THE GLOVERS OF FULTON COUNTY
The Glovers of Fulton County is a comprehensive multimedia examination of the glove industry in Fulton County New York. The Glovers of Fulton County is the first project of the History and Media Program of the University at Albany Department of History. This brief essay outlines the study of women workers in the glove industry - the makers who sewed gloves at home. When completed, Banning Homework will include an extended narrative, an audio documentary based on oral history interviews, and primary source materials-including pictures, newspapers articles, industry publications, public hearing testimony, government documents, and oral history transcripts, and audio and video excerpts.
Banning Homework: A Case Study Of Class,Community
and State in the Fulton County Glove Industry
The beginnings of glove manufacturing in the United States are unclear. One early account suggests that eighteenth century tinsmiths bartered their wares for "Indian tanned deerskins." Wives and daughters sewed leather palms onto mittens that quickly became popular with wood choppers and workmen, giving life to a new domestic industry. Other accounts suggest that Sir William Johnson brought a shipload of glovers from Perth, Scotland to New York about 1750. These accounts suggest that women did the cutting and sewing while men tanned the leather.
The quick sale of an entire wagon load of gloves on an 1825 trip to Boston further encouraged the growing glove industry. Begun in Johnstown and Kingsborough, glove making soon expanded to nearby Gloversville where it became the center of fine leather glove making in the United States for more than 150 years. Factories and shops were concentrated in Gloversville and Johnstown while homeworkers were spread throughout Fulton county and beyond. Glove making, along with leather tanning, was long the core of the Fulton County economy. Historical accounts of the origins of the glove trade may be murky, yet women's contribution to glove making is consistently noted. Whether a measure of the importance of women to glove making, or a reflection of glove making as a needle trade - and thus acceptable "women's work," women makers have always been recognized as essential to glove making. Studies undertaken at different times suggest that women have always represented from seventy-five to eighty-five percent of all workers in the glove industry.
Although less sweeping than in other industries, nineteenth century industrialization brought some changes to the fine leather glove industry. Cutting dies were improved and better tanning methods were developed. Elsewhere many women were seeking wages and a degree of independence in mills and factories, but most Fulton County women continued to work in their homes. Raw materials were lightweight and easily transportable. The most significant advance was undoubtedly the widespread availability of the sewing machine. Many were concerned that the new machines would eliminate homework by shifting making to the shops. However, homeworkers quickly learned how to operate the new machines. There was no mass migration of women to the factories.
The sewing machine was closely linked to the glove maker. The Singer Sewing Machine Company maintained an office on Fulton Street in Gloversville. When repairs were needed, the worker often "accompanied" her machine to the shop to insure the best possible 'fine tuning' between maker and machine. Larger, factory based, glove manufacturing operations employed on site mechanics who also repaired machines in collaboration with makers.
Not only did the makers work at home, gloves were delivered to, and picked up from their homes. The arrival of the automobile and increased use of electric power actually made it easier for the glove manufacturers to rely on homeworkers in Fulton County and beyond. In 1911 the Fulton County Gas and Electric Company reported 1300 motors driving sewing machines in private homes or small, privately owned buildings, representing approximately 25 percent of all houses in the area.
Industrialization did not bring glove making into Fulton county glove shops and factories, but working conditions elsewhere gave rise to reform efforts that would ultimately end homework in the glove industry. Concerns about homework were part of much larger efforts to improve working conditions, especially for women and children. Initially many social reformers were concerned that clothing made in a dirty, tenement environment would transmit disease to consumers. Trade union and labor leaders objections to homework were based on concerns for the worker, both at home and in the factory. New York State was among the first states to address issues of workplace protection. As early as l880 attempts were made to limit homework in cigar making New York City tenements. The law was challenged and on appeal was overturned. The court expressed reluctance to limit a person's right to contract for work, or to extend the reach of the State into the "private" space of home and family. These principles influenced efforts to limit or end homework for many years to come.
In 1933, as part of the National Industrial Act, attempts were made to prohibit industrial homework in many industries. This first, comprehensive initiative to eliminate homework, although declared unconstitutional in 1935, set the stage for further for legislative and collective bargaining agreements to end homework. Government officials, labor activists and reformers continued to denounce homework as "evil and exploitive" practice. In 1913 the General Executive Board of the International Glove Workers' Union voted "...that any Employer receiving the use of our Union label must have all the work performed on such gloves in the factory, and we condemned the system of homework." Further discussion by the General Executive Board of the Glove Workers Union in 1916 highlights the difficulties of challenging homework in Fulton county. It was understood that the rules on the Union label could not be enforced in Fulton County. Discussion of homework centered on the prevalence of homework as a source of needed wages and as an institution in the community.
In 1900 eighty-two percent of wage earners in Fulton County worked in the glove industry or allied trades. Even for the cutters, the highest paid workers in the glove hierarchy, and the first to unionize, providing for their families often proved difficult. Women's labor was essential. "There is scarcely a family of the middle or lower class of which some woman member does not make gloves. ..this is made necessary by the smallness or uncertainty of the breadwinner's wages." The importance of homework was again demonstrated in 1914 when Fulton County glove cutters went on strike. The New York State Board of Mediation and Arbitration held hearings in Gloversville to hear the matter of the Glove Cutters Strike at Gloversville and Johnstown. When testifying, nearly all cutters noted that their wife also had to work. Among the working wives, nearly all made gloves at home. When the Arbitration Board found for the cutters, they indicated that ".... Families could not survive if it were not for the earnings of the wives of the cutters, who are forced to work at home or in the factory in order to eke out a living for their families. ....the claim of the cutters is valid." Little had changed by 1933. Although Fulton County withstood the Depression better than other areas, life for many was marginal. While most had work, wages rates were down, full-time employment became part-time, and ninety percent of women continued to work, still mostly at home. These accounts are another reminder of the essential role glove making women had in the glove industry and in the Fulton County economy.
Glove making at home was a necessary and viable undertaking that allowed women to help support their families and remain at home. If one couples the long and widespread presence of homework in Fulton County with deeply embedded traditions of pride, independence and community that many have noted, it is not that surprising that efforts by "outsiders" to ban homework were met with great resistance. Criticism of homework was an attack on the values of a community and a threat to family livelihoods. Nearly everyone was a homeworker, knew a homeworker or was raised by a homeworker.
In 1939, the New York State Department of Labor undertook a study before a final effort to ban homework in the glove industry. In April of 1941 The Division of Women in Industry summarized the findings of its study, "Homework In The Glove Industry In New York State." The study found that homework is a serious problem in the leather glove industry in Fulton County, recommended restriction of homework, and described possible stumbling blocks to implementing new regulations.
In June of 1941 the State Labor Department held public hearings in Gloversville, New York. Chaired by Industrial Commissioner Frieda Miller, hearing testimony reflected the long-standing conflicts over homework. Concerns about motherhood, child welfare, and welfare relief were paramount to those hoping to delay or modify the proposed ban. Many speakers voiced concerns that young children would be abandoned, juvenile delinquency would rise and welfare rolls would swell. Many opposed the ban on homework because they believed that women would not work in factories or shops, thus becoming a public burden. Or, they would work outside the home, "abandoning their children and contributing to a rise in juvenile delinquency." Supporters of the ban also tried to make their case. Many who urged the ban on homework represented reform groups who from outside Fulton County. Local newspaper coverage was extensive. Both the Morning Herald and the Leader Republican offered numerous articles, editorials, "gossip" and human interest stories from the hearings. Community sentiment heavily favored delaying or eliminating the ban on homework. Nonetheless, on July 2, 1941 Frieda Miller officially issued Order No. 4, banning homework in the glove industry in New York State.
Many Fulton County residents continue to lament the end of homework nearly fifty years after it was officially banned. Mother's speak regretfully of having to go to the factory and leave their children behind. Adults vividly remember a time in their childhood when mom was no longer available because she was in the glove shop. Others are certain that the elimination of legal homework significantly contributed to the overall decline of the glove industry. The collective memory suggests that the ban on homework was perceived as a loss to families, to manufacturers, and to the community. Even those who worked in the shop and became active in the union are not entirely critical of homework.
Examination of homework in the glove industry in Fulton County is incomplete. Questions remain. Because of their age and dwindling numbers, it is difficult to find first hand accounts of homeworkers. However, some are still alive and willing to be interviewed. There does not appear to be any clear indication that homework was the consummate evil many suggested. Wages were low compared to other similar work in other industries. However, this appears to be true for all segments of the glove industry, not only homeworkers. Judging from written records and collective memory of Fulton County residents glovemaking at home was an integral part of community and family life. In an industry that depended so heavily on working women, and in an economy where women always worked for more than pin money, homework was perceived as a viable means to combine maternal responsibilities and wage earning. A more complex understanding of homeworkers in the glove industry awaits amore detailed study.
The Glovers of Fulton County is a project of the History
and MultiMedia Center
Department of History, University at Albany, State University of New York
For further information contact:
Professor Gerald Zahavi, [email protected]
Susan McCormick, [email protected]