By now, you’ve probably seen the new IWW T-shirt design on my Merch page. I’ve gotten a lot of questions about this design: “What’s that ‘Paterson’ T-shirt?”; “What’s that IWW thing you’ve got going?” Here’s a little history...
For almost two years, I worked for a construction company in Paterson, NJ. A lot of the inspiration for “Freedom Feels” –the first and only single from the upcoming EP– came from this experience. Writing about Paterson opened the door to doing some research on the city.
Paterson was the home-base of Kerouac before his adventures “on the road.” (My grandfather went cross country from Paterson the same year, but that’s another story).
Lou Costello, of the famous Abbott & Costello duo (“Who’s On First?”) was a Paterson native– he and Bud Abbott would perform at Hinchliffe Stadium before boxing matches.
Not only is Paterson the birthplace of so many icons, it’s also the birthplace of the American Industrial Revolution. In 1791, Alexander Hamilton (another Paterson native) instituted the Society for the Establishment of Useful Manufactures, a long and tedious name for the organization that attempted to harness the power of Paterson’s Great Falls National Park (yes, Paterson has a national park right in its downtown!). The power from the falls was absorbed by a system designed by Peter Colt, the brother of Samuel Colt’s grandfather, Benjamin Colt (Samuel Colt invented the firearm).
The hydro-power system was implemented in 1794, and allowed the city of Paterson to establish mills, textile factories, breweries, Samuel Colt’s firearm factories, submarine factories, locomotive factories, and silk factories. When silk production became the dominant industry of the late 19th Century, Paterson earned itself the name “The Silk City.”
As industry boomed, factory-work became a major way of life for Americans, specifically immigrants. Even children worked in factories, often performing work that required small hands.
Conditions were terrible: smoke-filled buildings, little natural light, long hours and minimal pay. Some were paid as little as ten cents an hour for up to fourteen hours of work. There was no such thing as overtime pay, no benefits, and if those conditions were too much, good luck finding work elsewhere. Something needed to change. That’s when labor unions stepped in.
In 1913, over a century after the implementation of Colt’s hydro-powered aqueduct, laborers were fed up. Technology had been reducing the need for skilled factory-workers, and for those who were still working, conditions had not improved. That’s when the International Workers of the World (IWW) stepped in.
IWW was founded in Chicago in 1905. A mainly socialist organization, it quickly gained traction as an alternative to the policies of the American Federation of Labor (AFL). Many of these policies were (emphasis on were) based on preemptive bias regarding immigration status, gender and race.
While I don’t agree entirely with the IWW’s nor the AFL’s policies, I do love what the IWW did to drive it’s platform home. The organization used art, expression and music to get what it wanted.
On Saturday, June 7, 1913, after six months of striking, laborers from the Paterson Silk Factory united to perform the Pageant of the Paterson Strike at Madison Square Garden. Almost 1,000 workers performed at the pageant, which was attended by over 150,000 people.
Unfortunately, the pageant still came at a financial loss, and the strikers were eventually defeated. Throughout the strike, almost 2,000 were arrested, and two were killed.
It seems art was the only thing that held them together, and as the IWW continues through the years, folk music, literature and other forms of art remain backbones of their propaganda. Like the IWW, the AFL is now affiliated with artistic unions such as the American Federation of Musicians.
The correlation between labor and art is something I find to be essential to human nature. Labor yields a living; art yields a life.