1860 Showmakers Strike in Lynn

The Massachusetts Labor Movement became much more aggressive in the 1850s than it had been in the past. This new attitude could be seen in the many strikes that broke out throughout the decade. The shoemakers strike in Lynn is a perfect example of this. The Lynn Shoemakers Strike began in 1860 and quickly grew into the largest workers’ protest the country had ever seen.

The years leading up to the strike had been a difficult time for New England shoe towns. The increasing use of technology pushed the industry’s supply far ahead of demand. In 1857 the country fell into a depression, which only made competition within the industry more heated. Prices began to plummet, and managers tried to deal with the losses by slashing wages. In some Lynn shops, wages were cut to as little as fifty cents a day.

Shoemakers in Lynn began organizing in 1858, and by 1860 they demanded that shoe makers adopt a standardized wage system. Employers rejected the workers’ demands, pushing the shoemakers to go on strike. At its height, twenty thousand shoemakers left their jobs to join the strike and another twenty thousand people took part in the various meetings and parades organized by the strikers. Seeking to tie their action to the American revolutionaries, the strikers began the walkout on Washington’s Birthday. So it began on February 22, 1860, when Lynn shoemakers marched through the streets to their workplaces and handed in their tools.

Though they are often overlooked, women played a vital role in the shoemakers strike. Through much of the early shoemaking history much of the production was not done in factories. Instead, entrepreneurs would send materials to shoemakers who, working at home, would use their tools to shape the leather into a finished shoe. These shoemakers were often farmers or fisherman trying to supplement their seasonal income during the slow winter months. Others were full-time shoemakers who worked in manufacturing villages. Whatever the circumstances, nearly all male shoemakers relied on their wives and daughters to bind the upper part of the shoe. As the industry began to expand, it became inefficient to ship materials to homeworkers, who could not meet the growing demand. This lead to a centralizing of production into major manufacturing centers such as Lynn; it also meant an increased use of machines.

In 1852, shoe manufacturers adopted Singer sewing machines into their production system. These machines greatly increased output but reduced the need for binders who worked at home. In response to this change in the industry, many young women were forced to leave their parents’ homes and work in the factories. These “machine girls” would work for over ten hours a day at their sewing machines, which was exhausting, and often dangerous. Factory workers were not paid much, although they received three times the pay of their domestic counterparts, whose wages were outrageously low.

Women workers from both the factories and homes began to organize and prepared a “high wage list.” This list demanded an increase in pay for both factory workers and homeworkers. Their goal was to create a bottleneck in production that would pressure employers to accept their demands. On March 7, the women joined male shoemakers in their strike. They marched through the falling snow, carrying signs that read, “American Ladies Will Not Be Slaves: Give Us a Fair Compensation and We Will Labour Cheerfully.”

The massive strike began to attract national attention after the women joined. Abraham Lincoln, who was campaigning for the Republican presidential nomination, came out in support of the walkout. Lincoln declared that the strike was a demonstration of the freedom that slavery denied. In one speech, Lincoln was quoted as saying:

“I am glad to see that a system of labor prevails in New England Under which laborers can strike when they want to, where they are not obliged to labor whether you pay them or not. I like a system which lets a man quit when he wants to, and wish it might prevail everywhere.”

Despite Lincoln’s support, troubles began to arise for the strikers. Although the men had stated their support for the female shoeworkers, they did not include any of the women’s demands in their proposals. The men were concerned that the addition of the women’s demands would make the employers reluctant to consider their own. Instead, this served to discourage the women, who abandoned the strike by late March. At this point the strike was losing momentum and a number of men decided to return to work. By early April the employers had won, and only a few men remained on strike.