Silk Stockings and Socialism

The hosiery workers of Philadelphia created a vibrant union by mixing Jazz Age culture with militant socialist politics.

Strike sympathizers tie up traffic at the Apex Hosiery Mill on May 6, 1937. George D. McDowell Philadelphia Evening Bulletin Photograph Collection / Temple University Libraries

“However calm the remainder of America may seem to be,” the magazine Labor’s News reported on February 21, 1931, “Philadelphia has been giving the impression of being on the brink of revolution.”

The epicenter of the convulsion was the city’s industrial district, where hosiery workers — organized by the socialist-led American Federation of Full-Fashioned Hosiery Workers (AFFFHW) — were on strike against thirty nonunion mills in the city. In the initial hours, over a dozen mills were completely closed down. Police violence, mass arrests, and worker retaliation were the order of the day.

The arrests swept up large numbers of young people, especially young women, who fought police on the picket lines and filled the jails, all while wearing stylish “modern” apparel and silk stockings. Neighborhood residents streamed out of their row houses in a militant show of solidarity, only to be detained as well.

The 1931 strike dramatized the potent cocktail of union politics — youth and culture, solidarity and community — that dominated this outpost of working-class socialism in the 1920s and ’30s.

At its center lay the city’s hosiery union. Branch 1 of the AFFFHW nurtured a form of unionism that reached well beyond the hosiery mills dotting the Kensington neighborhood, the union’s birthplace. Most remarkably, the union, founded years earlier by workers that included veterans of the Knights of Labor, became a core part of the Jazz Age culture that, in its working-class variant, permeated the neighborhood.

Young hosiery workers were, for the most part, ordinary young people, but, in the context of their community and through their union, they came to embrace a deep-seated class consciousness and commitment to social justice, marrying Jazz Age culture with socialist politics.

Today, as socialist ideas experience a resurgence, the Philadelphia hosiery workers remind us that left movements are strongest when rooted in working-class communities, and that culture is a powerful stimulant for creating vibrant labor institutions. Militant, fighting, justice-minded unions like the hosiery workers offer a crucial model for today’s flagging labor movement. Any viable socialist movement will need to build these kinds of robust working-class institutions if it is to grow and exert power.

The Young and the Old

Kensington in the 1920s was predominantly white but ethnically diverse, with a long tradition of working-class militancy — it was in this neighborhood that Uriah Stephens founded the Knights of Labor, the largest labor organization of its time, in 1869.

A historical hub of the textile industry, Kensington was also the nation’s leading production center for fashioned silk hosiery. During the 1920s, changes in fashion and popular culture brought a dramatic shortening in the hemlines of women’s dresses. The full-fashioned industry rapidly expanded, stimulated by a tremendous demand for the sheer, form-fitting stockings that became the flappers’ iconic accessory.

With the industry growing, manufacturers hired many new, and mostly young, workers who joined the older, experienced union workers already toiling in the shops. Before the decade was up, young people would become the largest cohort in the industry.

Workers manufacturing hosiery in a Philadelphia factory, circa 1936–37. Wikimedia Commons

The contest between the union and the mill owners developed into one not only for control of the shops but for the hearts and minds of the young workers. The union’s leadership — mostly left-wing Socialists with some Communists and independent unionists sprinkled in — had to find a way to unify and inspire this new, more diverse workforce.

And they had to close the generational chasm that World War I had seemingly opened up.

Trench warfare, poison gas, horrific casualties — for many young people, this was all the country’s elders had gifted them. “The older generation had certainly pretty much ruined this world before passing it on to us,” John F. Carter wrote in 1920 in the Atlantic Monthly, “and then they are surprised that we don’t accept it.” The short dresses, silk stockings, and fast living all testified to a rebellious new spirit among the youth.

But as these young workers poured into the shops where the stockings were produced, whether their rebelliousness would remain apolitical was an open question. The activists who led the hosiery workers’ union were determined to turn the young generation’s dissidence into an engaged, radical militancy.

Youth and Culture

The union newspaper led the charge in trying to mold inchoate discontent over World War I into a trenchant critique of capitalism. “The wage earners were called to engage in scientific murder because their masters, social, industrial, and political, had quarreled,” the paper explained. “War is not an accidental feature of International Capitalism, it is a part of it.”

During the war elites had tried to win young people’s support using slogans like “passing the torch.” But the torch capital referred to was the torch of imperialism; socialist leaders sought to redefine it as one of labor and social justice.

In addition to politicizing antiwar sentiment and defining the source of workers’ oppression, the hosiery union activists consciously tried to integrate Jazz Age and popular culture, especially its rebellious side, into their working-class fight for rights and power.

Union meetings were far from the drab affairs many had come to expect. Sometimes they even resembled pep rallies. A young member would open the meeting by standing in front of the room with a megaphone and leading the assembled group in a cheer: U-N-I-O-N, Union! Union!

Other times, union rallies consisted of a concert in which a live jazz band, composed of young hosiery workers, would play on a flatbed truck. Speeches would likely follow, or perhaps creative street theater: women picketing while wearing pajamas, men dressed like undertakers carrying a coffin for “scab” shops.

When the biggest boxing event of the decade — the Jack Dempsey-Gene Tunney rematch for the world heavyweight championship — happened to fall on a union meeting night, people didn’t stay home or hole up in a speakeasy. They packed the union hall. Members set up a radio in the meeting hall and, after conducting union business, took in the fight together. Later, two young men staged a boxing match, dressed in “gaudy tights.” Some of the older men also got into the spirit, showing that they could hold their own with the youth.

The union sponsored an extensive program of sports and social activities aimed at not only the workers in the industry, but their families and the community at large. There were sports leagues for women and men, and outings like fishing trips, skating parties, and treks to amusement parks. Some of the most popular social activities were parties and dances featuring jazz bands, dance contests, and, despite Prohibition, usually alcohol. All served to promote camaraderie among a diverse group.

To appeal to its membership (especially young readers), the newspaper staff leavened union and strike news with humor and satire. One article described a worker action in Reading, Pennsylvania where women laid down to block a mill driveway. In an attempt to drive them out, the manufacturer released a skunk. But “the strikers, used to the presence of scabs, were not in the least bothered by the skunk!”

Another article told the story of a strike where the mill owners were importing scabs — who, with booze flowing freely, were indulging in “midnight orgies” with women imported for their entertainment, while four machine guns in the basement were “ready for use.” The union was certainly not opposed to using the sensationalism of the popular press!

Colorful language was put to use in other union literature as well, such as illustrated pamphlets that prominently featured the “modern” woman. One leaflet, advertising an event in support of a major strike, adopted the verbiage of a movie bill. It promised “A Story of Heroism – Humor – Thrills – Enterprise and Colorful Incidents,” and extended a special invitation to women workers, informing them that dancing would be held after the talks.

As much as Kensington’s activists celebrated rebellious youth culture, they never counterposed it to the neighborhood’s older radical traditions. To overcome differences of age and emphasize the enduring nature of their struggle, older activists often spoke at meetings, reminding young workers that “the old have gone through many battles so the young could have better conditions.”

Speakers recalled being blacklisted for union activity and getting into slugging matches with scabs. One veteran described organizing a walkout after the boss put up a notice of a 10 percent pay cut. “That was alright, it was rather testing our fighting ability,” he said. “We stopped the shop and went across the street to a saloon.” After a few beers they returned and demanded that the bosses take the notice down. “They agreed. Took 3 hours.” He then told the young workers to “stand up and fight,” because “what’s worth having is worth fighting for.”

The union’s message was clear: this was a class battle they were engaged in. Workers couldn’t allow themselves to be pitted against each other on the basis of age.

Educating the Future

Central to the development of the hosiery workers’ movement was the union’s program of labor education, which fostered an expansive vision of class unity while also teaching practical organizing skills. Young leaders were sent to labor colleges for intensive training, and back home, community programs were set up for rank-and-file members.

Workers could learn about the “materialist interpretation of history” from a Swarthmore College professor, listen to the socialist leader of the British textile workers detail the history of international textile unions, and attend talks on topics like “The Soviet Union as it is Today” and the “United States and Mexico.” They could see Wobbly poet and labor activist Arturo Giovannitti and Frank Keeney, the leader of the 1921 “armed march” of West Virginia miners, speak at May Day rallies.

Branch 1 opened reading rooms throughout the community, started a library that contained works by Marx and other socialists, and organized a series of programs to promote “solidarity across differences” within the working class — deepening members’ class consciousness as well as their understanding of capitalism.

Raising young members’ awareness of racial oppression was also an important component of the union’s education programs — and they sparked concrete action.

At a symposium at the union hall on the topic of “The Race Problem in the U.S,” Walter White, the NAACP’s executive secretary, lectured on lynching and race riots; hosiery workers started pressure campaigns for strong anti-lynching laws and voting rights legislation.

The union newspaper ran stories on Hawaii’s oppressive plantation system and the South’s chain gang labor and “new peonage” system; and black and white hosiery workers in a new union local in Durham, North Carolina took a pledge to fight for “peace in industry based on justice” — an early iteration of the slogan, “No justice, no peace.”

Contesting elite constructions of American history, and building a counter-narrative that stressed the ongoing struggle for worker rights, union leaders helped move members to a more revolutionary sense of themselves as agents in a class movement.

And in the twenties, women increasingly claimed their own role in that movement.

“We Women Went Out on the Picket Line a Lot”

“Fifty are Hurt as Clubs Flail Rioters’ Heads,” screamed a 1931 headline in the Philadelphia Record. “More than 200 strikers, pickets and sympathizers, many of them women, battled policemen.”

Women’s visibility and assertiveness within the AFFFHW grew dramatically through the 1920s. As female members started attending union-sponsored education classes and walking the picket line, they began to take a more active role in programs and union debates. They learned parliamentary procedures and gained public speaking experience. They even initiated separate women’s meetings — precursors of second-wave feminism’s consciousness-raising groups — which allowed them to discuss problems related specifically to women and to develop the confidence to raise those concerns at meetings.

Union leaders made it clear that they expected the same commitment from young women that they did from men. As struggles intensified women workers made it clear that if the union wanted them to be part of their revolution, they wanted equal rights.

Women strikers in jail during the 1931 Open Shop Strike. Philadelphia Record Photograph Morgue / Historical Society of Pennsylvania

The union, they insisted, should educate male workers about the forms of oppression women faced in the industry, address issues of pay equity and child care, protect their rights to work, and confront bosses regarding sexual harassment. On top of such resolutions, they began to demand that the union send women to training programs and move them into leadership positions.

Gradually, the union responded to their demands. Female workers, in turn, forged a strong identity as “union” and became some of its most militant supporters. As one woman said, “We women went out on the picket lines a lot. We would fight! Well, we were union you know!”

Increasingly, the union promoted strikes and militant actions by women, hailing them as “heroic” and dedicated unionists. The newspaper praised their refusals to abide by injunctions and their willingness to risk arrest in order to exercise their free speech rights. Many engaged in all-out street battles along with their male counterparts, sustaining injuries and “filling the jails” as they came to see themselves as the agents of change that the union now portrayed them to be.

Although frequently referred to as “girls,” women members were emphatically not portrayed in union circles as “victims.” They were autonomous, self-assured, young modern women: “The girls,” one piece of literature read, “are not merely followers of the men, nor are they simply acting on some blind, emotional impulse, they . . . are keenly aware of the implications of everything they are doing in aligning themselves with the American labor movement.”

Nothing showcased the union’s labor feminism better than the logo they used to promote their agenda. Launched in 1928, the design featured a geometric graphic of a young woman wearing a short skirt, wind blowing through her short hair, holding union-made hosiery in her up-stretched arms against a cityscape background. It was drawn in — what else — a Jazz Age, Art Deco style.

Democracy and Community

The hosiery worker union’s strength stemmed not only from its commitment to feminism and education but to democracy and community. Union officials were elected from the shops, and major decisions required a referendum vote — giving the rank-and-file a sense of ownership over the organization. Its members were all expected to be organizers, preventing sclerosis and bureaucratization from setting in.

The union’s communal solidarity extended outside the union hall doors. During the Great Depression, Branch 1 took up the role of defenders of the community and upholders of a moral economy, working with other residents to set up programs to alleviate suffering.

Neighbors confronted eviction officers, refusing to let them into workers’ houses, or moved families back in and stationed people outside. The Unemployed Citizens League responded to evictions across working-class Philadelphia, saving the homes of black and white residents alike. The union joined the surging unemployed and anti-eviction movement, started food co-ops, sponsored and advertised birth control centers, and contracted with local doctors to provide health clinics.

All of these efforts served to underscore what a “just society” meant and to put capital on notice that workers refused to be a broken and subjugated class. Many members came to feel that they were fighting for the entire working class.

During a momentous sit-down strike at Apex Hosiery in 1937, hundreds of workers occupied the mill while thousands of neighborhood residents jammed the streets in support. Their eventual victory was one of many that relied on the solidarity of their fellow workers and neighbors.

The hosiery workers never used the language of privilege when referring to working-class people — such advances were hard-fought-for and hard-won rights. The boss had an “instinctive desire for mastery”; the aim of the workers’ movement was to strike a blow for human liberty by defending and extending those rights.

Through participation in social activities, educational programs, and struggle with employers, landlords, and police, the hosiery workers were able to create a working-class cosmopolitanism, energizing and organizing a wide base willing to stand up for a just society.

“We Are Many”

On the afternoon of March 9, 1930, thirty-five thousand Philadelphia residents turned out to eulogize twenty-two-year old Carl Mackley, a worker shot down by hired guns during a hosiery strike. It was, the Public Ledger wrote, “one of the most amazing demonstrations of all trade union history.”

At the ceremony’s climax, men and women raised their right hands and took an oath that they would “continue the struggle against low wages, poverty, and oppression” and lay down their own lives if necessary “in order that all who toil may be delivered from industrial enslavement.”

Thousands gather at Kensington’s McPherson Square on March 9, 1930 for the funeral of Carl Mackley. American Federation of Hosiery Workers Records / Wisconsin Historical Society

Six years later, Philadelphia’s African-American newspaper spoke to the unity that had been achieved when it predicted that thousands of “Negro and white workers” would march in that year’s May Day celebration, representing “all religions, political doctrines and nationalities” in recognition of a single purpose: the strength of labor.

The American Federation of Full-Fashioned Hosiery Workers was a remarkable union. It fashioned a radical subculture composed of Jazz Age culture — clothing, dances, and parties — as well as picket lines, political education, and strikes. Key to their success was their vision — that a better world was possible and that ordinary people could join together around a concrete plan of action to achieve that world. They put this vision into practice by fighting for fair wages, working conditions, food, shelter, and a decent life — as rights for all workers, not privileges.

Through such actions hosiery workers helped to forge a broader movement, in Kensington and nationally, that pushed Franklin Roosevelt to address at least some of the concerns of laboring people. Their union built the first workers’ housing project under the New Deal — named after their first martyr, Carl Mackley — which opened with a fully staffed nursery facility for the children of working mothers.

Union activists promoted a far-reaching, class-based vision as a prerequisite to the advancement of all working people’s rights. “We believed we should and could have a large say in how we would work and how we would live: that we could stiffen ourselves into stanchions and hold the sky on our shoulders,” one worker explained. “And for a while we did.”

The hosiery union and its leaders were far from perfect. Women had to fight to gain equal representation in the union and, especially as their industry went into sharp decline, a few officials fell back onto gendered stereotypes and supported questionable campaigns to save the industry. Nonetheless, the union as a whole maintained a strong commitment to social justice unionism throughout its existence. Decades later, its descendants merged into one of the unions that formed today’s UNITE-HERE.

Why does this history matter? The labor movement has been in a rut for decades — but it was at a similar low point in the early 1930s. The Kensington hosiery workers responded by building a dynamic, fighting union — the kind we are in dire need of today. They showed that when the Left organized working people around a stirring vision of a better society, tied to a concrete program of action, it was possible to make real change.

Another world still is possible.