The following is a guest post by Senior Cataloging Specialist Sharon McKinley.
Elias Howe (July 9, 1819-Oct. 3, 1867) was the recipient, in 1846, of the first American patent for a sewing machine using a lockstitch design. The new machines revolutionized the garment industry, giving rise to sweatshops, and ultimately to the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, founded in 1900. This important union, with a predominantly female membership, provided many social benefits for its members: amenities from housing to sports teams to English classes were organized for interested workers.
Howe’s birthday may not seem like fodder for a music blog, although we have featured sewing machine sheet music in the past. But in 1937 the International Ladies Garment Workers Union produced Pins and needles, a revue spoofing a wide variety of topical subjects. The performers were rank-and-file union members, with a two-piano band. The venue was the Princess Theatre, which also served as a union hall. Rehearsals and early performances were held at night and on weekends — you had to be really dedicated to spend all your free time performing in a show!
Pins and needles was a great hit, running for 1108 performances and enabling many of the performers to quit their day jobs. The material was updated regularly. According to John Kenrick’s Musicals101, “Pins and Needles is the only hit ever produced by a labor union — and the only time when a group of unknown non-professionals brought a successful musical to Broadway.” And with music and lyrics by Harold J. Rome, how could it fail? Its hummable tunes and catchy lyrics made this Rome’s first hit show. There have been revivals right up to the present day, as well as a television special, and a 25th-anniversary studio recording featuring Barbra Streisand. Some of the songs went on to lasting renown. ”Sing me a song with social significance” has had a long and successful recording history; Streisand is probably the most notable performer.
Our featured number is “It’s better with a Union man : Bertha, the sewing machine girl,” in which an innocent seamstress fights off the advances of the evil boss, and the superiority of the union man is extolled. So, remember to “look for the union label” — I can still sing the jingle!