We discussed Albany World War One hero William Henry Johnson the last time I discussed local history. Here’s another one from my home region, New York’s Capitol District.
Kate Mullany was born in Ireland in 1845. She immigrated to the United States with her mother, father and siblings. They made Troy, NY their home.
At the time, Troy’s population was approximately 40,000. Through much of the 1800’s and into the 1900’s it was one of the most prosperous cities in the United States. Iron was the source of the wealth. Iron was processed in Troy and shipped, via the Hudson River, to New York City and points beyond.
Troy also had the Cluett, Peabody company, manufacturers of Arrow shirts. Detachable collars and cuffs were also manufactured in Troy (hence Troy’s rather pedestrian nickname, The Collar City). Along with all the industry, more than ten industrial laundries sprouted up in the city. The industrial laundry business was staffed with female workers who worked hard to clean those shirts and collars and cuffs. It was a dangerous business. Between boiling water and numerous chemicals, injuries were frequent and could be serious. Some historians also state that the oppressive heat generated by such laundries was responsible for the term ‘sweatshop.’
It was piece-meal work in the laundries and if an article of clothing was destroyed the cost came out of the worker’s meager salary.
When Kate was about twenty-three her father died and her mother fell ill. Kate’s sister took care of their mother while Kate went to work in one of the laundries. According to the Kate Mullany Historic site:
Kate and the other girls would spend 12 to 14 hours every day
washing with soap; bleaching with chloride of soda; adding dilute of
sulfuric acid to bleach the collars; washing the collar once again with
suds; boiling; rubbing and rinsing; bluing and rolling; starching with
both thin and thick starch; drying; and ironing. The "girls" depended on
each other to do their part of the job properly and even though the
water was boiling hot, their hands were in the bleaches and soap all
day, and many were burned from the irons, they did their best to do it
properly. They only earned 3 to 4 dollars a week and if they damaged any
shirt or collar, their wages would be reduced.
In February 1864, Kate and Esther Keegan founded the first, all-female labor union, The Collar Laundry Union, membership 300. The women received encouragement and support from many male trade unions.
That same month, on February 23, 1864, 300 laundry workers in 14 industrial laundries in Troy went on strike. They demanded a 20-25% pay increase and wanted some safety concerns addressed. Five days later, the owners caved.
Two years later, another strike raised their wages from $8.00 a week to $14.00 per week. Kate and the other officers also saved as many of the union dues as possible to create a benefits program. Members who fell ill or who were injured, could depend on a continued income.
Kate’s abilities were soon recognized outside her own union. In1868 she was elected Second Vice President of the National Labor Congress. She declined because the First Vice President was from New York State as well. She was appointed Assistant Secretary, the first woman to hold an office with an national union.
Despite many victories, strife between the workers and the owners continued. In the late 1860’s, Kate and her associates decided to manufacture collars themselves, organized a collective, with the employees able to purchase a $5.00 stake in the business. Ultimately, this led the collar manufacturers to switch to disposable collars which were much cheaper than the traditional items. Ultimately, the collective would fail.
Kate remained a part of the labor movement for many years. She did marry and took her husband’s name, Fogarty. Kate died in 1906 and is buried in St. Peter’s Cemetery, Troy, New York.
Kate’s house, at 350 8th Street, in Troy, became a National Historic Landmark in 1998. It became a National Historic Site in 2008. Unfortunately, it was difficult to find a lot of personal information on Mullany such as town of birth, birth date or even a verifiable photograph.
Much of the information here was culled from: Tubin, Carole. Working Women of Collar City: Gender, Class, and Community in Troy, New York, 1864-1886. Urbana and Chicago: University
of Illinois Press, 1978.
Troy holds an important place in the history of labor and the industrial revolution. It was a large city by mid-1800’s standards and, more importantly, had multiple industries, resulting in numerous trade unions. Almost of equal importance was the ethnic makeup of the iron trades. The workforce was mainly Irish. This was important because the Troy Police were predominately Irish as well. Whereas owners in other cities could call upon the police force to discourage strikes and organizing activities, the Troy Police Department would often refuse to protect scab workers and often times discourage scab workers from crossing the picket line.
The sympathies of the police resulted in the creation of what would ultimately become the Rensselaer County Sheriff’s Department. In the early days of the labor movement, it was not unheard of for the two agencies to clash in the streets during labor unrest.
Just a stone’s throw away, across the Hudson River, Cohoes, NY developed into a company town. A one-industry city (Harmony Mills produced various textiles), workers lived in company-owned housing and shopped t the company store.
If you are interested in labor history in the area, Labor and Industry in Troy and Cohoes: A Brief History, James Corsaro and Kathleen Roe is a good primer.
Kate Mullany, immigrant, labor leader and all-around badass.
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