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Worsted Mills of Passaic & Surrounding Communities


by, Anna Palko

Images Courtesy of City Historian Mark S. Auerbach

Many immigrated to the City of Passaic and the first task was to find employment. Textile production was a major business in this area and numerous people have ancestors who found employment in Worsted mills. A large number of immigrants came from the former Austro-Hungarian Empire and found work at these various textile mills. For those who had come from farming backgrounds and were unskilled, these mills offered a fast way to secure necessary employment. To understand what these mills were like for many heritages, a look at reference materials is necessary. During the year 1889 the Congress of the United States imposed many duty fees on Worsted products. These fees cut the profits of foreign companies and many decided to begin operations in America. The timing of these events was perfect. Companies in Europe began to build mills and thousands of hands were necessary to operate them. It was at this time that the great migration of various Slavic immigrants began in earnest. With thousands of individuals coming to American shores, these mills were assured that they would be fully staffed.

The Botany Company which was located in Leipzig, Germany was one of the first to build a massive complex in the City of Passaic. The mill location was excellent as it ran along the Passaic River which, was a necessary component for the production of Worsted materials. In 1890 the mill began full operation and expanded instantly. In time, Botany was well over sixty acres of land and would encompass two cities, Passaic and Clifton. This Worsted mill and others to come would be dominated by those of Germanic heritage. Most positions of authority including supervisory positions were offered to those of German heritage first. It is also noted that in the early years of these mills, even unskilled labor positions were first offered to those of German descent. Many of the Worsted mills had an unspoken rule to hire from their own countries and heritage first. Worsted Mills brought their own managers and supervisors with them from Germany to staff their new companies. During the early years, it was very rare to see anyone of Slavic heritage holding a position of authority.

In 1903 Julius Forstmann began the Forstmann & Huffmann Worsted Mill in Passaic. Eventually, his operations would expand to the point where he would open another larger mill in Garfield. A review of documentation offers that Julius Forstman was personally responsible for every aspect of his mill. Unfortunately, the relationship with his workers was not pleasant. He tended to look upon the many workers of his mills as his own property. His views became more harsh especially with the advent of the union movement in Passaic during the early part of the last century. By the year 1918 Botany Mills employed well over 6,000 individuals with Forstmann & Huffman numbers being approximately 5,000. These companies were the owners of two major Worsted Mills in Passaic and Garfield.

Other worsted mills were Gera mills of Passaic which employed 1,500 workers, New Jersey Worsted Spinning Mill of Garfield, 1,500 employees, and Passaic Worsted, 450 employees. All three of these mills had began between the years of 1900 though 1911. In 1902 the Garfield Worsted Company was started and at its peak, employed over 1,200 individuals. There were also many smaller factories and mills that operated to compliment the larger mills. Many were basic mills existed by filling overflow orders that the major Worsted mills could not handle. These smaller based mills and shops had one foundation which was to make a swift profit. Wages in these mills were low and many utilized female labor to keep costs at a minimum. Due to their low wages and substandard conditions, they earned the nickname of “Cockroach Shops” by immigrant employees.

The production of Worsted was a massive undertaking. The larger mills needed thousands of hands to fully staff and handle production. Worsted products became very popular with the general public beginning in the 1890’s. The product was not as heavy as wool and was soft. These benefits made Worsted products extremely popular and demand grew. The manufacturing of Worsted utilized manual labor and machinery. This made these mills more efficient production wise than woolen mills of the period. A review of documents from 1918 shows over 9,000 residents of the City of Passaic out of a total count of 21,396 were employed in Worsted Mills. In the City of Garfield, there were approximately 4,000 employed at the Garfield Worsted Mills. The laborers who came to these mills were of various heritages. In 1890, a review of the Federal Census for the City of Passaic offers the population somewhat over 13,000 people. By the 1920 Federal Census, it was counted that over 17,000 alone stated their heritage was Polish.

A review of statistics for various heritages can become clouded at this date. For the 1920 census, it is mentioned that Passaic was home to 2,600 Ruthenians, 5,857 Slovaks and 2,958 Russians. Breaking this census down via place of origins, it is noted that many who stated they originated in Eastern Galicia (Western Ukraine today) makes the term Russian (and sometimes Polish) incorrect. Many within this title were Ruthenians and Ukrainians. This is evidenced with the towns of birth that were offered. Most Ruthenians came to Passaic from the former Austro-Hungarian Empire districts of Saris, Spis and Zemplin. What becomes difficult to determine is that by the 1920 Federal Census, a change had occurred in identity titles. The Slovak identity combines here with the Ruthenians as many who identified as being Slovak also came from these same regions. If no town of origins was mentioned, it is difficult to gauge heritage as only country of origins is listed. Some of the 1920 Census records for Passaic do offer Ukrainian as a specific nationality. This term tended to be confused many times with Russian. Not only were those of Ukrainian heritage classified as Russian, but, Ruthenians and those who were Polish had this title attached to their record depending upon area of origins.

Taking into account houses of worship built by various heritages, it is interesting the extent some clergy became involved with their members employers. There were numerous strikes and labor movements in Passaic just as there were many church related upheavals. Catholic/Orthodox priests and ministers of the Hungarian Reformed Churches voiced their disapproval of the Worsted mills. It was felt these mills were in excellent financial condition and yet, continued to pay their employees rates which were too low. In 1918 a major strike was begun which demanded compensation to those who had suffered serious physical harm. A number of clergy from Passaic were on hand to discuss this issue with the owners of the Worsted mills. It was also common for many clergy to inform their members of better paying jobs at mills outside of the area.

This became an issue of contention with the mill owners, especially those who were German Catholic. The Hungarian community in Passaic numbered approximately 6,000 and many came from the regions of Szabolcs, Borsod and Abauj-Torna. Hungarians sponsored many work-related benefits societies in Passaic such as the Hungarian Workingmens Club, the Hungarian Sick and Death Benefit Society and other groups to aide Passaics Hungarian community. At the governmental level, Slavic immigrants had very little representation but, in 1909, the cities first councilman of Slavic decent, Edward Levendusky was elected. Many immigrants who found work in the Forstmann & Huffmann mill in Garfield were able to purchase housing which had been originally built by the mill. The 1920 Federal Census offers a population in Garfield of 19,371 and out of this figure, approximately 9,000 were foreign born.

Working in the various Worsted mills could be tolerable or, very negative. Producing Worsted products was a very demanding process. For a basic Worsted Mill, there were a number of categories that needed to be filled. The highest categories were filled by unskilled labor and this included the various Slavic immigrants. The weave rooms employed the largest amount of laborers and this job required little skill but, constant attention. A weaver could never leave their looms as during this process the product could break and the loom would require immediate attention. Those who operated machines generally worked in a very long hall-like building and many tended to have hearing problems or, went deaf due to the noise of the machines. Many of these machines also had no forms of safety devices or emergency shut off switches during this period. Many laborers lost fingers, hands and entire arms due to the machine manufacturers neglect of safety measures. Mending and Burling were functions performed at the end of Worsted processing and most times, these positions were held by women.

Those who were employed as menders were more skilled as they had to repair and replace broken threads. Burlers were not a skilled position and they would obtain the product to remove various lumps and knots. The pay rates for positions varied and could be from twenty to thirty dollars per week. Many women worked in Worsted mills to compliment their husbands salaries. It is well noted that approximately one half of the entire number of Worsted workers in the City of Passaic were women. Other women who were single also worked in Worsted mills to assist family finances. Other job positions in various Worsted mills were Sorting, Carding, Combing, Cap Spinning, Reeling, Winding, Spooling and Dressing.

One interesting fact of the Worsted mill was an odd hour night shift especially for women. This shift ran from approximately 8:00 p.m. until 6:00 a.m. Many women found this shift serviceable as, they could leave children with a husband, work their shift and then, return before the children woke up. While this was a ten hour shift, it afforded many women the opportunity to work and earn extra income. A very large incentive to this shift was a special ten percent addition to the salary. Many women found this shift difficult to accomplish, but, tried as best they could due to the various financial incentives. Numerous problems were encountered by women who worked in Worsted Mills.

Due to a large labor force, replacement of a worker could be accomplished with ease by management. Many women who were pregnant worked until they were ready to give birth and then, rushed back quickly to keep their positions. The years 1916 through 1919 offer a high infant mortality rate for the City of Passaic and this along with other factors could be one explanation for these events. Prior to the Union Movement and the establishment of firm agreements, a Worsted Mill environment all depended upon its owners. Some Worsted mills never extended any financial compensation to injured workers or tired to improve conditions. Other Worsted mills, pressured by local clergy and government did bend to various requests. In 1918 the National Consumers League stated that the Botany Mill in Passaic was “notoriously lacking in provision for the welfare of its workers.” After this critical investigation and along with support from the Union Movement, conditions were improved for Botany employees.

The Forstmann & Huffmann mills were not much better before outrage would break in the form of various strikes and walkouts. During the period of 1910 though 1920, all the Worsted mills would see numerous labor protests which helped to strengthen the Union movement in the City of Passaic. Walkouts and Labor Strikes tended to become a chain reaction. Workers at the Manhattan Rubber Company would support a strike at the Botany Mill and vice versa. Taking this to a higher level, it was common to find in various ethnic periodicals and newspapers the names of those who had “refused to strike” mentioned outright. Not only the employees but, the employers also had their own “black lists.” These lists contained the names of those a mill would refuse to hire due to strike or union activities. During December, 1916, management of the various Worsted Mills gathered to form the “Industrial Council of Passaic Wool Manufactures.”

This council was little more than an attempt by the manufactures to set standard rules to hinder a worker going from one mill to another. Out of this council was formed an employment bureau which was no better than a spy operation. Began on March 1, 1917, this council utilized various methods to check backgrounds on each and every individual who applied for employment. If it was found a person had participated in a strike, was a member of a union or any other form of labor organization, that person would not be hired. The secretary to this council cheerfully told his employers that this has “resulted in the mills obtaining a desirable class of labor.” It is to the credit of those who were employed within the various Worsted mills that once these deceitful and cowardly practices on behalf of management were discovered, the strikes and various walk outs increased in earnest. It was from these strikes which included numerous Slavic immigrants that union movement changes were implemented and helped to benefit immigrant laborers.

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