200 years ago: Journeymen shoemakers strike in Philadelphia

April 2016 Cordwainer


The autumn of 1805 was unusually mild. Farmers were able to plough their land almost until Christmas. And in Philadelphia, the balmy tem­peratures might have “gone to the head” of a group of jour­neymen cordwainers [shoemakers], who had the temerity on Nov. 1, 1805, to undertake what was one of the earliest labor strikes for wages in U.S. history.

The journeymen had organized themselves back in 1794 into an elemental trade union known as the Federal Society of Journey­men Cordwainers. This came about as a reflection of the fact that a revolution in production in the shoe­making industry had pro­duced a new workforce. In colonial times, shoes gen­erally had been made to order for customers by individual craftsmen, who might have employed merely a few journeymen or apprentices as helpers. But by the end of the 18th century, custom-made shoes were constructed only for wealthy cus­tom­ers. More often, shoes were produced according to pattern for the whole­sale as well as retail trade. Far fewer craftsmen worked alone; now they became employers of larger groups of journeymen, who were given piecework wages to produce the commodities.

The wage rate varied according to the quality of the shoe. This formula might be “justified” partly on the assumption that an average worker would produce a cheaper shoe in less time than it took to produce a better one, but it also reflected pricing con­ditions in the markets. Thus, men employed in making what were called “market-work” shoes—those sold to poorer customers by retailers in the public shambles—would receive wages that were only a third of what they could earn in ordinary “shop work.” The journey­men grumbled that “market-work” wages were not enough for them to feed and house their families. Although they often la­bored from five in the morning until past midnight, they still could not make ends meet.

And they also complained that the employers were giving them a lower wage for producing shoes for retail sale than for custom-made products—even though the quality of the two articles and the care put into their manufacture was often the same. “I made some work for Mr. Ryan,” a journeyman named John Hayes said in court, “and he made a similar reduction upon me, because they were to go into the shop, when he used before to give the same price for shop goods as he did for bespoke work.” The journey­men highlighted the unjustness of the situation by noting that the employers would still often sell the shoes for two or three times what they would pay their workers to produce them.

The journeymen had struck before, in 1799, when the masters had threatened to reduce wages. The employers then advertised for “scab” workers, but had little success in recruiting enough to break the strike. In the settlement, the journey­men succeeded in stopping the wage reduction. In 1804, another strike ensued, and again the employers agreed to keep the current wage rate—but when busi­ness slackened after Christmas, they began cutting wages again.

The November 1805 walk-out was provoked by an action that had taken place two days earlier, when an informal organization of employers met together to consider the demands of the jour­ney­men for higher wages, and resolved unan­im­ously that “we will not give any more wages than we have given for some time past.”

As in 1799, the employers advertised for scabs to take the jobs of the strikers, and several employers attempted to fire men who had gone on strike. Street battles took place between the scabs and strik­ing workers, which resulted in the arrest of the leaders of the journeymen’s union and the collapse of the strike.

Public opinion in Philadelphia was polarized over the strike. Wil­liam Duane’s Aurora stood up for the strikers, while the Fed­eralist press, reflecting the opinion of the wealthier sector of Phila­delphia society, sided with the employers and the scabs. On Nov. 27, the pro-Federalist United States Gazette polemicized against the Aurora by promoting the bosses’ view of the events: “Election­eering trick.—The Aurora this morning has trumped up a pleasant story of certain journeymen shoemakers, who, he says, were last week committed to jail, ‘for meditating and proposing to demand an augmentation of the reward for their manual labor.’—We then hear a good deal of rhodomontade about English common law, aristo­cracy, nobility, oppression of the poor, &c. &c. 

“Now the story as we have heard it is thus: For a considerable time past, ever since the inclement season commenced, a great pro­portion of the journeymen shoemakers of this city have been conspiring to raise the price of their labour; and for the purpose of accomplishing this end have refused to work for the usual wages. Some few, however, finding honest industry to be more profitable than idleness and caballing, returned to their work. This exas­per­ated those who chose to stand out, and it is said they appointed a certain number of sturdy individuals of their fraternity, to be dom­inated [nominated?] ‘The Hammering Committee,’ whose duty it sho[u]ld be to find out and flog all such as should return to their work at the customary wages.

“It is said that some of the members of this committee in the execution of their duty, have been unkindly seized and thrown into prison. This circumstance is caught by the Aurora as proof that the object is to deprive these worthy hamme­r­ing citizens of a vote at the senatorial election tomorrow.”

The following day, the Aurora let the journeymen speak for them­­­selves by printing their “Address of the Working Shoe­makers of the City of Philadelphia to the Public.” At the be­gin­ning, the document took a defensive tact by citing the guarantees of the Penn­sylvania state constitution “that the citizens have a right in a peaceable manner to assemble together for the common good.” And in accord with that pro­position, it asserted that, “for the past fifteen years and up­wards,” the journeymen had been assembling “in a peaceful man­ner” for such constitu­tionally protected pur­pos­es. Now they wished “to shew to the industrious of all trades, what danger threatens them, and what wrong has been done to us.”

Then the Address went on the attack against the master cord­wainers, “who are only the retailers of our labor, and who in truth live upon the work of our hands”: “As they are rich and we are poor—they seem to think that we are not protected by the constit­u­tion in meeting peaceably together and pursuing our own happi­ness—They suppose that they have a right to limit us at all times, and whatever may be the misfortunes of society, the changes in the value of neces­saries, the encrease or the decrease of trade, they think they have a right to deter­mine for us the value of our labor; but that we have no right to determine for ourselves, what we will or what we will not take in exchange for our labor.”

Unfortunately, the master craftsmen, with the support of the wealthier echel­ons of the business community, decided to retaliate in the courts against the strikers and their union. They brought charges against the union and eight elected offic­ers for “conspiracy.” A major charge against the union was that they had used various meth­ods of compulsion—even violence—to force journeymen work­ers to not scab against their fellows who were on strike. In effect, the bosses professed that in prosecuting the union, they were merely standing up for the democratic rights of their workers.

The trial was put on the docket of the Philadelphia Mayor’s Court for January 1806. The twelve men on the jury could hardly be con­sidered peers of the defendants. The jury included three master craftsmen—a hatter, a tailor, and a watch­­maker. And the nine others were employers, such as innkeepers, merchants, etc.

In final arguments, defense attorney Walter Franklin reiterated the strikers’ insistence that they had been exercising their just right to assembly. But more to the point, he asked, since the master cordwainers had assumed the right to set the level of wages, did not journeymen also have a right to bargain the price of their labor power? And since the employers had taken action to join forces in order to fix prices and wages, did not the journey­men also have the right to seek collective action “to determine for themselves the value of their own labor?”

In summary, Franklin appealed to the jury: “If you are contented with the blessings enjoyed under our free constitution, which secures to the citizens and equality of rights, and recognizes no distinction of classes … I shall look for the result of these feelings and these sentiments in a verdict of acquittal.”

But such arguments failed to deflect the bias of the jury. They re­tired at 9 p.m. and came to a decision soon afterward. The court then asked the jury to wait until morning before pronouncing the verdict—“guilty.” The eight defend­ants were each fined $8, and required to pay court costs.

Just months after conclusion of the journeymen’s conspiracy trial, the transcript of the proceedings, taken in shorthand by Thomas Lloyd, was published in book form. An advertisement for the vol­ume noted: “This trial is deeply interesting, and shews to men of all professions, that by the English common-law (now for the first time introduced into Pennsylvania, since its first settle­ment as a province under William Penn) they are not at liberty to associate together, for the purpose of fixing the price of their labor, in the way attempted by the society of Journey­men Cord­wainers.”

It was a strong setback for labor’s cause. Three decades later, however, the labor movement rose again in Philadelphia, with a general strike and the forma­tion of the first U.S. work­ing­man’s party. By that time, machine-driven factories had increas­ingly sup­planted handicrafts, and the system of masters and jour­ney­men had developed into a new system, with a clear division between capitalists and proletarians.

This is an excerpt from a new book by Michael Schreiber, “Unsinkable Patriot: The Life and Times of Thomas Cave in Revolutionary America.” The book can be ordered from the author’s website: http://www.philahistory.org.


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[Editor’s note: We reprint this article by the Committee for the Abolition of Illegitimate Debt (CADTM). In 1989, the Bastille Appeal was launched, inviting popular movements throughout the world to unite in demanding the immediate and unconditional cancellation of the debt of the so-called developing countries. This crushing debt, along with neo-liberal macro-economic reforms imposed on the global South, has led to an explosion of worldwide inequality, mass poverty, flagrant injustice and the destruction of the environment.