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Folklife at 40: the Working in Paterson collection

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It may seem odd for a blogger at Inside Adams, a blog covering mostly business and science topics, to be writing about a Folklife collection, but stay with me. It may be true that there isn’t much of a “business” nature in a Folklife collection, but many of the field projects do include interviews about occupations and photographs of work.  I thought Folklife’s 40th anniversary was a good time to highlight one particular collection – Working in Paterson: Occupational Heritage in an Urban Setting.

View looking east from Lambert Castle; Paterson is in the foreground, New York City on the horizon. From the Working in Paterson Project Collection, Martha Cooper (photographer), 1994.
View looking east from Lambert Castle; Paterson is in the foreground, New York City on the horizon. From the Working in Paterson Project Collection, Martha Cooper (photographer), 1994.

According to the collection description this project was conducted in 1994 and contains hundreds of interview excerpts and thousands of photographs. It was “focused on the ways in which community life and values are shaped by work and how the theme of work intersects with other themes, namely family, ethnicity, gender, neighborhood, and change over time.” The description continues by saying:

The documentary materials presented in this online collection explore how Paterson’s industrial heritage expresses itself in Paterson: in its work sites, work processes, and memories of workers.

This description and the essays that highlight the collection show that a business historian would find a lot to appreciate in this collection.

Those doing research on places from a business perspective often have to rely on directories as well as statistics about businesses, economics, income, and wages to understand business and industry in a particular place. The government, particularly the Census Bureau’s Decennial and Economic Censuses, produces a lot of statistical data. For example, the 1990 Decennial Census provides statistics on the people of Paterson, Passaic County, and New Jersey – their race, gender, age, and other demographic data while the Economic Census for 1992 has statistics on the number of businesses and manufacturers, as well as the number of employees, revenues, etc. The Bureau of Labor Statistics is another federal agency and they provide a different set of data primarily related to unemployment, wages and compensation, the types of jobs, and costs for food. Then there is the Bureau of Economic Analysis which produces economic data for the state and some metropolitan areas. But all that data can be very general and only gets researchers so far.

Birdseye view of Patterson [sic], N.J., c1913.
Birdseye view of Patterson [sic], N.J., c1913.
It doesn’t really say anything about individuals who worked the machines or drove the trucks. What are their stories and where are their faces? They are more than just the numbers used to represent them. The material in this collection adds an extra dimension to what is just statistics on Paterson and puts a “face” to the people and businesses.

Photographs of a business itself would be interesting for someone researching that company, but they may also be of interest to those researching a similar type of business. A good example of this is the series of images documenting scenes at Kalkstein Silk Mills. One photograph shows mechanic John Clark demonstrating the use of a computerized device called a “controller,” while others feature technician Herman Valles setting up a loom for operation.

Map of the city of Paterson, N.J., Joseph E. Crowell & Co., 1871 .
Map of the city of Paterson, N.J., Joseph E. Crowell & Co., 1871 .

Another good example is the material related to Watson Machine. There are a number of images someone researching that company might love including some of the building, the president, workers getting lunch from the food truck, and even images from a 1970’s catalog. Beyond that, there are images of many of the people who worked there. Some are portraits, like the image of Jean Decker the bookkeeper or lead assemblyman Richie Takach. Others show several employees including a group of men working on a machine. Beyond the photographs, the collection includes a recorded interview with Barney Titus who worked as a night watchman and another interview with Al Buonforte who started at Watson as a boy.

This collection features a lot of great material of the people of Paterson that those interested in the history of the city and business historians could really appreciate – from photos of Joe Miraglia cutting a side of beef and Eddie Lee Harrell who posed in one of his own business’ truck, to a great audio recording of Charles “Chuck” Hardy, a plant manager at Joseph Teshon, Inc. talking about the process of developing a fabric.

As a business librarian and someone who loves history, I find that the unique material in the collection represents a window to view the business and industry of Paterson that is often hard to get. I hope after reading this, you explore the collection and meet some of the people of Paterson, NJ.


  1. I love the way the Library’s collections and division dovetail and complement each other!

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