Beyond Labor's Veil: The Culture of the Knights of Labor

By Robert E. Weir | Go to book overview

Introduction

The year was 1875, and a young man stood among hooded figures. After a long evening of questions, quasi-religious lectures, and mysterious hand signals exchanged to knowing nods, the hoods were lifted. An officer calling himself a "Master Workman" spoke:

On behalf of the toiling millions of earth, I welcome you to this Sanctuary, dedicated to the service of God, by serving humanity. Open and public associations having failed, after a struggle of centuries, to protect or advance the interests of labor, we have lawfully constituted this Assembly. Hid from public view, covered by an impenetrable veil of secrecy, not to promote or shield wrong doing but to shield ourselves and you, from persecution and wrong by men in our own sphere and calling as well as out of it, by endeavoring to secure the just reward of our toil. . . . We mean to uphold the dignity of labor, to affirm the nobility of all who live in accordance with God, "in the sweat of thy brow shalt thou eat bread."

The speech continued for another five minutes, and there were handshakes all around. An officer called the "Venerable Sage" appeared and, by the evening's end, the young man could decode the hand signs that had baffled him earlier in the evening. He was now a full-fledged member of the Noble and Holy Order of the Knights of Labor.1.

Ten years later, shopmen laboring on Jay Gould's Wabash Railroad were fed up. They endured three wage cuts in just two and one-half years, only to find that the parsimonious Gould planned to close many shops altogether. Along with thousands of others along Gould's Southwestern conglomerate, they reluctantly engaged in a desperate strike. In less than two months Gould capitulated.2. Like hundreds of thousands

____________________
1
Terence V. Powderly, The Path I Trod: The Autobiography of Terence V. Powderly, ed. Harry Carman, Henry David, and Paul Guthrie ( New York: AMS, 1968), 47-53
2
For more on the Southwestern strikes, see Shelton Stromquist, A Generation of Boomers: The Pattern of Railroad Labor Conflict in Nineteenth-Century America ( Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987); see also Norman J. Ware, The Labor Movement in the United States, 1860-1895: A Study in Democracy ( New York: D. Appleton, 1929)

-1-

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Beyond Labor's Veil: The Culture of the Knights of Labor
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents v
  • List of Abbreviations vii
  • List of Illustrations ix
  • Acknowledgments xi
  • Preface xiii
  • Introduction 1
  • 1 - The Lights in Ritual 19
  • 2 - Labor Is Noble and Holy 67
  • 3 - Storm the Fort 103
  • 4 - Solidarity, Segmentation, And Sentimentality 145
  • 5 - Victoria's Sons And Daughters? 195
  • 6 - Symbols of Solidarity/ Images of Conflict 231
  • 7 - Knights of Labor Knights of Leisure 277
  • Conclusion - Do I Contradict Myself? Very Well Then I Contradict Myself 321
  • Select Bibliography 329
  • Index 339
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