American newspapers in 1905 warned that reduced steerage rates would incite an invasion of the least desirable aliens – the physically and mentally deficient, destitute, and morally depraved. Giuseppa had seized a window of opportunity just before politicians would make immigration more difficult. By 1910, there were nearly 8,000 Italians immigrants—mostly unskilled laborers from southern Italy—working in Paterson’s mills. They represented the largest nationality working in the silk industry.
A century earlier, the potential waterpower of Paterson’s Great Falls had inspired Alexander Hamilton to found Paterson, New Jersey. He developed a plan to make it the industrial center of the new nation. By the early 1900s, when my ancestors arrived, Paterson’s hundreds of silk mills and dye houses seemed the fulfillment of Hamilton’s dream, as well as the aspirations of thousands of European immigrants.
Along with the majority of Giuseppa’s Santa Croceian compatriots who immigrated to America, her offspring proved those xenophobic warnings about Italian immigrants wrong. My ancestors worked hard and raised their families in Silk City. Giuseppa would become Josephine, and as the Census records show, over the next ten years, everyone in her family would adopt American versions of their names. They were eager to be valuable citizens in their new country.
(Courtesy of the Passaic County Historical Society) In the dye houses, workers dipped silk thread wound in a long loose coil and pieces of fabric into large vats of hot chemicals. Almost all of the workers were men. Master dyers were highly skilled craftsmen. Dyers’ helpers were generally unskilled and low paid.
The 1913 Paterson Strike
These new Italian Americans worked 10+ hours a day, six days a week, as dyers’ helpers, dyers, weavers, and loom fixers. It wasn’t an easy life, but they came from a tradition of defending workers’ rights. My great-great uncles’ obituaries tout that they were members and leaders of the Dyers Union Local 1733 and most likely they participated in the historic Paterson Silk Strike of 1913. Seen as a major struggle in American labor, 25,000 striking silk workers shut down 300 mills in Paterson for almost 5 months.
The strike was called by the skilled broad silk weavers to stop an increase from two to four of the number of looms each worker had to operate. Their strike was later joined by the unskilled dyers’ helpers. Although technically they failed to win, most Paterson manufacturers didn’t increase the number of looms for another decade. The strike set a precedent in grassroots organizing strategies, cooperation between workers from different cultures, and including women in leadership roles.
My father’s father, Bernardino Di Crescenzo, and his sons all lived on a large piece of property in Hawthorne, NJ, a new borough of Paterson, and all worked in the dye houses. They would have known about and most likely participated in the strike, especially since a home nearby in Haledon became an important rallying point for the strikers. Italian immigrants, Pietro and Maria Botto had built the large house in 1907 and it also served as an inn. The socialist mayor of Haledon welcomed strikers to rally in his town and Pietro Botto offered his home as a meeting place. IWW leader, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, described these rallies at the Botto home:
There was a balcony on the second floor, facing the street, opposite a large green field. It was a natural platform and amphitheater. Sunday after Sunday, as the days became pleasanter, we spoke to enormous crowds of thousands of people–the strikers and their families, workers from other Paterson industries, people from New Jersey cities, delegations from New York, trade unionists, students and others. Visitors came from all over America and from foreign countries. People who saw those Haledon meetings never forgot them.
(American Labor Museum/Botto House National Landmark)
Few families owned their own homes, and renters’ quarters were generally smaller than the Bottos’ and often housed boarders and roomers in addition to family members. The support of these workers was critical to the effectiveness of the strike and their willingness to endure five months without pay testified to their commitment. I like to think that my great grandfather and great uncles were in the crowd pictured above.