Labor Day & Labor in Passaic, NJ in the 19th and Early 20th Centuries

Labor Day Weekend 2020 is here. How are you spending this holiday weekend, which marks the traditional end to the summer season here in the United States?

Much like Memorial Day weekend, marking the beginning of the summer season, families get together for barbecues and fun.

In past years, it was also a time of last minute shopping, getting children prepared for the new school year. With so many school districts opting for August openings, that is a long-gone activity.

Today is LABOR DAY, but notice that I haven’t mentioned a word yet about workers in the work world? Those workers are the reason Labor Day was established as a federal holiday. America was built on the back of much physical labor, from the time the Pilgrims landed in 1620. Towns needed to be built, food needed to be grown and the skills of tradesmen were in hot demand.

Life continued quite unchanged through the 17th century into the 18th century and even into the 19th century. However, with the advent of trains and the Industrial Revolution that brought the rapid growth of factories and the need for cheap labor, American life evolved in dramatic fashion.

Passaic, New Jersey is a near perfect microcosm of the growth and development of the United States. Passaic is and always has been an immigrant town and a melting pot of cultures and languages.

Passaic sits a short 15 miles from New York City.

In fact, the very first school field trip I ever took was when my kindergarten class went to the Statue of Liberty.

Passaic was a small area named Acquackanonk, a village with a Native American name, but inhabited mostly by early Dutch settlers. Passaic was incorporated into a city in 1873 and all the puzzle pieces had come together to create an industrial city dominated by factory mills.

Factories needed water for hydroelectric power. The Passaic River provided lots of water.

Source: Google Maps

From this map, it is easy to see the Passaic River running along the entire eastern border of the city.

Next, the invention of the steam engine, followed by modern day trains provided a method for shipping goods produced in the factories.

Last, a large labor force was necessary for mills that clustered around Passaic and its neighboring towns of Clifton, Garfield, Lodi and Wallington. From where did this labor force come? By the second half of the 19th century, immigrants were arriving from England and Scotland, along with some from other western European countries like Germany and Italy. However, some of those people were skilled tradesmen and weren’t about to accept hourly factory jobs.

By the 1880s, a new stream of immigrants, arriving in New York City, headed those 15 short miles to Passaic, looking for a new life and a paying job in the mills. This newest immigrant group were citizens of the old Austrian-Hungarian empire – the Hungarian, Pole, Slovak, Ukrainian, Russian and others made Passaic their home.

What was their new life like in Passaic?

Life back at home in Europe was difficult, which is why so many came to the United States looking to improve their economic circumstances and overall quality of life.

American life was definitely different, but it wasn’t necessarily better. Factory jobs required very long hours – ten hour days were typical – and pay was poor, at least compared to other American jobs. Although by the 1920s, women comprised half of the mill hand work force, they were paid less for equally dangerous and unsanitary working conditions. The tuberculosis rate for factory workers was abnormally high, due to poor ventilation in the work place.

By the 1920s, a good 30 years into the establishment of all these factories, men were earning between $1000-$1200 per year. This was an era during which Americans doing other kinds of work were making at least $1400 yearly, providing a basic standard of life.

1920 Census of Passaic
Source: Ancestry

The above crop of one Passaic census page in 1920 shows 12 of 21 workers documented as “millhand.”

Further, a 1925 study undertaken by the state of New Jersey found that the infant mortality rate in Passaic was 43% higher than in other parts of the state. The childhood mortality rate was even worse – 52% higher than other areas. My grandmother lost her sister, Maria, to tuberculosis when she was only 26 years old. Nana’s husband, the grandfather I never knew, died at the age of 43, also from TB.

In 1926, the great Passaic Textile Strike began because factories actually decided to cut wages by 10%. The strike is a story in and of itself, but although eventually settled, it signaled the beginning of the decline of Passaic’s factories. By the 1950s, factories had pretty much closed, except for what we would call outlet shops today.

Worsted wool, along with cotton clothing, were the main products of Botany and Forstmann Mills. I have vague memories of shopping there with Nana when she was looking for a new coat or dress.

Being a child, I never thought to ask about Botany Mill, which is the store I remember. However, Nana, born in Passaic, but whose family returned to Europe when she was about five years old, was a veteran of those mills. Nana returned permanently to the United States in 1910 and promptly went to work with many of her village friends and cousins – in the mill.

Nana, standing second from right with dark blouse, light skirt

Returning to the idea of Passaic being a microcosm of American life, the hardships, illnesses and injuries endured by adults and even children – yes, young children also worked in the mills until child labor laws stopped the practice – in Passaic factories mirrored the lives of everyone who worked during the growth of the American Industrial Revolution and beyond.

Labor Day has actually been a federal holiday since 1894, when it was established to honor all the workers who have brought about to the development, economic strength and prosperity of the United States.

Therefore, as we relax and enjoy the three-day holiday weekend, let’s take a moment or two to reflect on the contributions of all workers, past and present, on this Labor Day holiday.



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.