either with hot coals inserted inside a hollow body, or heated by placing them on an even hotter iron surface over a bed of red hot coals. It was very easy to get seriously burned.
The women who worked in the laundries suffered chemical burns from the soap, the bleach, and the starches, and burns from the irons. Their hands were a mess. They hauled heavy loads of wet laundry from process to process, and their backs were shot, too. By nature of what they were doing, the factories were extremely hot and steamy. They were unpleasant in the winter, and intolerable in the summer. On top of that, women wore layers of heavy clothing anyway, giving them no respite from the heat and humidity. The term “sweatshop,” coined for situations like this, was no joke.
They were on their feet for more than half a day, and they needed to concentrate on what they were doing every minute, because any mistake, any burning or scorching of the merchandise, came out of your pay, and you would be fired if it happened enough times. If you got hurt, there was no compensation, and there were plenty to take your place. For all their labors, the women made three or four dollars a week. For thousands of women in Troy, this was their life.
In spite of the horrific conditions, the laundry jobs were the highest paying jobs in the garment industry. The washers got the least amount of money, the bleachers made as much as a factory sewing worker, but the ironers made the most money, and competition for these jobs was fierce; these women had to feed their families. In many families, they were the only bread-winners.
One of these women was Kate Mullany. In 1864, she was 19 years old, and the sole bread-winner for her family. Her family had immigrated to the United States in 1850, landing in New York City on the steamship Patrick Henry. The family; her parents and three other sisters, ended up in Troy three years later. They all became citizens in 1856. There was another child born, a boy named Frank, but her father, Dominick, died in 1864. Her mother was chronically ill after the birth of her son, and was unable to support the family, and it was up to Kate, as the eldest, to take care of them. She got a job at one of the laundries, and became one of Troy’s hardest working women.
The labor movement in the United States had begun, and the men working in Troy’s iron and steel plants had a trade union called the Iron Molders union, established in 1858. They had been able to negotiate for higher wages and better working conditions. The women in the laundries had complained of working conditions and low pay to little avail. The only thing that changed was that a new process for applying starch had been invented – a machine that pumped out more starched garments than ever before, which only made things harder for the ladies who ironed, as more productivity was expected. This machine also posed another threat, as serious burns from this machine made manufacturing even more dangerous. For Kate Mullany, this was the last straw. What did they have to lose if they organized? Fingers and limbs were already in danger. Enough was enough.
Next time: “No ironing while the strike is hot.” This was the rallying cry of Troy’s first female garment workers’ union, and the first women’s labor union in the country to last beyond one event or strike, and endure: the Collar Laundry Union. The rest of this important story, next time.