From “The Castle Genie,”
Newsletter of The Passaic County Historical Society
Vol. 8, No. 1
As excerpted from the
Herald & News of July 21, 1997
Many immigrants fled the poverty of their homelands in Europe in the late 19th century to make new lives for themselves in the City of Paterson. By the early 1900’s, immigrants from all over Europe desperate for work were pouring into Paterson, which had become the nation’s leading center for mills that converted raw silk into the fine clothing worn by America’s wealthy.
The owners of the city’s silk mills sought skilled workers like weavers and loom fixers by advertising in European cities known for silk production. Thousands of skilled silk workers came to Paterson from silk centers like Macclesfield, England; Lyon, France; Biella, Italy; and Lodz, Poland.
No extensive advertising campaigns were needed to attract the unskilled workers who flocked to America in droves, desperate to improve their standard of living. They came from the European countries of Hungary, Germany, the Netherlands, Armenia, Italy, France, and Poland. They learned of jobs available in the “Silk City” largely by word of mouth, settling here hoping to fulfill their dreams of middle-class life.
By 1910, there were some 7,000 to 8,000 Italians — mostly unskilled laborers from southern Italy — working about the mills, making them the largest nationality working in the industry. There were also between 3,000 and 5,000 Jews employed in the Paterson silk industry, coming mostly from Poland, Russia, and Germany. These immigrants maintained strong ties to their hometowns, making it easier for family members and friends to follow them here.
A typical day for unskilled workers meant 12 hours standing at a machine doing boring, repetitive work, with only a 20-minute break for lunch. Conditions at various mills were described as “filthy, dingy, damp, and dank, and just short of inhumane.” Workers were paid little more than a dollar a day during their first few years at the mills. Sexual harassment laws did not exist, and some bosses were sleazy characters; others were just downright mean.
These same European immigrant mill workers, who brought with them a strong tradition of labor protest and radical ideology, helped fuel the American labor movement by participating in a spontaneous strike in February, 1913 which eventually prompted a walkout of about 25,000 skilled and unskilled workers, closing 292 mills in the City of Paterson.
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