Silk Stockings and Socialism: Philadelphia's Radical Hosiery Workers from the Jazz Age to the New Deal

Silk Stockings and Socialism: Philadelphia's Radical Hosiery Workers from the Jazz Age to the New Deal

Silk Stockings and Socialism: Philadelphia's Radical Hosiery Workers from the Jazz Age to the New Deal

Silk Stockings and Socialism: Philadelphia's Radical Hosiery Workers from the Jazz Age to the New Deal

Synopsis

The 1920s Jazz Age is remembered for flappers and speakeasies, not for the success of a declining labor movement. A more complex story was unfolding among the young women and men in the hosiery mills of Kensington, the working-class heart of Philadelphia. Their product was silk stockings, the iconic fashion item of the flapper culture then sweeping America and the world. Although the young people who flooded into this booming industry were avid participants in Jazz Age culture, they also embraced a surprising, rights-based labor movement, headed by the socialist-led American Federation of Full-Fashioned Hosiery Workers (AFFFHW).

In this first history of this remarkable union, Sharon McConnell-Sidorick reveals how activists ingeniously fused youth culture and radical politics to build a subculture that included dances and parties as well as picket lines and sit-down strikes, while forging a vision for social change. In documenting AFFFHW members and the Kensington community, McConnell-Sidorick shows how labor federations like the Congress of Industrial Organizations and government programs like the New Deal did not spring from the heads of union leaders or policy experts but were instead nurtured by grassroots social movements across America.

Excerpt

On Thanksgiving Day, November 25, 1869, a group of seven men gathered in a Philadelphia row house. It is not clear why the small group chose Thanksgiving to meet, but the results of that get-together would have major repercussions for the nation’s laboring classes. For it was there that these men founded a new organization, unique to the history of labor, the Noble and Holy Order of the Knights of Labor (Knights of Labor). the row house was that of Uriah S. Stephens and was located in the 2300 block of Coral Street, in the heart of the Kensington section of the city. Although the original group were all garment cutters by trade, membership in the new organization spread rapidly through the city and across a wide variety of industries. From 1869 to 1875 the Knights established eighty-five local assemblies, seventy in the Philadelphia area. the largest segment were organized in assemblies of textile workers, including carpet, hosiery, upholstery, lace curtain, and dyeing. the Knights of Labor created such a sensation that by 1886 the union was well on its way to its goal of organizing all who labored. By that year it reached a national membership of over three-quarters of a million workers, including many African Americans and women, placing it at the forefront of the country’s labor movement in the late nineteenth century.

Kensington hosiery knitter John Makin was one of those early members of the Knights of Labor. in 1889 he was also among a group of men who gathered in another Kensington row house to found a union of full-fashioned hosiery knitters. For his efforts Makin was blacklisted for union activity. Over thirty-five years later, in a different historical period, the Jazz Age of the 1920s, an article in the newspaper of the American Federation of Full-Fashioned Hosiery Workers (AFFFHW) would dub him “the first full-fashioned knitter in America to suffer for being a union man.”

This book tells the story of the ideological and activist descendants of Philadelphia’s Knights of Labor—Kensington’s hosiery workers, their union, and their home community of Kensington—in the period between the two world wars. It is an attempt to return them to their rightful place in history, for in that period the hosiery workers were in the forefront of the country’s labor movement. Along the way the story will serve to uncover some littleknown but important history about the period leading to the founding of the . . .

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