Folklorists are often very interested in movements to improve social conditions. They do not necessarily focus on famous or prominent people, though sometimes they do. Ethnographers often are interested in the grass roots origins of movements and the consequences of such movements for ordinary people. For women in the workplace, the American Folklife Center has the example of women workers in Paterson, New Jersey, both their experiences as workers and efforts to improve conditions.
In the American Folklife Center’s field project Working in Paterson fieldworkers documented various aspects of the occupational life and lore of selected businesses in Paterson, New Jersey, in 1994. In this blog I will look at three very different women whose interviews are found in the collection. Each found the courage to seek a way to make a living during times when the deck was often stacked against them.
Setting up a business can be tremendously labor intensive and risky. There are no guarantees of success. This is especially true for restaurants. When the field team did its research in 1994, there were very few African American women who owned businesses. One of the few was Easter Benson, a restaurant owner who talked with folklorist Susan Levitas about the realities of keeping her business going.
Benson was among the many African Americans who migrated north from southern states, one of many who made this trek during the “Great Migration” that began in the early 20th century and ended in 1970. Benson left her rural home in South Carolina to find work in Paterson in 1954. She quickly found work and later started a candy shop as a second job. She cooked her dinner in the back of the store and soon customers started asking if they could buy their dinner. So the candy store became the E & A Soul Food Restaurant.
The restaurant’s success depended on Benson’s cooking, which she began learning from her mother at home. The restaurant specialties included biscuits, cornbread, macaroni and cheese, sweet potato pie, fresh vegetables. Benson talked with Levitas about learning to cook:
Easter Benson’s day at the restaurant started at 3:30 AM when she got up to begin cooking for customers. The restaurant opened at 5:30 AM to meet commuters looking for breakfast and she usually didn’t get home until 9 PM. Benson talked with Levitas about a harsh reality: the restaurant had become more of a home to her than her own home.
But Benson’s successful restaurant was more than a business for her and her customers. It preserved African American food traditions that people sought out either because it reminded them of their own southern roots or because they wanted to experience something different from what they ate at home. At the time of the project it had become a community gathering place where people regularly met, ate good food, and passed the time.
Folklorist David Taylor interviewed Anne Murphy, who was born in 1898, about her experience working at Newberger’s Towel Factory in Paterson. She talks about her work, starting as a “picker” cutting threads off of newly woven towels, then going on to weave towels. In this interview she talks about beginning work at Newberger’s as a young woman.
In this excerpt, she talks about the various jobs she did. Her daughter asks how many looms she worked on when she wove towels. Two, Murphy answers. “Then they went to four. That was too much!”
Murphy showed Taylor a photo of the group of women working at the factory including herself taken in 1918. To me it is striking that all the workers are women and all the supervisors are men. The group is further divided by dress, with women all in white uniforms and the men wearing suits without jackets. To me, the women’s uniforms look very much like those of domestic servants in that era and I suspect that is intentional. There was a time when the division of women workers from the administrators was commonly this stark, and there rarely opportunities for women to move upwards in the hierarchy.
In another segment of her interview, Ann Murphy mentions her transition from a work day that started at 7 AM and went until 6 PM to a workday that ran from 8 AM to 5 PM.
The change she experienced was a result of a long struggle to improve working conditions that brought about the eight hour work day and the weekend. The eight hour work day was won gradually over the late 19th and early 20th centuries as different unions fought for the change. It did not become a common standard until 1937.
Marianna Fidone Costa
Marianna Fidone Costa (also Marianna Fidone, 1915-2004), a retired worker in the textile industry who became a union official, talked with David Taylor about work of adults as she was growing up in the 1910s and 1920s. In these two excerpts from the interview, she recalls the long hours her parents worked and the consequences for children:
This is a side of the fight for labor rights that sometimes gets left out of the history books. One of the reasons that the workers continued to fight so hard for changes was that they could see the consequences for their children. Children came home from school or work to houses with no adults to supervise them, and these conditions primarily impacted families that earned very little.
In this excerpt, Costa explains that she went to work in a dye house at 18 in 1932 and that her first experience with union activism came the next year, with a large textile strike in 1933, as other women in the office told her, “Come on out. Join us. We’re going to strike.” She recalls that she had to ask what a union was.
The textile workers’ strike of 1933 changed Mariana Costa’s life. She became an active member of the textile workers’ union that year and was part of a delegation sent to Washington D.C. to ask that workers in the silk industry be given federal guidelines similar to those of other industries. The same year she was elected to an office in her local union, Dyer’s Local 1733, which was unusual for a woman at the time. In this excerpt she talks about the talents she brought to the work as a union official, and some of what she mentions is surprising.
Costa talks about the conditions before the 1933 strike and the changes that came about as a result of unionization and the establishment of federal work standards, saying “It was a new world”:
To me, all these women are heroes. Easter Benson dared to make the journey north to find work and then established her own business. Anne Murphy began work when she was still very young, braving a reality of work with limitations for women that most of us would rebel against today. Marianna Costa, in a generation after that of Anne Murphy, discovered at 18 that she might be able to make a difference and did so.
Working in Paterson Project Collection, Library of Congress.
“E & A Soul Food Restaurant,” essay in the Working in Paterson Project Collection.
“Organized Labor,” essay in the Working in Paterson Project Collection.