Joshua R. Greenberg
Struggling Downward: Unionism and Masculinity in 1830s New York City
The mid-1830s produced an unprecedented strike wave in the nations northern seaport cities, ushering in the first period of mass union-building in the country. In New York City, the General Trades Union (GTU) functioned to unite the citys growing number of journeymens trade unions under one citywide organization. At the May 20, 1835 meeting of the GTU, the delegate from the ladies shoes branch of the journeymen cordwainers union reported "that their Society have concluded upon a strike for an advance of wages-considering the present prices inadequate to support their families."1 It was not the economic hardship caused by their low wages that journeymen cited for initiating their strike, it was their inability to use those wages to provide for their dependents, thereby threatening their role as fathers and independent men. When the strike ended a month later, the minutes of the GTU meeting read that the cordwainers "have concluded their strike and, that the men are all in employment. A vote of thanks was then presented to the Cordwainers, for their manly conduct during the strike."2 These statements show that at this crucial moment in the formation of early American trade unionism, the men involved were clearly sensitive to the importance of masculinity and gender identity to working mens consciousness.
As one of the first groups of artisans whose skills were broken down by early industrial production, journeymen cordwainers and their contemporaries who displayed this "manly conduct" have often been placed at the center of early attempts at working class formation. However, studies of the periods organized labor have focused primarily on the collapse of the craft system and self-interested attempts by artisans to preserve their status of an earlier time in the name of the Republic.3 This view needs to be expanded to include the idea that the transformation from household artisan production to early industrial production was grounded in the creation of an outside-the-home male wage worker that was economically dependent on a boss, but also functioned as an independent economic provider for dependent wives and families. For artisans, the tension in these new identities anchored attempts at collective organizing, such as in unions, in the language and imagery of gender and masculinity.
The changes in the American economy and the formation of an American working class during the period from 1800 to 1840 have been well documented by recent scholars. Transportation and technological advancements connected once isolated markets, forming a network that stretched from the Atlantic Ocean to the Ohio Valley and increasing the demand for finished goods.4 Enlarged demand was met because more products could be made when large numbers of workers completing one or two jobs for low wages replaced higher paid and skilled journeymen artisans. This gradual process varied in speed and scope depending on the nature of the craft, but in New York City, generally occurred over the course of the first half of the nineteenth century. Wherever these transitions did occur, they were contested by journeymen artisans who felt displaced by the experience. Early attempts at trade union activity in New York and Philadelphia resulted in strikes and even conspiracy trials for some members who protested wage cuts and job deskilling. Incremental extension of the franchise also occurred during the first three decades of the nineteenth century.5 By 1828, many of these artisans had joined the political process in the form of Workingmens Parties that agitated for reform and equality for laboring citizens.6 By 1835 a vibrant and well structured network of trade unions developed into city-wide organizations in New York and Philadelphia.7 Seen together, these movements represent the dawn of an active industrial American working-class that organized an economic and political resistance during a period of dramatic social reformation.
In order to collectively engage bosses in an argument over wages or working conditions in this economy, journeymen first had to understand who they were as a body in relation to others around them. The construction of their own identity took into account those certain traits that they saw as ideal. In a report to the National Trades Union on the state of female labor in the nation, the "workman" was described as "the parent, the husband, or the brother," whose support should keep "his wife or relative at home, to perform the duties of the household."8 This description contains two components in the identity of the "workman:" the role of authority and independence within the household and, in opposition to his dependents, the natural placement outside of the household while performing his duties. This phenomenon was paired with the assumed placement of women exclusively within the artisanal household. This early nineteenth century development altered the organization of the late colonial craft household that contained living and working areas for master artisans, their wives, and journeymen.9 One labor paper ran a list of ten practices that women should follow in relationship to their husband. Just like the identity that journeymen were forming for themselves, this advice relegated women to their natural place in the home and provided for a masculine authority while there. She was told to "occupy yourself only with household affairs; wait till your husband confides to you those of a high importance." Wives were also told that there was only one proper way to govern a household, by the "power of the husband, a wife should never employ any other arms than gentleness."10
While this study argues that the formation of a masculine worker identity anchored the images and language surrounding the initial attempts at trade unionism among early nineteenth century cordwainers and other journeymen in New York City, it does not imply that all societal institutions created in the early nineteenth century were contingent upon the relationships between workers and bosses. Union formation, as the creation of a masculine worker organization, was analogous to other gendered institutional developments of the period, such as the creation of fraternal unions, new evangelical religious movements, or reformers, like the Washingtonian Societies, that were predicated on the manliness of their participants.11 This did not mean that women were prohibited from all of these organizations, but it did mean that the creation of these groups were conscious efforts to establish certain masculine arenas. While workers did not organize all of the male institutions of the early nineteenth century, understanding the intent of their unionization in gendered terms can illuminate similar trends across early nineteenth century society.
After looking at journeymens construction of an inherently male outside-the-home workman identity, this study will look briefly at some challenges to that identity, before focusing on the relationship of masculine identity to unionism and labor unrest among mid-1830s cordwainers as a case study. This process of self-definition was not entirely internal. It will be shown how the images and language surrounding the formation of a masculine worker identity were put to use in early trade unionism and labor reform attempts among early nineteenth century journeymen in New York City. Through organizations like the General Trades Union and the national Union of Cordwainers, journeymen engaged with bosses in a discussion over the roles that workers would play in the new industrial economy. In addition to the roles that workers would play in society, this negotiation focused on who was fit to be a worker and what traits they should display. The struggle to create the new worker identity was more than just a conflict of competing economic self-interest; the events encompassed a negotiation between masters and journeymen over the journeymens fate in the newly industrializing society. The inherently male realm that the craft workplace occupied transformed any discussion over "worker" identity in particular into "male" identity in general. The space that men as workers occupied was public, so the ideas and definitions universalized within that space excluded members of society that did not naturally occupy that space and were relegated to the home.12 Thus, these artisans formulated worker identities through a variety universalized imagery and language that contained specific gendered qualities.13 This analysis suggests that, to the parties involved, the contest over worker identity was actually a contest over redefining worker masculinity in the new economy.
In the last few years, historians have begun to emphasize the relationship between worker identity and the formation of working class consciousness in the first half of the 19th century. However, this trend has been primarily restricted to conceptions of race. It has been most convincingly argued by David Roediger, who stressed the importance of racial unity and workers opposition to blackness and slavery as the crucial factor, rather than economic association, in the creation of the white working class.14 However, not only journeymen and laborers in the process of forming a working class consciousness in the 1830s, but their bosses as well, used the imagery of black or Indian otherness in order to make claims to the superiority of their artisan skill and intelligence. These images also had another usage for journeymen, who often used the conception of wage slavery or degradation to describe their working conditions to their employers.15 Although this imagery was used, it does not fully explain how white male workers defined themselves in relationship to the two groups they associated most with: their families and their bosses. Through Roedigers lens of race, the question of masculinity simply becomes one of dependence vs. independence.16 This sells the process of self-definition short. In the first half of the nineteenth century, workers and their employers struggled to define themselves through a wide range of topics including citizenship, individuality, collectivity, submissiveness, physical strength, and most importantly household provision. These traits, however did not develop naturally or haphazardly. They were reactions and adaptations to the radical economic transformations of the period that created an arena that required new understandings of these issues.
As recent scholarship has shown, early nineteenth century transformations in labor and economics worked to redefine gender definitions and roles. Much of the work on the period however, has studied the unique circumstances of women within the industrializing process. As Christine Stansell and others have demonstrated, entering the world of wage labor via outwork or unskilled manufacturing, womens experience in early nineteenth century industry had specific gendered qualities. Recent attempts to discern the role that gender played in the formation of early national masculine ideas have focused on male realms such as the artisans workshop or fraternal lodge that are believed to hold a clue to definitions of masculinity in the period. Attempts to understand the role of masculinity in mens life experience during the period, have focused mostly on middle-class stereotypes that unite all men under an umbrella of economically aggressive masculine achievers.17
Within older models of household artisan production, the artisan would occupy converging domestic and craft arenas, so that a colonial artisans masculinity was contingent upon his performance as both a family and workshop master. However, with the end of this system, journeymen could no longer count on becoming masters and setting up production within their own homes. They might still work at home, but they no longer controlled the production and were instead dependent on an outside authority. Given this situation, journeymen sought a new understanding of masculine identity to rectify the emerging separation of home and work. By making the support of their dependents the basis of their outside-the-home work, artisans could conflate their newly diverging identities under one masculine "workman" image. Not surprisingly, the traits attributed to this new worker identity were exclusively male and limited its construction to men only. While this formulation took into account journeymens shrinking upward mobility and the trend away from household artisan production, it did place pressure on the journeymen to earn enough as a wage worker outside the home to support his family. The result of this pressure on the viability of the family was even noted by contemporary writer Asa Greene, in his A Glance at New York (1837). He wrote that in New York,
bachelors will postpone the happy hour, until they acquire the where-withal for supporting a family; which many of them will never be able to do: and of course their pride and prudence will make them continue single all their lives.18
Because the breakdown of skilled craftsmanship (and the affected families) occurred unevenly by trade, these trends were felt intensely by cordwainers during the 1830s, but not until decades later for other tradesmen such as butchers and luxury furniture makers.
These images were not proposed in a vacuum and were certainly seen in the context of a larger world view that placed the discussion of workers solely in the realm of men. True artisans, in their view, were exclusively voting citizens, which was possible only for white males after reaching "the age of manhood, and one short years residence."19 For example, the short-lived labor political parties in New York, Philadelphia, and Boston were called the Working Mens Party and many important New York labor meetings were held in the Masonic Hall, a local fraternal auditorium. This did not mean that only men were present at the meetings or that women were forbidden. Whether women were present did not affect the attempt, by these artisans, to signify their masculinity by proclaiming it in the names of their organizations and their symbols. Likewise, two of the leading penny press labor papers of the 1830s were the Working Mans Advocate and the directly titled The Man. These titles did not prevent women from reading the papers, some of the article were even aimed at female readers. Male signifiers in the names were used to inform and remind society that these papers were part of the masculine worker arena being created by male unionists at the time.
Rather than changing anyones opinion about the nature or demographic makeup of workers in these cities, these constant reminders reinforced the image that all working men were true men. However, the assurance of a male arena did not always transfer smoothly to an assured masculine identity. In one speech to the General Trades Union in 1833, the normally eloquent, future Congressman Ely Moore used nine separate terms in order to address his audience. Among the terms he used synonamously throughout the speech were: "artisans", "workmen", "labourers", "producing classes", "Journeymen", "mechanics", "men", and "brothers".20 As Moore, and working men in general, groped toward a clear definition of themselves, it was certain that "all men are working men," but not certain how that knowledge would be used.21 By themselves, these examples only show that early 19th century men had gendered images of themselves, but during the labor unrest of the mid-1830s, these images were specifically used in the battle between workers and employers in northern seaport cities. By the 1830s workers had so successfully conflated the imagery of domestic male and outside-the-home worker that they could wear civilian clothes instead of their mechanics aprons while marching in the parades (as they had done in the Colonial era) and not be confused for anything but working men.22 This did not mean, however, that the imagery surrounding this new identity had repercussions only on the job.
One prevailing nationwide development with respect to the male image of the period was the creation of the individual "man on the make" within this burgeoning economy. However, the transition in cordwaining and other crafts that separated work from the home did not necessarily mean that journeymen adopted the independent notion of "every man for himself." One unlikely arena where journeymen cordwainers and their fellow artisans negotiated the terrain among individuality, collectivity and independence was in the halls of Congress. During the legislative battle over the fate of the national bank in the 23rd Congress, scores of petitions from merchants, artisans, and laborers were sent to Washington from New York City. One petition for restoring constitutional currency was sent by over 120 "working men, citizens of New York," who included, among its many artisans, journeymen cordwainer leaders, Oramel Bingham and David Kilmer.23 The memorial asked for the help of Congress in regulating capitalists profits. As regulation in the past had failed, the petitioners wanted to remind Congress that the "only sure way, and the way best calculated to benefit all classes, is to diminish the destitution and consequent dependence of the working classes."24 These petitioners, made up of both journeymen and master craftsmen, demonstrated the complexity of independent/dependent dynamics in the early 19th century. In order to protect the independence of the working classes from capitalist exploitation, the group as a collective had gone over the heads of the capitalists to a distant and removed independent body in the federal government.
Attempts to secure an identity of independence and authority were made in the name of collectivity, not individuality. While the role of journeymen as brothers to fellow craftsmen and unionists was important to the conception of collectivity, it was usually seen as a smaller part of journeymans primary identity, that of the masculine provider. The flip side of this ideology was the pressure on each individual man to perform at a certain level for his own well being. With the ability to rise contingent on each individual, the ability to fall was likewise in his own hands. When an article about work safety ran in a magazine for master craftsman, it was acknowledged that each "man, by his own ignorance, or by his own folly, shortens his days; and we cannot sufficiently deplore that ignorance and folly."25 The emerging ideology of the self-made man was a solitary one; men were supposed to fulfill certain masculine duties to be considered legitimate and it was left up to the individual to complete those duties. This notion owed much of its base to evangelical Protestant conceptions of the individual.26 However, the inherent self-interest of this emerging line of middle class thought separated it from an earlier ideology of republicanism that depended on civic duty to the collective.27
The tension between action for the good of the individual vs. the good of the collective was addressed in the rules of the cordwainers national union that specifically stated the desire to control the movement and activities of individual members who tried to break ranks with their local unions. New York cordwainers resolved, "not to admit as members, Journeymen coming from places where Societies of this nature are formed, except [if] they produce a certificate of having conformed to all lawful requirements of such Society."28 In a period when the workforce was increasingly mobile and turnover was high, the cordwainers union refused to take in members who had run out on their obligations to other unions. This policy both gave support to other unions of cordwainers and attempted to create stable and disciplined members. The containment of factionalism and opposition within the journeymens ranks was also an important issue of the time, especially when the line between master and journeymen could blur on occasion. Addressing the issue, the national union spoke out for its desire to attain plurality and consensus. The unions objectives were "to promote unity and concert of action for its attainment, and to devise means for the moral, intellectual, and physical improvement of the operative Cordwainers of the United States."29 The constitution of the cordwainers national union showed that their aim of collectivity was not only a strategic measure, it was part of the process of forming their own worker identity.
For journeyman craftsmen in the 1830s, living up to the standards of this new worker identity could prove difficult because any threat to their artisan status was also a threat to their roles as men, so failure was feared. Political solutions were briefly attempted in the late 1820s and early 1830s in the Working Mens Party. However, this party quickly splintered and was overrun by elements from outside the journeymens ranks. By the mid-1830s, most political answers were viewed with skepticism by organized labor. Cordwainer union leader William English, one of the Philadelphia delegates to the national convention, expressed this skepticism and the gendered nature of his fears when he made the following remark about politicians:
once a year they call us men; once a year we receive the proud appellation of freemen; once a year we are the intelligent, virtuous, orderly working men. But hen they want our votes, and they flatter us; they want our interest, and they fawn upon us; and it grinds them to the very soul, to have their delicate fingers clenched in the friendly gripe [sic] of an honest hand, but they dare not avow it then. There is contamination in the very touch of a man who labours for his bread . . .30
The treatment from politicians that English described was more than just party politics or a jockeying for votes. The implication that only during a campaign were working men given the label "men" means that, at other times, politicians and the middle class interests they supposedly represented saw them as less than men. The idea of being less than a man could have a number of different connotations. It could be a comparison to the degraded and dependent role of enslaved laborers or the supposed weak and dependent role of women or children. It is unclear in which direction pointed when he spoke of an "other". Most likely he trying to express the working mens process of self-identification that assumed a place of authority over dependents, such as slaves or women, and challenged for a place of power alongside employers. In any form, the complaint English made was not just about politics and politicians. He himself ventured into politics in the late 1830s and won a seat in the Pennsylvania state legislature.31 Englishs attack was about the ability of male workers to fulfill a certain role in society while maintaining their masculine traits.
It is important to notice that the breakdown of artisanal production did not occur evenly, so the labor unrest of the 1830s included more than two opposing sides. While each city contained racial and ethnic divisions, these factors did not have anywhere near the impact they would in subsequent decades.32 However, journeymens ranks were divided between those trades whose members felt the most upheaval, like bakers, printers, and cordwainers and those whose jobs had been little affected by recent economic trends, such as butchers and luxury furniture makers. Employers were also far from united in their efforts. Small master artisans often had more in common with their striking journeymen than with the wealthy merchants and business interests they might align with. Worker and employer identities would never actually stabilize. As the ethnic, racial, generational, and gender composition of the work force changed over time, the traits understood as ideally masculine changed to reflect new criterion. Even within one time period, these variables allowed for a number of different masculine images to coexist.33
Most of these images (whether fashioned by journeymen or employers) had in common an attempt to promote strength in favor of weakness and authority in favor of submission. This analysis of gender roles held important ramifications in a economy where all production was by hand and skilled artisans still referred to themselves as "workmen and journeymen in the art, mystery, and manual occupation" of a certain trade. At the heart of any claim of strength was an attempted disassociation with women and things seen as feminine. One respectable magazine of the period noted that men of an earlier time "were able to endure labors and exposures, which would astonish the sickly things of the nineteenth century."34 This idea that men were getting weaker was then qualified by the writer, reminding his audience "that the man who first appeared in the streets of London with an umbrella was actually pelted with stones for his effeminacy."35 Weakness was seen as feminine, so any display that questioned a individuals strength, questioned their manliness.
This outward display of strength was demonstrated by the manufacturers and retailers of ladies shoes who formed an association of their own in April of 1836 in opposition to journeymen cordwainers unions, and specifically the General Trades Union. In one of their resolutions, the association declared the employers intentions to maintain their masculinity and not have it subverted by the power of the General Trades Union. They resolved to "no longer be made submissive agents to carry out the purposes and designs of such regulations."36 This assertion showed that employers feared a loss of power over not only their workers, but themselves. Within their understanding of masculinity, dependency was attributed to women and children or other "submissive agents," so failure to maintain independent actions was a failure to maintain their role as men. The employers association of Philadelphia shoemakers, formed less than three weeks earlier, addressed this problem more overtly in their preamble. They declared their intention "as Employers, in our department of business," to form their organization "with manly firmness and united exertions."37 If anything, this direct assertion that no fear of submission was present among these employers probably suggests that they felt their masculinity threatened and were taking steps to address it.
Like the employers that they opposed, masculinity functioned to ground journeymens attempts at unionism during the 1830s. After forming on July 15, 1833, out of nine unions, one of which was the cordwainers, the General Trades Union grew to nearly fifty unions and may have exceeded two-thirds of the citys male artisans. This number was probably higher among cordwainers, who were disproportionately affected by the recent economic transformations. In setting out their motives in their constitution, the cordwainers national union explained that the benefits and treatment that they were seeking directly related to their prescribed traits of masculinity. Their preamble declared that "a reduction in the number of the hours of labor has been productive of beneficial results in the character and condition of other mechanics," and they wanted "the Journeymen Cordwainers of all branches to enjoy the advantages pecuniarily, intellectually, and physically resulting from a reduction in the numbers of hours of labor."38 These demands were simple to understand: less time at work and more time for the creation of a healthy, intellectual worker. Rather than seeing these demands as a battle to retain certain interests that were being taken away from them, these provisions should be seen as ingredients in the creation of journeymen cordwainer identity for the new era of industrialization.
New York Citys journeymen cordwainers turned out from work every summer from 1834 to 1836 to publicize their opposition to increasingly difficult working conditions. It was during these dire moments that the cordwainers language most explicitly expressed concerns about gender. During their strike in June of 1834, the journeymen ladies cordwainers union published an appeal to nonunion cordwainers that ran in The Man for over a week. In line with many of the labor notions of the time, the beginning of the tract states that the attempt to reduce their wages would be "ruinous to our standing and interests." This economic argument, however, was quickly followed by the assertion that a reduction in wages was more than just a blow to their position, it was a threat to their identity as male providers. They reminded their audience that "it requires the most rigid economy, and the most unremitting exertion on our parts, to support ourselves and families even at the present rates." For these cordwainers, wage cuts alone did not seem to be enough to garner full support for protest, but the fear of failing as a masculine providers might have been. These journeymen felt, as the appeal stated, that their "destinies, and those of our families, therefore, are, to a very great extent, in our own hands."39
After these none-too-subtle reminders that nonunion journeymen were letting down not only their colleagues, but also their families, the language of the tract concluded with an explicit affront to their manliness. The tract ended with:
Let him who refuses to come forward at this time of crisis, and aid us in our present struggle against njustice and oppression, by joining our society and acting in union and concert with us, be regarded, from this time forward, by his fellow craftsmen, as unworthy the name man, and a reproach to the craft which he disgraces by his conduct.40
This challenge to nonunion journeymen cordwainers was not simply an economic plea or a conflict over artisan conceptions of republicanism; it was a battle for masculine legitimacy. To the journeymen in the union, any man who did not join them in their battle against their employers was guilty of two interlocking offenses. Firstly, he had not lived up the ideal masculine role as an independent provider and citizen. Secondly, he had disgraced the craft of cordwaining. He was not a man, and so was not a true artisan. Because of the conflated nature of the journeymans work and domestic masculine identities, this challenge was doubly effective. Failing to be a man in one arena had ramifications for other arenas in society.
The breakdown of household artisan production disrupted more than just economic systems and ideologies of craft honor; it forced journeymen to reexamine who they were as men. Like the masters and merchants whom they opposed, journeymen reacted to the economic changes around them by fashioning a new masculine identity. Their new identity retained the image of a man in control of his domestic setting and merged it with the new image of a worker who based his outside-the-home work on providing for his dependents at home. It was this understanding of masculine identity that grounded journeymen cordwainers attempts at unionism in the 1830s. Especially in times of crisis, such as a strike, the fate of this new identity was threatened and aggressively protected. During these times the language and imagery used by union cordwainers of the period explicitly addressed gender concerns and the definition of masculinity. Even though the depression of 1837 crushed labors early advances, the union movement in New York, and other seaport cities in the 1830s was significant because of its widespread appeal and important use of gendered imagery to attack the emerging industrial system.
Rather than being seen only as a battle over economic interests and the fate of the Republic, this movement should be viewed as a struggle over the negotiation of masculine identity. The struggle did not outlast the economic downturn of the late 1830s however, and when unions reemerged over a decade later many of the actors of the 1830s movement had moved on. The new union movement would also struggle with its self-definition. This time, within the context of a new massive wave of Catholic immigration. However, as craft unions formed and grew through the middle and late nineteenth century, they used many of the models of masculine collectivity and provision for dependents began by 1830s unionists. Samuel Gompers statement in his memoirs that the uprising of 1873 was "a declaration of protest in the name of American manhood against conditions that nullified the rights of American citizens," could easily have been part of the GTU use of masculine imagery.41Go To Struggling Downward: Masculinity and Gender in 1830's New York City Endnotes