Their Fathers' Daughters: Silk Mill Workers in Northeastern Pennsylvania, 1880-1960

Their Fathers' Daughters: Silk Mill Workers in Northeastern Pennsylvania, 1880-1960

Their Fathers' Daughters: Silk Mill Workers in Northeastern Pennsylvania, 1880-1960

Their Fathers' Daughters: Silk Mill Workers in Northeastern Pennsylvania, 1880-1960

Synopsis

"This book tells the story of girls and women who helped support the families of coal miners, mine laborers, and industrial workers in the anthracite region and nearby communities. These girls emulated their fathers by going out to work, bringing home wages, and standing up for their rights as workers. Because many of them were coal miners' daughters, the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) often stepped in to help resolve their disputes with management. Social reformers of the early twentieth century drew attention to the tender age of many of the silk workers. Through the last decades of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth, these female workers struggled to establish themselves, not as childlike victims, but as independent women, capable of finding their own way in the world and standing up for their own rights." Title Summary field provided by Blackwell North America, Inc. All Rights Reserved

Excerpt

In 1956 or 1957, my great-aunts Laura Allio and Lizzie Owens climbed a long flight of concrete steps up the side of a steep hill to the Willow Silk Mill in Slatington (Lehigh County), Pennsylvania. They spoke of it poetically as “going up to the Willow.” At this time they were women in their fifties, but they had begun to climb those steps as girls of fourteen. They still called themselves and their co-workers “girls,” speaking of the “girls at work,” or the “girls at the Willow.” Sometimes I pictured girls in long dresses, lazing under a tree. I never went up to the mill. Laura and Lizzie never took me there. It would not be part of my world. They didn’t want it to be.

Laura and Lizzie were sisters, the daughters of a Welsh immigrant named Owen Owens. I remember them carrying their aprons in cloth bags and wearing heavy oxfords and plain cotton print dresses. They trapped their grey hair in hairnets, either out of habit or to keep it from straying into the machinery. Sometimes they talked and sometimes they were silent as they climbed the two-hundred-odd steps to the entrance of the red brick factory.

Why did they do it? They had done it so long, there had hardly been a moment in their lives when they might have decided not to do it, to do otherwise. As young girls they came to the mill to help support themselves, their parents, and their brothers David, Morris, and Tommy. Their father worked in a slate quarry. Morris went to France during World War I, returned to Slatington, went up to the mill, and eventually became a loom fixer. Laura and Lizzie continued to work in the mill after David died, Tommy moved to New York City, and Morris got married and started a family.

Laura put off marriage until middle age; Lizzie never married. I don’t know why, but I know that some factories fired “girls” when they married. My mother’s cousin Diane lived with a man named Linnie for many years without benefit of a marriage license so that she could keep her job at the PP&L (Pennsylvania Power and Light). Maybe the Willow discriminated against married women.

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