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This Day in Labor History: February 23, 1864

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On February 23, 1864, Kate Mullaney (sometimes spelled Mullany), leader of the Collar Laundry Union, the second all-female union in the United States (the Lowell Female Reform Association, established in 1845, was the first), led union members in Troy, New York out on strike. The CLU wanted higher wages and better working conditions. The strike succeeded, marking a rare union victory for women workers during the era.

Women working in commercial laundries faced the terrible working conditions that were becoming so common as the nation industrialized in the mid-19th century. They worked 12-14 hour days in extraordinarily hot workplaces. The Collar Laundry Union workers labored specifically with collars. This required the use of harsh, caustic chemicals and boiling water. Workers frequently suffered severe burns. Like in the rest of American work in the second half of the 19th century, rapid technological advancements came at the price of worker safety. In this case, it was new starching machines that were known for causing horrific burns for workers. Of course, companies were not held responsible for workers getting hurt or dying on the job. The pay for this labor: $3 a week.

Kate Mullaney was an Irish immigrant born in 1845, emigrating during her teenage years. Her family ended up in Troy, New York, a growing industrial city that specialized in iron foundries and collar production. Troy was one of the nation’s most prosperous cities at this time. In 1864, about 90 percent of the nation’s detachable collar production (a popular fashion of the time) was located in Troy. In the 1860s, about 3000 women worked in the Troy collar laundries. Mullaney was forced into the labor force in the early 1860s when her father died and with her mother an invalid, she became the family’s primary breadwinner. Like the vast majority of the collar workers, Mullaney was a young unmarried woman. 92 percent of the Irish collar workers were single, and another 5 percent widows. Generally, the Irish worked in the collar laundries while native-born Protestants labored in collar sewing, as it paid better and was seen as more respectable, not to mention was less dangerous. Like much work as well, these jobs tended to be passed through families, as workers got jobs for their younger family members.

It did not take long for Mullaney to become a leader of the collar workers movement to make a better life for themselves. On February 23, 1864, she led about 300 workers out of the job and onto the streets. Within a week, 20 Troy laundries increased workers’ pay over 20 percent and agreed to work on safety issues. The strike made the union a successful operation. The CLU lasted for five years, which may not seem long to us today, but that in an era of nascent labor organizations, that was a pretty long run. In 1866, the CLU again went on strike, forcing employers to raise wages to $14 a week, over four times what workers made just two years earlier.

Under Mullaney’s leadership, the CLU was pretty radical for its time. It donated large sums to striking male unions in a time when that was not so common. In 1868, National Labor Union president William Sylvis appointed Mullaney to the NLU’s national office as assistant secretary and women’s organizer, probably making her the first woman to hold a position in a large national labor union. The NLU was also a Troy-based organization, with Sylvis the head of the Iron Moulders Union that had made that city a strong union town for the era. Sylvis also had long supported the idea of women’s unions and so was quite favorably disposed to the CLU. Mullaney was actually elected second vice president of the union at the 1868 NLU convention but she declined that offer.

In March 1869, the CLU won another strike, but this convinced operators to destroy the union. That May workers again walked off the job. But the owners were starting to follow a strategy that would prove very effective throughout this period at forestalling unionization in the United States–they organized and planned a common strategy against the unions. They pressured smaller operators to hold out against the CLU, began to recruit scab laborers, and worked to control press coverage of the strike in Troy. The workers protested the bad press coverage, but while the Troy Times published a letter by the workers, it refused to endorse their actions. New York City newspapers provided more sympathetic coverage, but that was relatively far away. Perhaps the most effective action was to lockout union members. The owners offered more wage increases to workers, but only if they agreed to leave the union. This proved effective. The strike was lost and the union destroyed.

In its wake, Mullaney and some of the other collar workers formed their own collar manufacturing cooperative, Union Line Collar and Cuff Manufactury. Mullaney became president of that cooperative and, working with friends in the women’s rights movement, sought wealthy investors to fund the enterprise. Alas, the cooperative failed in the wake of both struggles to keep up with the latest technologies and the replacement of cloth collars with paper collars, which led to the slow decline entire Troy collar industry, although factories were still active into the 1880s. In 1870, Mullaney dissolved the CLU, which was also suffering after the death of Sylvis and the loss of support from the National Labor Union.

At this point, Mullaney and her fellow workers returned to work for their employers at the May 1869 wage levels, but again, this did not last long because of fashion changes. Mullaney eventually faded from view after 1870. We know she married at some point and that she died in in 1906 in Troy. She ended up remaining poor, being buried in an unmarked grave until the 1990s, when women’s rights and labor rights advocates fought to create a National Historic Landmark to remember Mullaney and the CLU. She was given a proper headstone and her home marked with a plaque.

Kate Mullany House dedication

Dedication of Kate Mullany National Historic Landmark

Collar workers continued to organize, with hundreds joining the Knights of Labor in the 1880s.

I borrowed much of this material from Tiffany Wayne, ed., Women’s Rights in the United States: An Encyclopedia of Issues, Events and People, Carole Turbin, Working Women of Collar City: Gender, Class, and Community in Troy, New York, 1864-86, and a bit from Rosalyn Baxandall and Linda Gordon, eds., America’s Working Women: A Documentary History, 1600 to the Present.

This is the 132nd post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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  • MacK

    A minor quibble: “In 1864, about 90 percent of the nation’s detachable collar production (a popular fashion of the time) was located in Troy.”

    Detachable collars on dress shirts were the norm from the early 19th century until the 1920s. Attached collars known as soft collars were popularised during World War 1 because they were what the military issued (the same happened with showers, safety razors and cigarettes.) Oddly, until very recently, UK and Irish barristers court dress included detachable collars.

    Men sent their shirt to the laundry, changing the shirt 1-2 time per week, but the collars were washed and starched separately and came in boxes of 7-20 they were swapped at least daily.

    If you have not worn such a collar, let me say they are a pain. They are secured with two tiny collar studs front and rear, but regularly tend to separate from the shirt – and if you need to wear one somewhere hot, any sweat causes the starch to dissolve, reducing them to a doughy rag. They need to be cleaned and starched stiff by a specialist cleaner today – there are some I think in the legal district of London, near Chancery Lane.

    • Murc

      Detachable collars on dress shirts were the norm from the early 19th century until the 1920s.

      Displacing the neckcloth or cravat, I believe, as they were more comfortable and easier to wear.

      Men sent their shirt to the laundry, changing the shirt 1-2 time per week, but the collars were washed and starched separately and came in boxes of 7-20 they were swapped at least daily.

      In I recall right, this is because the shirt was typically worn underneath a coat. You could get away with it being not super-pristine, because nobody saw it, but your collar was both the highly visible part of it and the part most likely to end up filthy, so you had to swap it out more often to maintain appearances.

      • MacK

        The collars often came with swappable cuffs too.

        The collar did not replace the neckcloth, but rather allowed it to evolve into the tie. It had been used both to keep warm and as a way of keeping the earlier type of detachable collar – the stock – closed. Collars – including the Elizabethan ruffs were separate garments – and their stiffness required the use of vast amounts of starch, which would have rendered attached-shirts unwearable. The reason that the attached collar is known as a “soft collar” is that it lacked the starch of the older detachable.

        “Beau” Brummell in the early 19th century is credited with popularising the necktie – and also bringing an end to the enormous cuffs on men’s clothing, knee britches, etc.

    • I will confess my fashion history knowledge does not match my labor history knowledge.

      • Murc

        There are surprising intersections. Fashion is and always has been a function of class.

        • MacK

          One of the odder examples in Britain is the declasée status of new dinner jackets and formal wear. It is much much posher to have a tatty dinner jacket, one you might have worn at Oxbridge – or had recut from Papa’s, than to have a new one, to go to Ascot in morning wear that looks somewhat worn, or to have a tatty suit from a now dead or defunct Saville Row tailor, than a new one from a fashionable brand.

          It’s reminiscent of the awful Alan Clark’s dismissal of Michael Heseltine as the “kind of person who bought his own furniture,” i.e., did not inherit it.

  • Bruce Vail

    Would be nice to see a foto of Mullany. Are there any extant?

    • Didn’t see one, although I didn’t spend long looking.

  • Pingback: This Day in Labor History: A Digest - Lawyers, Guns & Money : Lawyers, Guns & Money()

  • Brett

    Another good labor history essay, especially because it was about a women-made-and-led union.

    In its wake, Mullaney and some of the other collar workers formed their own collar manufacturing cooperative, Union Line Collar and Cuff Manufactury. Mullaney became president of that cooperative and, working with friends in the women’s rights movement, sought wealthy investors to fund the enterprise. Alas, the cooperative failed in the wake of both struggles to keep up with the latest technologies and the replacement of cloth collars with paper collars, which led to the slow decline entire Troy collar industry, although factories were still active into the 1880s.

    Yikes. Reminds me of what There Is Power In A Union told about the cooperative businesses set up by trade unions in the 19th century. Most of them ran aground, although you could say that about most new businesses. Usually a mix of under-capitalization, institutional/legal issues, and lack of management/business/marketing know-how was responsible.

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